Steadying the ship: The importance of communication in uncertain times

by Darren Clare

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During times of uncertainty and change, good employee communications are essential for organisational stability.
Following the EU referendum, the UK has been plunged into social, political and economic turmoil. Jobs are at risk. Generations are divided. Sterling has gone through the floor. And now, to add insult to injury, Boris Johnson has been appointed Foreign Secretary. In any period of uncertainty and upheaval, communication is critical.

Right now, nowhere is this truer than in the British workplace where, since June 23, a climate of fear and anxiety has prevailed. Employees in companies big and small are looking around anxiously, unsure of what lies ahead. When will Article 50 be triggered?

What are the implications for UK businesses? As is the case during mergers, demergers, CEO abdications or corporate scandals, our current situation calls for clarity and quality of employee communications. Amid all the predictions that £350bn will be wiped off the FTSE 100 post Brexit, amid all the rumours of multiple job losses and relocations in financial services, what UK employees need now is a bit of reassurance and internal comms TLC.

Keep calm and communicate

Even when situations are stable, good employee communications serve to galvanise a workforce and enhance performance. Through regular, clear communications, employees feel valued, connected and engaged. And as recent research has shown, productivity improves 20-25% in organisations with connected employees.

During periods of turbulence, this sense of connection becomes critical. Employees need to feel they’re part of something, that their parent firm will support, protect and guide them through the difficult times ahead. The stoic British mantra of ‘keep calm and carry on’ sometimes simply isn’t enough. Employees need to know what’s happening; they need to understand not only their prospects but their roles and responsibilities while the storm of change is raging.

Good communications provides the vital function of maintaining a steady flow of information between a company’s leadership and its workforce. It enables leadership to demonstrate its awareness and understanding of unfolding events, and to interpret these events for its people. Updated bulletins, e-newsletters, intranet posts and blogs are vital internal comms tools, enabling commentary and analysis to be relayed swiftly within an organisation.

But ensuring quality and transparency in these communications is paramount; recent studies have shown that only 21% of communicators keep their language simple and jargon-free . If employees sense that their management teams are hiding inconvenient truths behind complex technical language and rhetorical guff, then mistrust and discontent will grow. Communicators must also focus on relevance.

The current ‘materiality’ trend in sustainability reporting, whereby reporters only convey the information that is most pertinent to their stakeholders, is worth keeping in mind. Employees won’t be fobbed off with news that ‘everything’s fine’, or with commentary on irrelevant company affairs; they need to hear the stuff that matters. By communicating in an open, clear and honest way, communicators will help to reinforce in the minds of employees their organisation’s purpose, values and strategic direction. Creating a shared understanding of company culture, of ‘who we are and what we do’, is essential at any time – but especially when faced with external uncertainties and existential crisis.

Most crucially, however, communication must not just be a top-down exercise; the best employee communications programmes are those than enable a two-way exchange of information, opinions and ideas. Because employees need to feel not only informed, but also empowered to enter the corporate dialogue. Comms workshops, tone of voice manuals and social media guidelines can all help to engage people with this process; a process which, by ensuring that employees feel listened to and enfranchised, can help to settle workforce nerves and steady the corporate ship.

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