Friday, 18 December 2020

Predictions become possibilities

For many years, at this point in proceedings, we at Sweet Comms drew up a list of ever-so-insightful predictions for the year ahead. Last year, we stepped back from this and reviewed the many differing statements made by mystics in our industry.  

This year, it’s hard to imagine anyone making any assertions with the same level of confidence. 

None of us could have predicted how 2020 would unfold, nor the changes it would bring to our lives. As we look ahead, it is clear we will still be living in the circumstances created by COVID-19 for some time to come. It will therefore take someone braver than me to forecast how the world of work will look in another 12, no doubt challenging, months.

Predictions are, at best, becoming possibilities laced with context and caveats.

However, one thing I will state with some conviction is that internal communication will play an even stronger role in our workplaces during 2021.

This year has brought out the best in our industry, as practitioners have helped our organisations keep inspiring and supporting colleagues despite all the challenges involved. Sharing clear and crucial information, building open dialogue with diverse audiences, helping teams adjust to new ways of working, enabling individuals to find and access support: communicators have played a crucial role in every area. All while working through rapidly-changing events and keeping people aligned and contributing to common purpose and goals.

As a result, internal communication has played a major role in effective employee engagement and helped the wheels of our organisations keep turning, despite all the obstacles in the way.

So that, I suppose, it’s a prediction for 2021. It’s not earth-shattering in its insight, because internal communication has proved its worth throughout this crisis. But I think we’ll see our industry take another step forward and make even more of a difference for the organisations and people we serve.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

The Small Business Revival Guide

We're very happy to have supported an initiative to help the UK's entrepreneurs and small businesses settle, revive and thrive in the current circumstances. Internal comms, external, acting with purpose…lots of great advice in the guide here.

Please do share to anyone you may think would benefit – and as a live document, contributions are very welcome! Please email to submit.

It was really great to partner with some fantastic people on this:
Blurred LondonBLAFemale NarrativesHappy YolkThe Brand Shrink (Tom Newton), VP Comms and Tin Man.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Talking tech: information is not engagement

At an event last week, I heard some worrying words about the role of tech in employee engagement.

Ostensibly, the event was celebrating the difference that tech can make to engaging a dispersed workforce. A premise that I absolutely agree with: within a planned and co-ordinated channel mix, and with a clear role in a wider plan, digital tools and tactics are incredibly helpful.  

However, there were a few statements during this event to the effect that using tech helps you reach more employees, and once they have more information as a result, they will be engaged. That’s it, nothing more needed.

Not the exact words used, but that was the gist of the point being expressed.

This worried and surprised me: it was a throwback to the non-digital days in which a senior external comms colleague once suggested my job essentially involved the use of kitchen posters and mouse mats to share “stuff”. In other words, just put info out there and the job is done.

We’ve moved a long way since then, as a communication profession and a business world. Wave after wave of studies, surveys and case studies have demonstrated the difference that building strong connections, based on two-way communication, makes to employers and employees alike. The explosion of new technology offers many opportunities to take that further.

However, digital tools can only help us achieve that if they are used in the right way. To share information, yes, but also to build dialogue that helps individuals and teams discuss, interpret and respond to the company’s ‘direction of travel’. To nurture the commitment and common purpose that every organisation needs to thrive. As part of wider efforts to align the way the organisation works with the drivers of engagement.

That requires more than posting “stuff”, no matter what the channel. Suggesting anything otherwise risks going back to those dark days and the modern-day equivalent of a mouse mat.

Let’s not risk reviving misconceptions about what employee engagement is and involves. Let’s talk about the role tech plays in a wider context. It will be much more beneficial for everyone involved.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Getting back to basics in 2020

As usual, the beginning of a new year has sparked a flood of recommendations or ‘hot topics’ for 2020. I hardly dare look at LinkedIn for fear of seeing another deluge of earnest proclamations and warnings of issues to watch out for.

I shouldn’t really complain: at Sweet Comms, we have engaged in crystal-ball gazing ourselves on several occasions. Normally, because we have felt there are some really important ideas or issues that have not gained the attention they deserve.

This year, however, I think there is one simple requirement, for organisations of all types and sizes: making sure that the basics are in place to nurture a culture of engagement that benefits all involved.

Over the years, as the field of internal communication has become more sophisticated, we’ve all seen plenty of new frameworks, initiatives and tools emerging to accelerate momentum. While these may have opened up new possibilities for enhancing the contribution we make to employee engagement, they have also sparked the risk of an internal comms ‘arms race’, if I can use that phrase, as different participants pile on new idea after new idea to demonstrate a difference or an ‘edge’.

As I have written in these pages before, I think that creates the risk of ‘shiny new toy’ syndrome. And it may also mean we lose sight of the value we should be adding to our organisations and the colleagues who work for them.  

Communicating clear and compelling messages about where the organisation is going, why and how our people fit in. Sharing regular material (in whatever form) on plans, progress and the people who make this possible. Making sure such information is open to all, not a protected commodity.

Making sure everyone in every area (and at all levels) of the organisation has opportunities to raise questions, give feedback and submit ideas. Demonstrating that dialogue is vital and a non-negotiable element of a healthy culture. Celebrating the insight and ideas we gain, to show how ‘common purpose’ makes a practical difference to achieving the organisation’s goals.

