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Make the most of face to face as it becomes a scarcer asset

That was one of the key messages from a group of IoIC Fellows who came together on 11 November for a roundtable on the future of face to face communication.

IoIC President Suzanne Peck opened the discussion by reflecting on the strong preference employees have traditionally had for face to face communication, evidenced by all manner of surveys and studies over the years. However, face to face in its traditional sense has been far more restricted since the onset of Covid-19.

A new world

There was a unanimous view among the Fellows that what organisations impacted by lockdown restrictions are doing isn’t a substitute for traditional face to face, but something different entirely. A number cited examples where attempting to replicate the ‘old’ face to face approach online would be entirely wrong. “‘How do we move our annual conference online?’ is the wrong question” said one, “the focus should be on providing the best possible digital experience.” Internal communicators may be better served by comparing their new offering to The One Show than their past live events.

The Fellows recognised some of the key differences between organisations too. In many complex, global businesses ‘digital first’ communication has been the norm for some time. This has benefits in terms of consistency and inclusion. But there can be challenges in terms of penetration or richness of engagement. Others are on a sharper learning curve. One Fellow referenced a group of workers who may have tried to ‘put a stick on it and use it to dig a hole’ when given a laptop in the past - but now adapting successfully to the new ways of communication forced on them by the crisis.

All agreed that Covid-19 has undoubtedly changed our communication environment in irreversible ways. A small example that illustrates this is how QR codes are much more readily recognised and used because of people’s experiences with the track and trace system.

Vulnerable leadership

Those changes have impacted leaders as much, if not more, than anyone else. One Fellow observed that they’d never had so many conversations with senior staff that start: ‘how should we communicate this with our people?’

Others had found that leaders were much hungrier for feedback about their communication style. Perhaps this is because they have access to fewer visible cues from their audience, or perhaps they are more self-conscious on screen. One other theory was that the changes have given leaders ‘permission to be vulnerable’ because everyone understands that they are doing something new. Simple coaching advice like ‘remember to breathe’ or ‘slow down’ is better received – and perhaps more needed – now than it has been before.

One of the benefits of seeing leaders in their home environments is that it has humanised them. A pet cat walking across the screen is a welcome icebreaker rather than an embarrassing lapse of professionalism now. The social norms have changed, and leaders would do well to embrace this move away from choreographed formalities.

Compensating for the losses

If the swift move to digital has solved some problems for communicators, it has created others. “Digital communication works for exchanging information and getting the job done” said one Fellow, “but face to face is much better for relationships, onboarding and energy.” Some Fellows had tried to compensate for this via digital methods. Informal lunchtime sessions with ‘no work chat allowed’ and other rapport-building activities had met with success.

Another issue for some teams was the sense of creeping invisibility as the period of disruption has gone on. When co-located, it is easier to remember certain colleagues exist, that their work is important. Now there is a sense of ‘nobody cares because they can’t see what we’re doing’. Internal communicators have a fight on their hands to maintain the sense of shared purpose and mutual reliance that comes from sharing a physical space.

On the other hand, some groups of staff have thrived in the new communication environment. Introverts, who may have struggled with participating at events or in meetings previously, can now express themselves by typing into a chat for instance.

Looking ahead

While there was a common view among the Fellows that the things were unlikely to go back to ‘normal’ after Covid, they did think the challenges would change.

Predicting that the priority would be managing a blend of digital and physical spaces, the group felt that skills like moderation and resources like co-created guidelines on how to communicate inclusively would be crucial. When half of the audience is in a conference room and half are at home, it’s easier for gaps to develop between people’s experiences.

The sophistication of and reliance upon digital communication is unlikely to go into reverse. The key challenge according to one Fellow will be to ensure that the sheer proliferation of it does not become overwhelming for people. This is as important for wellbeing as it is for organisational performance.

As for face to face, another Fellow expressed it perfectly when they said: “there will be fewer face to face engagements, but they will need to be more impactful.” The group played with the idea that offices would need to become more like theatres – the emotional heart of the organisation rather its engine room. Creating the best possible experience for employees should, as ever, be the focus.

Find out more abut IoIC Fellowship.

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