Internal Communicators Move Aggressively as They Encounter Change and the Great Resignation

Despite its ascendance during the pandemic, internal communication arguably remains the least-appreciated sub-category of PR. However, with COVID-19 prompting changes in the nature and meaning of work, the importance of internal communication continues rising.

“People who used to live to work are now working to live,” says Kacy Ashley, Pinterest’s senior communications and employee inspiration programs manager. “And parents who had no balance before are figuring out how to create balance while their families and work-from-home lives are all merging together.”

It’s on internal communicators, she adds, to realize things have changed and help executive suites “create a positive workplace experience.”

As many workers head into year three of the global pandemic, the daily grind has become even more of a drag than usual. They’re tired. Brains are foggy. And it’s difficult to think and be creative when you work from the same table you eat dinner at, day in and day out. As a result, the internal communicator’s task of bolstering morale and engagement has become more difficult. Indeed, U.S. worker engagement fell in 2021 for the first time in a decade, according to Gallup.

Moreover, pre-COVID, many internal communicators essentially took a homogenous approach to their audiences since nearly everyone worked onsite. That’s no longer true.

For example, Stephanie Roberts, director of communications at manufacturing company Sullair, now seeks to engage employees onsite who build products as well as others who work remotely. Bringing them together has not been easy.

“We’ve had to realign workplace strategies to not only protect employee health, our first priority, but to also enhance employee engagement as our workforce is no longer largely onsite,” Roberts says. She now focuses on building community virtually.

If and when the pandemic lifts, internal communicators’ remit will include crafting messages for returning to the office and hybrid work arrangements. They have a head start, of course, having gone through this drill during the summer of 2020, prior to the Delta variant’s rise.

In addition to these issues, something else looms large. “Employees are more vocal about the experience they want and will vote with not only their feet, but through social media,” says Cat Colella-Graham, founder of Cheer Partners. Look no farther than The Great Resignation and Reshuffle.

Moreover, raising morale and engagement are more complex than pre-pandemic. Several surveys show pay and flexible schedules are the most desired perks for some groups of employees, but companies with best-in-class pay and benefits no longer have the cachet they once did. For example, in the recent Glassdoor Best Places to Work ranking, a leading company, Facebook, dropped 36 spots.

While Facebook employees praised coworkers, project autonomy and extensive benefits, many acknowledged continual public scrutiny and stress from numerous PR crises. They also cited a lack of leadership.

The lesson seems clear: A business can pay people well and provide all the free healthcare it wants, but if staff is constantly fielding questions about their company's integrity, employee experience may suffer.

Into this difficult situation internal communicators are redoubling efforts to engage with employees. In many cases, their first step is taking the workforce’s temperature. After that, they are collaborating with other parts of the company in an attempt to bolster employee engagement. They’re also communicating about how their efforts can boost morale.

Step 1: Research

Before considering blanketing employees with a new, peppy campaign, many internal communicators are gauging what staff want.

“If [companies] don’t know what their employee base needs, how are they supposed to [support them]?” says Ashley.

Fortunately, there are many ways communicators can tap into what employees are thinking, says Don Smialowicz, CEO at HudsonLake, an internal communication firm outside Washington, D.C.

For example, surveys are useful, he says, but it's important to make them brief and focused. “You don’t want to ask 37 questions…and concentrate on just one or two topics.”

Also crucial, Smialowicz says, is communicating to employees the survey results and how the company is acting on them.

The best way to find out about employee needs, though, is through bottom-up communication, such as one-on-ones, Smialowicz says. He admits, though, “in large companies that can be difficult…still there are ways.” For instance, small focus groups or even regional check-ins are useful.

In some companies, HR traditionally handles employee surveys. As such, internal communicators should work with HR to tap its existing knowledge.

Still, pandemic-led change means it’s wise to conduct fresh research, Ashley believes. “All companies are reevaluating their programming and HR offerings and evolving it to meet the new world we are living in,” she says.

Adds Ashley, “Don’t be afraid to talk with your HR department. What you ask for isn’t necessarily going to happen, but you can be sure that it will plant a seed.”

Regardless of research methods, the goal at this moment is ensuring employees feel seen, heard and valued, Colella-Graham and Smialowicz agree.

Step 2: Action and Communication

After researching employee needs, companies have myriad ways of communicating how they’ll meet them.

Pinterest provided an excellent example of communicating expanded parental leave benefits, participating in The Skimm’s #ShowUsYourLeave campaign.

Pinterest’s head of global benefits Alice Vichaita penned a blog explaining the program. She personalized the message, highlighting her experiences with parental leave policies and how they influenced her work crafting Pinterest’s new benefits.

“My kids are 12 and 9 now,” she writes, “but I often think about the time when they were born, and the type of support I wish I had as a new parent and beyond. When my children were born, I worked for an organization that provided 8 weeks of parental leave benefits. At the time, this was considered very progressive and highly competitive…. I requested a flexible schedule (one day a week at home), and my manager at the time was very supportive, but it was still an uncomfortable conversation since a flexible schedule was by no means the norm.  

All of these learnings have informed my work shaping our parental benefits policy at Pinterest. In addition to reflecting on my lived experiences, I spent a lot of time listening to others’ stories, and imagining what their individual journeys to parenthood had been like.” 

The company’s expanded benefits include 20 weeks paid leave for adoptive parents, four weeks bereavement leave for pregnancy loss and increased monetary assistance for fertility treatments.

In addition to changes surrounding parental leave, Pinterest, toward the start of the pandemic, examined other workforce needs. As a result, it re-instituted other efforts. One such program is Pintentions, a homegrown effort promoting intentional self-care.

Says Ashley, “In May 2020, we ran this program for the first time over the course of a month at a moment when the company needed help adjusting to the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic shelter-in-place orders.”

Each week Pintentions focused on a different topic (Prioritizing, Controlling, Connecting and Learning), providing resources in various formats (article, book, podcast, Pinterest Board, online classes) to help employees take back their lives and schedules. At the end of the month, Pinterest’s global offices took two days off to disconnect and reconnect.

Because Pinterest is a global company, it schedules live programming that fits each regions’ working hours instead of offering an after-the-fact link. Pintentions now is condensed into a week instead of a month. The two days off for recharging have continued.

Pump the Brakes

While the stakes are high for internal communicators, Colella-Graham urges control. With the wealth of information employees are receiving in this uncertain moment–Covid issues, closures/reopenings, benefits, WFH schedules, etc.–internal communicators should coordinate communication cadences. “Over-communicating is over,” she says. You don’t want already-exhausted employees getting three emails with the same information from different departments, she says.

“Each leader must have a pillar to own, so when they speak, employees know what the topic is,” Colella-Graham says. “Utilizing technology such as teams channels or leading back to the intranet is also a way to drive pull, instead of push communications.” Talk tracks, FAQs and AMAs can also deliver information.

In smaller companies, where the internal communicator also is the HR person, “ensure all [leaders are] singing from the same song book,” she says. “Aligning communication to work in concert, not conflict, is the key to building trust.”