Of course, there will still be a host of different options on how to make it all happen. I’m sure new tools and ideas will emerge during 2020. However, any method or mechanism we embrace should always have a clear role in a strategy that will help us deliver the valued expected of and needed from us.

Otherwise, even the most exciting ideas or tools will become akin to a house built on sand.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Outing the issue of out-of-hours emails

The BBC has reported on an interesting academic study suggesting that efforts to ban employees from accessing work email out of hours – in an effort to curb burnout – could actually increase anxiety for some.

Who would have thought it: one size does not fit all.

This study does speak to me on a personal level, because I am undoubtedly one of those for whom a blanket ban would cause issues. I also think it’s impractical. In a global economy, many of us need to liaise with people in different time zones, all the time. It’s just not possible, or desirable, to work within some allocated hours for such projects. Squeezing the work required into mandated hours would, as the study suggests, inevitably cause more stress.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the spirit of the idea. I can absolutely see the risks of an ‘always on’ environment and can understand why there is a search for potential solutions. But, for me, the answer lies not in mandates from outside an organisation, but in enlightened management within it.

If you work in an organisation – or for a manager – that recognizes the demands of your role, and the peaks and troughs of workload, then you may be able to flex your working pattern accordingly.  To take account of the fact you may be working with colleagues on the other side of the world late at night. To get more of a break from “traditional” working hours elsewhere as a result. That understanding, and that flexibility, helps release the pressure that build up (as long as you deliver!).

The horror stories you hear of people feeling like they always have to be online – on top of their ‘normal’ working hours – emerge from a culture in which expectations are both unhealthy and unrealistic. In such situations, there is no way of releasing the pressure: perhaps a manager insists on you always being ‘present’ and/or imposes rigid working patterns that take no account of the fact you’re essentially working round the clock when others have disconnected. No blanket ban is going to circumvent those cultural issues: the unrealistic expectations will remain, and employees will be expected to keep up through other means. The self-destructive culture will remain in place.

The way to address this issue is, surely, to build rapid and wider understanding about the damage that unrealistic expectations, and rigid working patterns, do to many organisations and the people who work for them. And to showcase alternative ways of working that help keep everyone happy. We have to help organisations, and managers, to have the ‘light bulb moment’ for themselves.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The draining effect of ‘empty engagement'

We all know authenticity matters. To us as individuals, to our teams, to our organisations. So why do some organisations persist in tinkering with efforts to engage employees rather than really committing to it?  

Study after study highlights the importance of doing what we say we will. Of demonstrating integrity in our work and behaviour. This rather basic concept was last expressed in an ornate way by this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, which sign-posted the importance of authenticity in a society wracked by ‘fake news’.

But it is hardly rocket science, is it? The thought that we might actually connect with and have greater confidence in someone who is genuine, has nothing to hide and makes real attempts to connect and communicate with us as individuals. I hardly think we need a multi-page research report to articulate this human truth.

Yet I still hear stories of organisations who approach engagement as a concept they feel they should act upon, without understanding the culture required to sustain it. This means any attempts are undermined from the start and can only be cosmetic: ‘empty engagement’ (let’s call it that), rather than a way of working that benefits everyone.

I once sat on a panel discussing what makes an engaging workplace. One of my colleagues cut through all the noise on the topic with this simple statement:

“If you’re going to change, you’ve got mean it”.

That, I think, is the fundamental point. 

Monday, 5 August 2019

Changing times should mean a changing role

There continues to be plenty of discussion around the changing role of the internal communicator. A particular seam of debate is the impact of rising peer-to-peer collaboration, enabled by tools such as those found in Office365.

The debate centres on whether the rise of such tools, and the resultant increase in peer-to-peer communication, make internal communication - in its ‘traditional’ form - redundant. The implication being that, if employees can speak directly to each other, why would they need communication from the company?

Sweeping past the simplifications (and generalisations) involved in this line of argument, I’d take issue with anyone who feels that a company no longer needs to share information or build dialogue with its employees.  To align discussions with business goals, peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration needs context. Any company should be providing that context through proactive and regular engagement with employees around purpose, vision, strategy and values. it should also be sharing and inspiring discussion around points of progress, ideas, and things that have gone well – or not so well – to help its global team pursue shared goals.

As a grandee of the field once said to me, informed discussion is likely to provide far more beneficial: for both employer and employees.

That said, our role as internal communicators does need to change if we are to help our organisations harness the opportunities that more peer-to-peer communication can offer. As professionals, all of us have embraced roles with many elements for many years. We have to be adept at flitting between those different facets, from strategic advice to event organisation, writing to content curation.

We now need to add another element: sparking and sustaining interaction.

We can help our organisations understand how to nurture a culture of greater connectivity and collaboration, using relevant tools and platforms, within the context of company goals. We can place and prize peer-to-peer interaction at the heart of a broader strategy to embed ‘common purpose’.

In essence, rather than being replaced by this type of peer-to-per interaction, internal communication could have a chance to add even greater value.

This is a tremendous opportunity, if not an imperative, for every internal communicator. Our role has always evolved. This is the latest development.