three things we've learned

If a week is a long time in politics, then three months is an aeon in a pandemic. Imogen Charnley takes a reflective pause to pick out three things we’ve learned since March.

On Monday 09 March I made what was my usual monthly trip up to our office in Leamington (I’m based in the South West). It was a normal working day – some writing, some team meetings and catch ups. We talked about loo roll and hand sanitiser and thought twice about sharing laptops, but did it anyway. I haven’t been back since then, and it feels like so long ago!

The past three months have been a rollercoaster of new adjustments for all of us. If we look back to just a few months ago, most of us could never have imagined the enormity of it all. Here are three of my important take-aways from the last three months…

1) Things we’ve learned: We can work from home

This isn’t true of everyone. Near the top of the list of our now all-too-familiar coronavirus lexicon is the term ‘key worker’, and we’ve all quite rightly been confronted with questions surrounding which jobs are essential and valuable to keep us fed, connected, safe, sheltered and well (see my third point for more on this).

For office-based workers, there were signs at the start of this year that we were slowly moving in the direction of flexible, home-based working. Jonny wrote back in January about the growing trend towards digital collaboration and the ‘digital workplace’. Many employers have for some time recognised that enabling employees to get work done wherever and whenever improves engagement and helps attract and retain the best people. However, many workplaces still felt wedded to desk time and face-to-face interactions, or hadn’t yet explored the possibilities offered by digital workplace tools.

The coronavirus crisis meant that everyone who could do their jobs at home had to dive straight in. From Zoom meetings to complete technological solutions, the past three months have done a great deal to escalate the move to increased home working beyond the crisis. Big tech giants are leading the shift towards flexible working. Twitter has said its staff can work from home “forever” if they wish. Other big firms including Google, Facebook, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland are taking the return to office working gradually and with a view to longer-term flexibility. The New Zealand Government is looking into the possibility of a four-day working week to boost the economy, pointing to gains in productivity and employee engagement that have been noticed in lockdown.

Flexible working benefits employees, particularly those with families and other commitments, and will help employers manage their office spaces around social distancing measures. In the longer term, there’s the positive environmental impact of cutting the commute – I’ll always remember the beautiful quiet of 8am in lockdown.

2) Things we’ve learned: Clarity is king

When it comes to communicating to a large audience, a key lesson from the past three months is that the simple messages are usually the most effective. In April, Tom pointed out how the coronavirus has taught us the importance of keeping it simple, and since then the difficulties we’ve seen over easing the lockdown restrictions have shown this to be especially true.

When the UK Government changed its message from “Stay home” to “Stay alert”, people became confused over what they were being asked to do. Suddenly, the huge complexities of understanding the virus, the way it’s transmitted and how to manage different risks and weigh them up against each other were exposed.

If you’re trying to make a cultural shift or encourage certain behaviours, you have to make sure your parameters are crystal clear, and that people have sufficient information with which to make the right decisions for themselves and others.

This is as true for internal communications as it is for public health messaging. There’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck between making sure people hear and understand the relevant information and empowering them to take informed decisions. The key lies in staying ahead of the situation, researching your audience to anticipate the questions they might have, offering the right amount of detail at the right time and using the right platform.

3) Things we’ve learned: We’re all connected

Right at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, we immediately saw the value of NHS and care workers, cleaners, teachers, shop workers, refuse collectors, and workers in other essential services who made sacrifices to help us through the alien and potentially isolating experience of lockdown.

We’ve experienced how dependent we are on human contact – we miss face-to-face chats and hugs from friends and family. We’ve been able to make up in some way for the loss of physical contact with increased technology and we’ve also looked to art, music, nature and physical activity as ways to connect.

In the context of this unprecedented moment, some big concerns that we’re facing on a global level, like climate change and racial inequality, have come to the fore. Both in our workplaces and wider communities, making sustainable progress in these areas will depend on developing bold leadership strategies that recognise the power of diversity and innovation.

The virus has brought crisis and economic uncertainty, but the particular circumstances of lockdown have also led to moments of stillness and connectedness through which we’ve been able to re-imagine the future. Those are the three things we’ve learned in the past few months. But who knows where the next three months will take us?

Don’t wait three months to talk to us – give us a call and we’ll be happy to chat to you about your comms needs.