Interview: From chaos to calm: putting people first with IC

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I recently enjoyed a virtual coffee with Jenni Field, president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and director at Redefining Communications, writes Orla Clancy. She spoke about how she achieves greater productivity by setting boundaries, a work style that she started as an employee and continues as a business owner.

From starting her career in a local government press office, then moving to in-house and agency roles, to establishing her own business three years ago, Field believes that you can leave an impression on the world when you work in internal communications (IC). “It (working in internal communications) is a privileged position – you impact every part of the organisation.” 

This year, employee engagement has increasingly involved mutual collaboration between internal communications and human resources. At the same time, it is important to recognise that the remit of internal communications is wider and contributes to the strategic direction of the entire organisation. “While internal communications and human resources are working more closely together now due to the pandemic, internal communicators naturally sit within corporate communications and public relations functions. Ultimately, employee engagement is an output of good internal communication,” she said.

Reactive crisis mode

The role of communications professionals is to add value, yet the meaning of value differs across organisations. This year, Field says they have mainly been focusing on business continuity, customer retention, and maintaining an engaged and productive team while transitioning to a remote working environment. “The value you bring has to be aligned to the value needed by the organisation. Because what we do is so broad, that is going to be different in every business – it’s about tailoring what you do,” she said. “Generally speaking, CEOs engage more with internal communications during a crisis. The concern in the industry now is that the work is tactical, rather than strategy driven.” However, this may be due, in no small part, to the reactive crisis mode that businesses found themselves in this year.

Covid-19 impact and support

For the CIPR, Field has seen a stronger focus on members, support and being the voice of the profession. “The most tangible impact of Covid-19 for CIPR was a huge shift in agility. We moved very quickly to have everything online – training, chartered assessments, a mentoring scheme, a career starter mentoring scheme for students, a mental health hotline, and an employability hub. It is about supporting people at different stages in terms of how they are impacted by the pandemic. Everybody responds differently and everyone is impacted differently – some people have lost their jobs while more people have set up their own agencies and are thriving. It’s about being able to support members wherever they are in that impact.”

She continued by saying that good intentions and plans that may have been put on the back burner became a priority this year. “A crisis escalates an existing trend; the skills that we need are not different to the skills that we needed a year ago, it’s just that we need them now.”

Focus on mental resilience and unscripted relationships

As most businesses continue to operate a remote or hybrid model, they are dealing with unpredictability and are putting the focus on employee well-being. “I have noticed a shift in two key areas. The first is a focus on well-being as internal events are no longer solely focused on strategy. They have shifted to mental resilience, productivity, well-being, and talking to staff as human beings. The second is that there are now less scripted conversations between CEOs and senior leadership teams. The rawness of the pandemic and having to put humanity first has meant that CEOs and leadership teams are having more informal, relaxed conversations that I don’t think they would ever have had before. That’s something that I hope stays – unscripted relationships,” said Field.

Field noticed a link between productivity and impactful communications among her clients and a move into the mental resilience space, such as exploring coping strategies. 

To add more value to organisations, Field recently launched mental resilience workshops in partnership with a former British army officer. Together, they help teams identify what mental resilience is, how it differs from mental health, how it relates to relationships at work, stress, and how they can support their co-workers and team. “It all starts with understanding ourselves, and then matching productivity, mental resilience and communication.”

Productive, balanced and protected

Sharing her philosophy on workplace limits, Field said that “boundaries are really important – what is acceptable and what is not. To think about that from an internal communications and employee engagement perspective is so important. Everyone’s boundaries are different – if we don’t talk about them, we can’t find a way to work together.

“I don’t have meetings before 10am or after 4pm. There will be exceptions, but it’s about finding a style that allows you to keep yourself productive, balanced and protected. But you need to signal these changes to other people. If you don’t say it, you’re going to end up frustrated.” 

The result? “Nothing bad happens! It doesn’t have a negative impact on the outcome of the work. Quite the opposite. As communicators we need some capacity because if there’s a crisis we can’t be maxed out – we need room to move into that space.” 

This year has been a challenge like no other for companies and their people. Helping clients to think through all of the different aspects of the change – messaging, reputation, stakeholder engagement and client retention – has been a key focus for Field. “In line with our ethos of ‘taking you from chaos to calm’ we work through challenges with organisations and find clarity in what is a very overwhelming time for them. The focus and purpose have changed post-pandemic from efficiency to engagement and making sure people feel connected.” With that in mind, in November 2020, Field and her team launched Panoptic, a diagnostic tool designed specifically for CEOs and leadership teams to help them refocus the organisation for future clarity.

“For people to work together they need to have a relationship and to have a relationship they need to communicate together effectively,” she said. “We forget that organisations are people. An organisation does not exist without its people – they are the physical representation of an organisation. We are social animals and we have to have social connections. Business leaders are now more conscious of developing a greater understanding and awareness of their people and putting systems in place to mitigate against experiences like loneliness and isolation so that their people feel enabled to work.”

People come first

Asked about what advice she would give to those tasked with internal communications, Field replied, “Understand what motivates people. Know your team and tailor your approach to different people. The business backdrop and messaging keeps changing because of the amount of ambiguity we live with. Focus on how you want people to feel. Safe? Reassured? Confident? And then work backwards to create messages. Messaging doesn’t come first, people do.” 

As our chat comes to a close, Field and I observe the value of sharing industry and work perspectives. Knowledge sharing helps us to establish best practices – for the industry and business. We know that organisations always look for an appetite for learning and flexibility in employees. Now, it’s the employees’ turn to set boundaries.