In Part 1 of this series, we learned many communications leaders used the power of personal connection to establish an open and authentic dialogue with employees and clients during the onset of COVID-19. Over the past few months, as a new normal has been established for many business operations, communications leaders have had the chance to look back and consider what they’ve learned, what positives have come out of the crisis. In addition, many have begun plans to bring employees back into the office.
Chris Wyse, VP of Corporate Communications recounts, “Suddenly a global pandemic hits and you’re like, ‘Cut half of everything that we had in the lineup and make as much as we possibly can of just these things!’” As a leader in paper-based consumer products, Kimberly-Clark was under tremendous pressure to meet high demands. What they did in their mills to ensure they could meet those demands — something Wyse described as “radically streamline and simplify work processes,” — they also did with their communications process. “Our editorial planning process before was somewhat siloed,” Wyse said. “Now our content creation team is on the phone three times a week, working at an incredible pace and collaborating like never before.” Something Wyse later refers to as true “esprit de corps!”
As an added benefit, the choice to involve decision-makers deeper into the organization at the onset of communications has emboldened the company’s culture, reinforcing empowerment and enabling a more agile workforce.
As the world begins to reopen, The Boeing Company is predicting that travel will also resume. The airplane manufacturer has been working closely with its customers on a communications strategy designed to restore confidence in the flying public. It has also been managing a mix of remote employees and factory team members. But Conrad Chun, VP of Communications for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, is now working on a plan to bring remote employees back to the office. His reasons for doing so are twofold. “I think we’re actually working longer hours,” Chun said. “I think because we’re all reachable, it lengthens the workstream. There seems to be no end of the day until you sleep.”
In addition to mental exhaustion, Chun is concerned about efficiencies. While Boeing has used every communications channel imaginable to stay connected to its dispersed workforce, Chun feels it doesn’t have the same impact as an in-person meeting. “As a leader of people, your tools are taken away in a purely digital environment,” he said. “Being able to stop by and see how an employee is doing, have a frank conversation about performance. It’s just different than what might be perceived as yet another phone call.”
Although Boeing is taking a phased approach to bringing back its remote workforce, making sure employees are safe and feel safe, Chun says it won’t be a one-size-fits-all strategy. “I think this situation serves to remind us that every one of our employees is different,” he said. “There is no one thing that will work for everyone.” Chun also thinks there may be some unintentional benefit to this experience.
Celanese, a global chemical and specialty materials company, has begun focusing on change communications in order to bring its remote workforce back to its offices. Jamaison Schuler, Senior Director of Global Communications, says it will be a phased approach. “We’ll most likely do it in waves, perhaps every 30 days until everyone is back,” Schuler said. The company has established on-site action teams to figure out a detailed plan as well as executed employee surveys to gauge their feelings about returning. “I think people are anxious for a plan,” he said, “but there are expectations we know and those we don’t know.” As Schuler reflects on the activities over the past several months, he notes that it’s been interesting what’s dropped off, what was missed, but also what has persevered: the Celanese spirit.
At Toyota Motor North America, communications are still leveraging a personal approach. However, during the 40,000 weekly phone calls team leaders make to employees at home, the conversation has turned to coming back to the office. “We’ve been trying to understand what their concerns are, what would make them feel safe coming back to work,” said Kelly McNeff, VP of Corporate Communications. While McNeff acknowledges working remotely has been fine, there is internal alignment that it’s time to start the return process. The company has roughly 30 committees working for the past seven weeks on a plan to bring remote employees back in the office — though it won’t happen overnight.
Thoughts on a corporate return at Tyler Technologies are similar, though the company hasn’t missed a beat working remotely. “It’s been really interesting to see just how the productivity levels have shifted in a positive way for some groups,” said Samantha Crosby, Chief Marketing Officer. “Some departments within the company have even shown productivity increases while working from home.” Nevertheless, the company is working on a return-to-office plan.
“We will have three phases, the first reflecting a maximum capacity of 25%,” Crosby said. She added that the actual numbers of employees returning during phase one are around 10% currently. The company launched several internal surveys, one recently to gauge employee desire to return to the office. The results indicated there was a lot of anxiety and trepidation about returning. Therefore, Tyler Technologies is factoring in both its employees’ ability and their desire to return during the initial phase.
Feeling closer when we are far apart, remembering why we are in business, our positive impact on the world — these are some of the positive outcomes repeated from corporate communications leaders. As they and many other businesses begin the slow and calculated process to moving back in to the office, it will be important to keep a pulse on employees’ emotions, to measure engagement and make concessions where the business can in order to keep everyone as healthy and happy as possible.
Libby Graham is a Creative Strategist at AvreaFoster.
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