COVID-19 | How internal communications and virtual leadership can enhance employee experience

By Aniisu K Verghese

July 22, 2020 

As the world copes with the pandemic and green shoots of recovery emerge, there are key trends, issues and opportunities related to employees’ experiences that organizations face into. 

The impact of COVID-19 on employees’ experiences, the summation of all and everyday interactions between employer and employee, is significant – on their health, well-being, economic status and productivity. For example, 2 in 3 employees feel more burned-out than before the COVID-19 pandemic and 38% of employees’ employment are impacted by the situation.  Organizations are realizing the power of exemplary employee experience, even more so during these difficult times, as a competitive edge. Those that continue to invest in improving employee experience drive immense value for the business
The world of work has dramatically changed with job losses, stress and uncertainty creating instability and fear among employees. Gartner reports that 32% of organizations are adding contract staffers to replace full-time employees to save costs, and there is lack of clarity among businesses on what they can expect in two years with a majority believing the pandemic will have a negative impact on employee well-being. Anxiety, distractions and financial concerns come in the way of employees’ attention and productivity. It is believed that 40% of employees work over 55 hours per week. The number of meetings employees attend has exponentially increased – according to Microsoft, Teams their collaboration platform recorded 2.7 billion meeting minutes in one day (April 2020), a 300% increase since March 2020.  Despite that, 41% of employees polled in Gartner’s ReimagineHR Employee Survey don’t feel connected to their colleagues while working remotely, and there is evidence that working over 50 hours per week can be counterproductive for relationships, mental health and well-being. A Korn Ferry study indicates that a third of HR leaders feel their biggest challenge is maintaining employee engagement and trust in leadership.

With this context, there is a lot more needed to rebuild employees’ experiences in this new world order. It isn’t easy building trust remotely and getting leaders to manage virtually, especially when the expectations are very different. Thankfully,remote working is now the ‘new’ normal and employees who have experienced it wouldn’t want to let go the opportunity!  However, the experience using technology can be improved. In a recent Salesforce study, most Indian technologists waste an average of 53 minutes a day due to outdated and inefficient technology.  

Therefore, what can internal communicators and leaders do to improve employees’ experiences?

Focus on the positive and invest in training: There are gaps in how leaders and employees perceive changes at the workplace. Employees worry about personal challenges, new work environment issues and anxiety while leaders are concerned with company performance, employee support and attrition. Keeping employees’ needs aligned to business priorities is needed more than ever. Also, trust is a concern among managers. Employees who work remotely fully are nearly twice as likely to receive corrective feedback on unsuccessful behavior instead of positive inputs on work done well. Virtual leadership and internal communications, key components to enhancing employee experience and engagement, deserves closer attention. The leader’s emotional intelligence influences how engaged virtual team members are. Likewise, the need to balance work and provide autonomy allows leaders to be truly successful virtually.

Help employees stay relevant and aligned: According to the McKinsey Global Institute over 375 million workers (or 14% of the global workforce in 2017) need to change occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 due to automation and artificial intelligence. Reskilling the workforce is crucial; not everyone is comfortable with technology and this can come in way of employee experience. Companies are coping with downsizing and other business impacts by exploring role-based models where employees’ morale and job-oriented well-being is influenced by three aspects of their experience – role load, clarity and agreement.

Listen, connect and repurpose communications: Connecting and engaging employees remotely is the need of the hour. Internal communications is an employee experience concern and expected to support change. Internal communicators can do more to invest in listening tools and gather feedback real-time, although 1 in 4 aren’t currently gauging employee sentiment. In a study by Capgemini on digital culture, while 85% of senior leaders believed they collaborated well across functions and locations only 41% of lower-level employees agreed. Such gaps are concerning as employees look for certainty and social connections in a disrupted world. Organizations that re-prioritize communication functions and repurpose external channels for internal communications have seen better results. For example, one organization used closed group radio shows for sharing updates and another relied on Whatsapp to keep employees informed real-time helping employees feel more connected.

Leaders need to ‘show-up’ and exhibit model behaviors: The ability of leaders and organizations to collaborate to support people impacted by the crisis, is commendable. The Accenture-led, People-Work Connect is a case in point. So, also the partnership between Aldi and McDonalds to share staff. However, less than 1 in 3 believe CEOs have done a fantastic job as compared to scientists or government leaders during the pandemic in building trust. There is a shift to a world that is more authentic and believable world as compared to an ideal situation. Building trust, providing autonomy and accountability as well as demonstrating empathy are more crucial in a remote working environment. The need for visible and authentic, human-led engagement is essential and virtual leadership, staying visible and available for staff is crucial. A sizable number of organizations (32%) are investing in training middle management on emotional intelligence. More importantly, leaders need to ‘show-up’, role model behaviors, provide direction and protect the culture.

Stay employee-centric: Giving employees voice over the digital realm is a lot harder. Organizations that create a safe environment for expression are more likely to succeed amidst the ongoing crisis and beyond. Allow time and space for informal interactions in a virtual setting that mimics what employees miss from watercooler conversations. Focusing on collective/social relationships (employee voice and teamworking) can help improve employees’ health and well-being; currently just a third of organizations are investing in this aspect. Prioritizing investment on employees vs profits has been called out as a much needed shift, according to the 2019 Business Round Table and yet, just about 31% of employers surveyed their employees on experiences with COVID19. When employees feel included, heard, invested in and partnered with will help rebuild trust and improve employee experience.

The pandemic is a wakeup call for communicators and leaders to unlearn and reinvest their energies towards rebuilding trust, driving change and improving employees’ experiences. It is the moments that matter more than ever, since every day is not the same anymore or will be. Putting the employee back at the heart of communications and leadership can be the differentiator most organizations seek. 

Author: Aniisu K Verghese is an award-winning internal communications leader, author, speaker, trainer and blogger with over 22 years of experience. His mission is to help individuals and organizations discover and develop their sweet-spot through effective communications. His blog Intraskope ( is India’s first platform for internal communication professionals, academicians and students who want to get better at this evolving and growing domain. More about his work can be read at, his YouTube channel and on Linkedin.