Virtual communications for humans

Top tips for keeping connected

By Chaya Mistry, CIPR Inside Committee member

I was talking to my 12 year old about the trouble of communicating electronically and she said, “The problem is that if you say something face to face, and that person is upset by it, you can see that on their face and you can say ‘oh I’m sorry I didn’t mean it like that’ and you can fix it. But if you just send a message, you don’t know how the person might react and you might never find out.”

In these days of virtual working, we certainly need to pay attention to ‘how’ we communicate and importantly, how we can support leaders and managers to be aware of their audience’s reactions.

Technology is great ain’t it.

Everything seems to work for most people. It is relatively easy to talk to everyone virtually; digital internal communication channels can reach employees in ways that would not have been possible a decade ago.

With virtual townhalls and engagement sessions, ‘ask me anything’ sessions, online chats and messaging applications, it is easy to say what you want to say and it might even be easy for people to ask your leaders questions what they want to ask, but it is harder listen.

You can’t see people’s faces, their reactions.

Why is listening and feedback is essential?

Many people get a strong sense of self-esteem from work, it gives to structure and purpose.

One of my favourite Coaches Jo Jones from Barefoot Coaching said “We get our self-esteem not just from ourselves but from lots of different sources in our day to day life, parents, connections with work colleagues, friends, work achievements and small wins. Suddenly all that stopped.”

People are working just as hard, but no-one sees it.

People are hitting deadlines and can’t hit the pub on Friday night to celebrate.

People don’t have watercoolers and coffee machines to bump into colleagues at.

A new habit takes 30 days to establish, so besides the new health and fitness routines we have adopted or fresh air walks, I am afraid we might have been in lockdown for long enough that we have some new routines that don’t include the social environment that keep us mentally strong.

There is one group of people who can have the biggest impact on this social environment: the line manager.

Line managers

These are a group of people who really need support and help on how to get through this longer lock down.

The ability to communicate effectively is one of the most important skill or attribute of a virtual line manager. (Smith & Sinclair 2003).

Writing well, speaking well and listening well will help people to have clarity about what they need to do in their jobs. But communication skills also include, knowing when to just pick up the phone, having a good cadence of connects 1-1 and as a group and being able to create and maintain interpersonal relationships within and between teams is essential.

What can Internal communication professionals do?

Here are some ideas:

 Make your channels Work

You are responsible for the mass channels which help to keep a finger on the pulse of the organisation. Measure, measure, measure! Talk to your audience, ask them what is helpful and what is not. 

Look at the data on your digital channels. Don’t over communicate things that are high level and meaningless, but do communicate local relevant messages and guidance.

These will tell you what they want to know about but don’t forget to ask what they are worried about. Importantly have a mechanism to feedback what you learn to leaders in the organisation, be sure to reach further than just the senior leadership groups.

Keep leadership going strong.

Give guidance and support to senior leaders- there are lots of tips about How to encourage your leaders to be virtually visible for example.  Much of this will help build longer term trust and it is a time for leaders to show up authentically.

Community for line managers.

Create a space to give guidance and support to line managers.  This can be a leader’s toolkit area with the latest updates and content but be aware that the content is only half the answer. People in their teams are looking at them for support, some are showing stress and anxiety, many have personal issues that come first and the people in those management roles need to be fully able to support their teams by first looking after themselves. 

Give them a place for them to address their own questions and difficulties.

Are they setting a good example of good balance of life and health with work?

Are they struggling to answer the questions their teams have?

Are they remembering to recognize good work and milestones met?

Are they uncomfortable with virtual working and feeling like they need to ‘check-up’ with their staff.

All these are normal and part of being human, sometimes we just need to be reminded that it is okay to be human. Let’s build strong self-esteem in our leaders and line managers so that we can build it in our organisations.

Communicating virtually is harder than face to face for sure! But being mindful of the experience for your audience and supporting two-way high-quality human communication is possible, and right now, it is essential.

So, communication folks, keep doing the amazing job you are doing, look after yourself and your line managers.

Stay healthy and stay indoors.