More Than Ever, The Quest For Authenticity Must Govern Internal Communications
While the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic will durably transform the world of work, companies must reconnect with their employees.
Indeed, the latter suffer from the new situation which is imposed on them. First of all, work from home days are longer (by 3 hours on average in the U.S.).
In addition, digital collaborative tools are proving to be wearisome. A study conducted by Microsoft shows that video conference participants get tired after 30 to 40 minutes of meeting and stressed after two hours. The reason is that they need to be more focused than in a physical meeting to capture the information shared by other participants and stay engaged in the discussion.
The same study also found that only 35 percent of those surveyed have a dedicated space to work from home and that nearly 60 percent feel less connected to their colleagues since they work from home more often. These practical difficulties and feelings of isolation are also stress factors.
In this context, companies need to pay even more attention than usual to the well-being of their employees and their involvement in a collective project. Incidentally, the latter contributes to the former.
Several elements, in the way companies and their managers communicate, can serve this double objective, first and foremost their ability to project meaning, their willingness to listen to their employees, and the attention paid to their relationship with their teams.
But one of the determining elements relates to the authenticity of organizations’ internal communications activities. It helps maintain an indispensable trust between managers and employees. Trust is more difficult to cultivate when there is less interaction between them. The fewer exchanges there are, the more employees need to be sure that their manager is sincere with them. The slightest doubt in this respect can damage a relationship and cast doubt on the affected employee as to their place in the company. In fact, the authenticity of managers is essential in building trust with their employees, which in turn is a guarantee of those employees’ resilience.
One of the facets of authenticity is the rejection of a chimerical perfection. Authentic managers present themselves as they are, not as they would like to be. They embrace their vulnerability, do not claim omniscience, and share their doubts and questions.
An anecdote told a few months ago by Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry and senior vice president of retail at Apple, is enlightening in this respect:
“I had been a couple of months at Apple Retail and somebody came up to me and said, ‘We think you should send an email out to all 70,000 employees and, if you give it to us by Friday, we will translate it in 36 languages.’
I say, ‘I am gonna do a video.’ They say, ‘We don’t do videos.’ ‘I am gonna do a video, and I don’t want a studio, and I don’t want make-up. We have a phone. I am gonna do it like my kids do YouTube videos. It’s gonna be three thoughts in three minutes or less, no editing, nothing.’
I record a first video memo from my desk, using an iPhone. I say, ‘Hi, sorry I haven’t reached out before. We are gonna do these videos. I am going to talk to you once a week – three thoughts in three minutes or less – because I want you to be aware of what our plan is, where we are going. I want us to commit, I want you to trust me.’ I was just very open and honest. One minute in, my phone rings. It was my daughter. And I said, ‘Excuse me.’ I picked up and I said, ‘Angelina, Mommy will call you back in like two minutes.’ And then I kept going.
And, of course, they wanted to edit it. Apple has got to be perfect. And I said, ’Not in this world. It doesn’t have to be perfect. They have to see that I am authentic. They also have to see that I put my kids first.’ And, the next day, I must have gotten 500 emails. People thanking me for taking my daughter’s call.”
The way Angela Ahrendts chose to communicate with her teams several years before the Covid-19 pandemic is obviously not of the same strategic importance as the internal communications challenges that many companies are facing today. But it illustrates two critical and yet often ignored points.
First of all, an internal communication is a success when it is authentic, not when it is perfect. Leaders may appreciate a picture-perfect communication; their employees will respond to an authentic one. Second, the main vehicle for authenticity is the content of the message, not its form.