This article was first published on 4 May 2021 on IABC Catalyst
How Internal Communication Supports a Changing Leadership Landscape.
What will a hybrid working future mean for leadership? What will employees want from their leaders? How can internal communication teams support leaders to be visible, authentic and find ways to bridge the gaps that could form in our new world of work?
These are just a few burning questions on the minds of many leaders. As we enter the next phase of work culture, here are some considerations for internal communicators, who can use their expertise to address such concerns.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and our experimental ways of collaborating and communicating over the past year have cleared the way for new, and arguably better, forms of leadership. Feeling our way through our “new normal” encouraged authenticity and vulnerability — both powerful, empathetic traits of any good leader.
Glitchy superseded glossy, as dispatches from the CEO’s spare bedroom replaced the somewhat distant and aloof corporate video. What they lacked in finesse they made up for in heart. While we sat at our screens waiting for clarity amid the chaos, this was the meaningful communication we needed from the people in charge.
As we move into a new phase of working, let’s not lose the trust and camaraderie we fostered through raw and authentic communications. Internal communication teams can keep encouraging this style of messaging from leaders. We’ve always known authenticity is king. Now we have the best test case to continue driving it.
While remote working has made it challenging for extroverted leaders to maintain the same level of visibility, the resulting digital democratization has provided a platform for quieter voices and introverted personalities to be heard.
Away from the in-person demands of the open-plan office, quieter colleagues have adapted to work in ways that better encouraged their productivity and allowed their achievements to shine. This also is true of quieter leaders, who offer a more thoughtful, reflective style.
A level playing field, focused on ability and output, could kindle a leadership revolution. As we look to more hybrid ways of working, workspaces created with these voices in mind — as they’ve so long been overlooked — will encourage them to flourish.
By auditing their channels, internal communicators can identify where these quieter voices have thrived over the past year and continue to nurture those spaces as part of their content plans.
Remote and hybrid work were never in mind when most policies and procedures were created. Now, organizations have an opportunity to reevaluate their performance models, both to accommodate different work patterns and to discourage presenteeism.
Presenteeism hasn’t disappeared, it’s simply taken on new forms, which could set a poor precedent in the hybrid workplace if an “always on” culture is allowed to burgeon and, like a weed, throttle performance long-term.
Some employees may feel pressure to be physically present in the office when they don’t feel comfortable, while remote colleagues may compromise their personal boundaries to stay visible. One survey found that in the early days of the pandemic, the average employee worked an unsustainable 28 hours extra each month.
The ultimate measure of performance should be how effectively people do their job, not the number of hours they spend in the office or online. To properly manage the problem of presenteeism, organizations need to make expectations of their people clear. Leaders play a vital role in sending and endorsing this message, emphasizing the importance of clear boundaries while also realigning performance reviews and criteria to consider off-site employees.
Reinforce this by weaving healthy work-life balance messaging into well-being focused communications.
The test of 2020 challenged many assumptions about remote working and productivity. While leaders may have feared that their people would use their lack of visibility and home environment to slack off, it’s evident that in many organizations the reverse was true. A Mercer study found that since their employees started working remotely, 93% of companies reported productivity has maintained or increased.
But the rise of surveillance technology showed that, for some organizations, trust is still a leap of faith too far, creating a raft of legal and ethical issues.
This lack of trust echoes a view that inherently lazy people will avoid work if at all possible, according to the 1960s Theory X style of management. Spying makes the unfair assumption that all employees are disengaged and unmotivated. Adopting such heavy-handed measures risks eroding the valuable trust people place in leaders, damaging morale and creating a culture of fear.
But there’s a more constructive way to understand engagement across the organization — well-known to savvy internal communication teams — through feedback, open forums and surveys. This data can help surface any issues of productivity, and examine the reasons, in a way that encourages leaders and their teams to create solutions together.
In a hybrid workplace, where half the workforce is working remotely on any given day, walking around simply won’t create meaningful leadership visibility.
Informal coffee breaks that bring together online colleagues, on-site teams and leadership may seem superfluous. But they’re crucial cultural touchpoints and keep people across the organization connected and visible.
Moments like these help to redress the on-site presenteeism balance. If remote colleagues are detached from check-ins, collaboration and the social dynamics of the workplace, they’re vulnerable to disengaging or the risk of proximity biases, which can unfairly and unintentionally reduce the likelihood of development opportunities.
As we go forward, leaders need to strike a balance, earmarking as much time to connect with remote workers as they would office-based employees. Internal communication teams are a vital conduit and perfectly placed to support and coach leaders, sharing improved technologies and new strategies to help them reach their people, wherever they are.