With the emergence of the Corona crisis and the often drastic changes associated with it, such as working remotely, most companies have realized the importance of Internal Communications. We spoke with Prof. Dr. Verena Wölkhammer, Professor of Communications and Leadership at the Hochschule Fresenius; Consultant for Internal Communications, Change and Leadership Communications; Coach and Founder of the NEUSKILL® Institute on the importance and responsibilities of Internal Communications.
What do you think is necessary for successful internal communications in times of crisis, and to what extent does it pay off?
Reflective action is also an important factor for Internal Communications in a crisis. Instead of being second to crisis management, it should be seen as a fundamental component thereof. That is why I always say that communication is part of every crisis team.
Since the Corona crisis affects our forms of communication and collaboration in a very fundamental way, Internal Communications currently has the opportunity to further develop existing fields. For some time now, Internal Communications has ideally seen itself as a companion to the increasing digitalization of communication and collaboration within a company – and in this respect, it was already in the process of transforming itself even before the Corona crisis, making it an important role model.
What were and are the typical responsibilities of Internal Communications during the Corona crisis?
Internal Communications has two major spheres of activity: formats and media on the one hand and content on the other. The establishment of a solid “communication mechanism” that reaches all employees, including those on the production line and in the field, is an enormously important cornerstone of Internal Communications in the crisis. Analog media quickly approaches the limits of its reach and capacity for communication. Therefore, digital solutions – such as a mobile app – are very helpful. Moreover, during the Corona crisis, it is, of course, particularly important to organize cooperation. Here, Internal Communications, together with HR and IT, should take on the task of creating clarity and providing guidance and even support for individual questions regarding media and cooperation.
With regard to content, open and transparent communication is repeatedly designated as helpful and desirable in crises. But what does that mean? If the Internal Communications department accompanies management and executives in communicating the crisis in a transparent manner, the fear of transparency itself will often be overcome from the start. That is because many managers see it as a dangerous business to give bad news to their employees and teams. Among other things, they fear demoralization. But especially in crises with uncertain outcomes, the course of which evades known process logic and empirical knowledge, a detailed and honest description of the current status quo is human and is clearly the best possible approach. These include statements regarding the current state of information, what is assumed to be the next step, and individual explanations for individual groups of employees.
If a company reduces its commitment to Internal Communications during a crisis, it loses its own authority to interpret what is happening and the ability to address what is happening in its own words to employees. In the current Corona crisis, it is also important to take advantage of the opportunity to make great progress and gain extensive experience with digital communication solutions.
What communication challenges will companies be faced with in the transition phase to the “new normal” and beyond, and what role will Internal Communications in particular play?
In this transition phase to the “new normal”, Internal Communications needs a lot of tact and sensitivity in dealing with issues. Attitudes and concerns vary widely in society and among employees. For some, the crisis passes without a trace, others have family members or friends who are affected, or are themselves affected to a higher degree, even if their company is doing well. For the internal target groups, this means taking very close account of the different employee groups and their mental attitudes.
Figures of this kind can be well represented by internal communities: starting with risk groups, single parents, families with children or sick relatives, etc. At the same time, Internal Communications should keep its finger on the pulse of the employees by means of regular feedback assessments in order to recognize where the current need exists with regard to content orientation or a new form of interaction. In this crisis, you can clearly see how quickly one crisis phase flows into the next. Anticipating these transitions in the ideal case, being prepared for possible crisis developments and scenarios – even on the way to a “new normal” – is what good Internal Communications is all about.
What role can Internal Communications play in terms of the challenges for the future design of working from home and remote work?
Shaping of the “new normal of cooperation” is both a current challenge and an opportunity. What we are experiencing in the Corona crisis is probably, for many people, not working from home in the sense that it could be described as productive. This ranges from temporary working environments to the presence of children in the workspace. This is not exactly how working remotely works: it is a way of working that suits the individual’s working method and lifestyle and, as a result, makes them more productive and healthier. Overall, people with very different personal and corporate cultural backgrounds have, in many cases, moved 100 percent to working remotely and remote leadership when Corona forced this overnight. Therefore, we should not draw any abridged conclusions from this period. It is very important to take a nuanced view of how employees and managers have experienced the situation.
Initiating this process together with HR is a motivating factor that Internal Communications should take on. It is an important task, and one that shapes the company, to integrate the insights into the new forms of communication, cooperation, and leadership into the new corporate story – the “post-Corona story”. In the further development of the corporate story, as well as the development of the employees from the crisis, a number of issues are the focus of attention, such as: “At what points did our DNA help us to overcome the crisis?”, “Which type of management did not succeed and can be confidently allocated to the ‘pre-Corona world’ from now on?” and “What should the ‘post-Corona corporate world’ do in the future in terms of communication, collaboration, remote work, and leadership?”
What do you recommend to companies that want to go digital because of the Corona crisis and want to enable networking within the company, for example, with the help of social collaboration solutions?
Here is my advice before Corona: First, take the path of analysis. Do not start with what is tempting in terms of design or with creative and participatory development processes. Take the time for an analysis that leads to understanding and clarity – and orients thinking, feeling, and wishing towards the new. The lessons learned from the “Corona experience” are, of course, a very intensive repertoire of experiences, which should be integrated into the analysis process as a valuable reference point for employees and managers in order for them to look at use cases and their own competence development.
First of all, take a look at where communication, corporate, and management culture currently stands – of course, against the background of the “Corona experiences” as well. Just how dialogical, open, and diverse has culture been during the crisis? What is the importance of information within the company and how was it handled before and during the Corona crisis – is leadership by means of an information advantage still predominant? What do desire and reality look like in terms of employee participation, cross-departmental collaboration, and diversity of opinion? For example, during the crisis, was more emphasis placed on demarcating teams than on suggesting a joint solution to the crisis? Partly due to convictions of the old working and management world, there is still little openness here, so a reorientation is necessary. Here, learning processes need to be initiated, which must be consciously designed and facilitated. In this process, digital forms of collaboration that may have experienced ad hoc introduction and use during the Corona crisis can then be relaunched gradually on the basis of a clearly identified need for requirements.
The management culture plays an essential role throughout the entire process. Before the Corona crisis, I heard time and again that employees should be empowered to increase digitalization, and my experience was that managers did not consider their own transformation needs with regard to their understanding of leadership. The current experience with regard to “Remote Leadership” opens up a special situation for the further development of leadership. The foundation is now the question: “How did I feel as a manager during the crisis – what does Remote Leadership demand in terms of tool knowledge and personal mindset?”