Whenever there is a crisis – however big or small; our first human instinct is to look for the communications. Search the media. Message a trusted friend. Who is saying what? Human beings seek information; for reassurance and for guidance on what to do next to protect ourselves and those we care about. Communications in times of crisis are so important and are so much more than ‘In the event of an emergency, please use Fire Door A’. They evoke feelings of comfort, security, reassurance and give people a source of reference to cling onto when the rest of the world is uncertain.
So, when a global pandemic kicked off in early 2020, the role of communications came into its own.
Over the last year, I have been involved in developing Covid-19 employee communications to keep our employees in the loop on our position at Siemens and our response to the growing pandemic that has engulfed our everyday lives like nothing I, nor anyone I know, has experienced in our lifetime. It wasn’t always perfect, but the past year has taught me many things that no amount of formal training could ever have.
During life before Covid-19 (remember that?!), I, along with many of my talented Comms colleagues, have long championed changing the tone of our employee messages to be far more authentic, human and less of a corporate machine. Sometimes we win the discussion, sometimes we don’t, but I like to think that in any discussion I have on employee comms – I always sit in any conversation and try to represent the recipient. What will they think when they read/hear this? What will they feel? Will they even care? What action do we want them to take and is that clear enough? Will whatever topic it is cut through the noise of our busy mailboxes and airwaves?
But Covid-19 is not a ‘campaign’ to sell to employees and get their buy-in. It was and is different. This is a real life pandemic and no amount of fancy language and imagery could take away the realness of the situation. I have never used words such as ‘unprecedented’ ‘challenging’ and ‘uncertain’ so much in one year as I did in 2020. There were dark moments when I was finding emails in my inbox with hypothetical guidance on what to do to communicate the death of a colleague and then the heart-warming stories of how so many of our employees had stepped up to help in all sorts of different ways. Never in my career have I worked through such a rollercoaster of experiences.
To help digest these experiences, over the past year, I’ve been keeping Adrian Mole (or more recently Bridget Jones if you prefer) style notes. Just little bullet points here and there… hoping that at some point I would have the time to create a piece of meaningful writing that I can dig out during retirement when my grandchildren ask me “Grandma – what was that Covid-19 pandemic in the year 2020 all about?” as part of their History homework.
As a comms professional, I am ashamed that I can’t give you a profound piece of writing, but these are my thoughts and reflections…honest and true. I hope they resonate with you too.
- Everyone is having their own experience. In their “own ‘pandemic’ themed movie on their own film set”. “We are not all in the same boat…but all suffering the same storm.” Ok… we have heard many analogies depicting this global pandemic, but the reality is, perceptions are different depending on your personal circumstances, your set-up, your personality and ability to cope. Experiences have been wide-ranging. Loneliness, juggling home schooling, joy & innovation in finding new hobbies/ways of working (increased self-inflicted injuries!), spending time with kids, avoiding kids/partners who are driving us mad. Anxiety at the global situation and what on earth Boris is going to say/do next, worrying about our elderly relatives, and pride and hope when we stood on our rainbow clad doorsteps and clapped front-line NHS workers every Thursday evening.
- Seeing humans in their homes was (and is) fascinating… like watching animals in the zoo. Checking out people’s bookcase backdrops with strategically placed objects and interesting wallpaper designs…like watching a ‘Through the Keyhole’ episode. Who would live in a house like this? For me, a turning point early on in 2020 was seeing my CFO’s daughter waltz in, in full Elsa dress, dancing to Frozen whilst we were recording an employee townhall session with her mum! It will always be etched in my memory along with hearing my colleague’s daughter shout “daddy I need a poo” whilst he was presenting on a Teams call. Oh how we laughed! These experiences bring out the humans in us. The relatable. There are so many unsaids and unseens that have now become a daily occurrence which we would never encounter in an office environment with our professional faces on show.
- Humans can be kind – especially in a lockdown when the world is quiet, and we can all just breathe. I found people talking to me in supermarket queues (from a social distance of course). Less traffic on roads but people saying thank you to each other and silently acknowledging with direct eye contact when we all gave each other a 2-metre wide berth. These things never happened so much before. In Siemens, we all met each other’s children, pets and family virtually, have done pub quizzes and scavenger hunts as part of team building exercises, virtual yoga and everything we can to support our sanity during these difficult times. Parents did not feel guilty for having to juggle work and childcare for probably the first time ever.
As time has gone on… and plans for holidays and Christmas gatherings were scuppered at the 11th hour; people are still kind and understanding, but the mood has moved to a weariness that we are all collectively fed up and all need this to end. Supermarket cashiers and TV presenters alike are repeatedly telling us all to ‘hang on in there’ with sympathetic eyes.
- We got rid of the corporate mask. Given all the above about kindness and being open about home environments, it then felt almost old-fashioned to communicate in a formal way. In the midst of 2020 we gave ourselves a license to add a sense of humour and take away the corporate jargon (even in the midst of a very serious threat to human health). Messages reflected care and positivity like never before. As time has passed (and a lot has!) and lockdowns have come and gone, tier systems introduced, the pandemic swung from survival/panic to bringing out the best in humanity. Through working in comms I have seen some amazing stories about the kindness of humanity, and how fundamentally when the chips are down we are all just the same – whatever role you do, pay level or position.
- Technology is both a blessing and a curse. This massive working from home experiment has forced us to work differently…we CAN work remotely and still connect. It’s taken a global pandemic to prove that flexible working IS possible for pretty much any desk based job. But human contact is still massively important. Getting a coffee with a colleague, discussing the previous night’s football match or just wanting to problem-solve quickly with another person is so much easier face to face when all that non-verbal body language really comes into play – and you don’t have to shout “you’re on mute” to at least one person in every meeting. Being on virtual calls All. Day. Long takes it’s toll on even the most resilient of people. The formality of it all. The constant need to look at the camera/screen maintaining eye contact throughout is hard work and unnatural for us as human beings. As this (nearly) year-long working at home arrangement has endured, there have been new challenges in achieving work/life balance, when all that separates those lives is a door/wall in your home (sometimes not even that). Switching off from a very familiar ‘home office’ and making a distinction between home and work has become increasingly hard too – to the point where we miss the often cursed daily commute with traffic jams and packed train carriages. At least that gave us all a definite ‘leave work, start home life’ signal each day. It’s no wonder we all needed some yoga and some guidance on how to sleep better.
- Never underestimate the positive impact of a well-timed joke, particularly on toilet roll shortages or well presented PowerPoints (especially graphs delivering bad news in a Government update). Next slide please!
When I wrote this piece, we were in the midst of 2020 and all hopes were pinned on a brighter, better 2021. We are now in lockdown number 3, and we are all weary and desperate for a bit of ‘normality’ to kick in – if we can even remember what ‘normal’ feels like. In many ways ‘living with this way of life’ has weirdly become normal… a habit. Even the threat of more home schooling didn’t fill me with quite the same dread as it would have done a year ago. The learning curve for human beings coping in this pandemic has been huge and will long be etched in our memories.
As many WhatsApp groups and social media feeds across the virtual world are again filled with positive memes and messages of hope – “brighter days are coming”, I genuinely hope some of the positives this time in our lives has given us, stay with us.
The way we communicate – no matter how serious or difficult the message – shouldn’t be corporate, robotic or lack personality. The role of communications is to educate and inform. But not just that. It has the power to build a bridge with audiences, bring people together with a common purpose, break down barriers and help us all to work in a culture that is kind and real; not stale, detached and corporate.
I hope that we don’t fall back into the same trap of churning out corporate messages from a massive oiled machine – but take the time to look for a different tone, challenge the normal and above all… keep it real.