Insight: Internal communicators are trusted advisors for strategic business decisions

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Virginia Hicks, managing director and lead consultant at Comma, shares her insights into the Covid-19 crisis and its impact on the sector – both from a recruitment perspective and from what she hears from clients and candidates about what it’s been like on the ground. Comma specializes in resourcing for internal communications (IC), employee engagement and change management. 

THE Covid-19 pandemic had an immense effect on internal communicators. For many in jobs the pandemic became their job and almost overnight communicators were thrust into the thick of the crisis. That role of ‘trusted adviser’ was never more needed.  

What changed for communicators?

The core skill requirements of IC specialists remained unchanged but the complexities of the communication, the pace at which it had to be communicated – and how – was a major change program in itself.  We saw perhaps three initial, significant changes.  Communicators were proactively included at many top tables with HR and IC collaborating  more closely together, leaders were in the hot seat when it came to communicating and digital became king.  As far as the first points are concerned, these are scenarios that internal communicators had been striving to achieve for years, so this was good news, but it was the crisis that brought home the need for communicators to be involved in strategic decisions and for leaders to take the lead in communications. From a digital perspective, some organizations had been dipping their toes into a variety of digital media, perhaps seeing it as a nice to have; the crisis made it an imperative. One organization told us that a two-year digital change program they had planned was effectively executed in two months.  

What happened from a recruitment perspective?

From an IC recruitment perspective, the market dried up almost overnight. If someone wasn’t already in a role, the opportunities coming up were few and far between, and chased by hundreds of applicants, particularly on the interim side. Companies stopped recruiting and few in roles would have been tempted to jump ship and risk moving on. This all happened just as the new taxation regulations were introduced to treat interims as employees for taxation purposes. This caused much angst and confusion on all sides and a lot of very skilled communication and change interims had to be open to new terms and conditions from permanent to fixed term contracts.

What we are seeing now for communicators

From a job content perspective, communicators are now seeing jobs getting broader. Off the back of the pandemic a lot of new projects and initiatives have spawned. Pre-pandemic, with Black Lives Matter, a greater emphasis on D&I had already begun, but now we also have health and wellness, hybrid working, climate change, a renewed focus on strategy and purpose and a growing agenda in ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance).   Communicators are being kept extremely busy and the skills required to bring these initiatives together cohesively is not insignificant. 

We have also noticed that an increasing number of companies are requiring analytical skills from their communicators as more decisions are based on data rather than ‘this is what we have always done’. And this data is increasingly ‘real time’ data such as mini “pulse” sounding across employee groups rather than purely once a year data gleaned from the higher-level annual employee survey. 

What’s happened in the market since the start of the crisis?

The market has been pretty volatile throughout 2020 and since then. We have gone from a virtually static situation in the Winter of 2020 to an explosion in the market for talent from the Summer / Autumn of 2021. For the first time in my 15 years in the recruitment business seasonal trends seem, at least for the time being, to have disappeared. Traditionally seen as a ‘dead’ month, August was incredibly busy. It has become a seller’s market with change and digital transformation expertise top of the required skillset – HR, IT or financial.  

According to Business Leader more than 50 per cent of employees are considering leaving their jobs in the next 18 months. But with more jobs than people to fill them, a new and intense chase for talent has started and companies are facing unexpected challenges to attract and keep top talent.

What communicators are looking for has changed

The pandemic has changed people’s mindsets on several levels. We are finding that candidates are being much more discerning about where they are and are not prepared to work. Previously opportunities in big name companies were the holy grail for many. Now, many more candidates are looking for greater meaning than a big name on their CVs. They want to work for companies whose brand values and internal values resonate with their own. They want meaning in their role plus a balance in their personal and working lives. We have found working at home versus commuting means different things to different people, some long for more office contact while others love working from home. Indeed, according to research from EY Lane4, 54 per cent of employees are prepared to quit if they aren’t offered the flexibility they want.

What does this mean for companies in the future when it comes to recruitment?

The employee experience is key, right from the outset. Companies need to ask themselves how they are going to attract and keep hold of top talent when the goal posts have moved and continue to move. From the feedback we receive, many companies are falling at the first fence. Candidates are fed up with dull and templated job descriptions. The more enlightened companies are responding accordingly. Selling their companies, and their companies’ future journey in a much more open and engaging way and exciting potential candidates – making them want to join their journey. Once on board, the challenge then is to engage and retain good talent.

What does this mean for communications?

What has become clear is that what worked in the past isn’t going to work in the future – either from a recruitment perspective or from a communications, engagement and change activity perspective. Companies need to make sure that their own communications are fit for purpose in this changing landscape.

The forward-looking companies are revisiting their communication strategies and reviewing their channels. For example, while we saw a rise in the use of digital communications during the pandemic crisis, this doesn’t mean that these are appropriate for the future. For sure, we won’t be returning hook, line and sinker back to the way we did things pre-pandemic, but equally companies need to acknowledge that there was a lot of uncertainty and speedy decision making required at the outset of the pandemic. Now, they need to breathe and take a fresh look at what worked and what didn’t. An internal communications audit is a great way to do this.  

Research also tells us that measurement went out the window during the pandemic – communicators simply didn’t have the time and resources or tools to measure – or if they did it tended to be about reach. That now needs to change if companies are going to invest their time and effort in the right places to provide a great employee experience and attract and retain the right people.