COVID-19 communications: Internal communications

As local authorities move from the response to recovery phase and develop a “new normal” for working, they will be faced with a number of internal communications challenges.


There will be issues arising from the profound structural changes to the way we work both in the short, medium and longer term. This page is broken into:

  1. Issues that will need consideration
  2. Maximising the channels available for internal communications
  3. Sorting priorities for the short, medium and longer term

Issues

Motivation and isolation

The initial surge of adrenaline that came at the beginning of the response phase may now have translated into anxiety. Employees may miss the security provided by their office setting and colleagues. They may feel overlooked or forgotten and try to compensate by working longer hours, undertaking unnecessary unproductive activity or focusing on activities that are no longer a priority.

For staff who joined the organisation during or a short time before the pandemic hit the feelings of isolation may be increased, with little sense of belonging. Consider online induction programmes, buddy systems or a simple coffee roulette.

Internal communications can only reflect and reinforce what is happening within an organisation. Senior leaders sharing clearly defined priorities helps to keep everyone on the right track. Showing the human side of leaders – both at officer and political level – can help increase motivation and encourage staff to feel part of a team. Demonstrating that leaders can take time off, reduce working hours due to caring responsibilities, or switch cameras off for a meeting, can help.

Consider using more informal channels and mechanisms, such as Yammer, to build culture and foster a sense of community.

Recognition, praise and celebration

Recognition of contribution is a key motivator and many local authorities will have schemes in place already. Ensuring these are translated into the virtual space where people are mentioned in chief executive videos and online meetings, as well as trying to ensure equity, is important.

Not all recognition and praise needs a large scale celebration. A heartfelt personal thank you letter from a senior leader or politician can give staff recognition and pride. Support your senior leaders so that they do this regularly. But also support middle managers and encourage them to say thank you to their teams and recognise their achievements. 

Mental health

Managers and colleagues now need to be particularly alert to the signs of stress, anxiety and adverse mental health problems. The signs of stress need to be articulated to staff and managers through clear information, checklists and infographics. Places of support such as employee assistance programmes, or localised wellbeing and mental health programmes, should be shared regularly and in a meaningful way.

Staff groups who may be particularly vulnerable are those who are self-isolating/shielding because they are classed as highly vulnerable or live with someone who is, single people particularly those living in isolated areas who may not be seeing many people in real life and those who have underlying mental health conditions already known to their employer. However, these are unprecedented conditions and stress may manifest in the most unlikely places.

Frontline staff, in particular those working in adult social care, are likely to be affected. The LGA has produced resources for employers and for staff working in social care who may be affected at this time.

Show that’s it’s ok to not be ok. It’s becoming a cliché, but these are unprecedented times and none of us will know how to feel or react to every situation or scenario especially given the huge level of change and uncertainty in every area of our lives. 

Physical wellbeing

Losing a commute to work can mean some people lose their regular exercise - walk or cycle. People will walk and move less while at work by not going across campuses or buildings so need to ensure mobility/exercise is encouraged to guard against musculoskeletal issues. As well as general encouragement to take breaks and undertake physical exercise employers may advocate particular exercises to avoid issues such as back, neck and wrist issues with those who are desk-based.

Some organisations have set up online running clubs using Strava or online step count challenges. This may be a good way to improve physical health, as well as fostering a sense of community. However, consider staff with disabilities and make sure it is inclusive.

Also consider sleep advice, nutrition guidance, smoking cessation and alcohol management – where it’s possible use existing public health campaigns.

Internal audiences

Though we are operating in an uncertain time, there are some basic principles of internal communications that continue to apply. Don’t think of your workforce as one homogenous group. Teams will have different experiences and need different things. Reconsider your audience mapping and segmentation – do you need to tailor your messages for frontline v at home colleagues? Consider how and when you communicate to politicians, think about manager communications, create opportunities for senior leaders to be visible and share people led stories.

Where practical, plan out key staff network activities in advance such as Pride month, Black History Month, Mental Health week, key religious and cultural festivals. These moments of coming together will be even more important while we’re all more physically distant from each other.

Equality and inclusion

It has been clearly articulated that COVID-19 impacts disproportionally on certain groups. Those on lower incomes may have less space, access to phone and broadband. This can be easily overlooked by those in senior leadership positions who may by virtue of higher incomes and potentially other aspects of their position not experience these constraints.

Younger people may face isolation. Women may be more affected by domestic violence and caring commitments. But in addition, a move to remote working may also inadvertently discriminate. Internal communicators should work closely with HR colleagues and senior leadership to assess the impact of significant shifts in ways of working through both quantitive and qualitative research.

Ensuring that new ways of working don’t disproportionality impact different parts of the workforce - class, gender, ethnicity, age and experience. Pulse surveys can be useful to track attitudes as well as monitoring comments and questions from live events and chats.

Greater London Authority fostering a sense of one authority

The Greater London Authority has worked hard to ensure that as they move into recovery from Covid19 that they foster a sense of one organisation. Nearly all their 1200 staff have been working from home for the last three months and the vast majority will continue to do so. Internal communications initiatives have been central to ensuring silo working doesn’t develop:

Well-being Wednesdays are hourly sessions held fortnightly on different topics and are open to all staff to join. Sessions are led by a facilitator and sometime have external input such as by key writers on the issue. Topics for sessions have included complex mental health issues, being comfortable alone, virtual yoga, meditation and a laughter workshop.

Weekly virtual coffee mornings have been led by the GLAs network groups (LGBTQI, BAME, parents and carers, women and disability) allowing people to share experiences and stay in touch. These network groups have also produced videos and blogs about their network reaching out to more staff and have helped sense check temporary working policies put in place o make sure they are fair and equitable. Examples include allowing people with disabilities to source their own support equipment to work at home and claim costs back which was cheaper and quicker than getting equipment shipped to them and modifying bereavement leave so that it can be deferred so that people can take time off for a memorial ceremony with family at a later point if they can’t attend a funeral.

Keeping well at work is a new programme of sessions being rolled out. Taster sessions with expert advisors help managers and team leaders develop skills to lead teams working remotely longer term. Digital skills training is part of this so that staff can make the most of the Office 365 system which had only just been rolled out before lockdown and includes cyber security training.

Lunchtime presentation sessions have been popular when a team which is doing something new or innovative has the chance to present their project to the rest of the organisation. These weekly sessions have included digital safeguarding and on the London recovery plans. These are aligned to the multiagency recovery boards set up to help various sectors such as housing, arts and culture, tourism, business recover from Covid19.

Leadership visibility was increased through leadership messaging throughout this time ensuring that leaders are visible and staff feel connected to the organisation, this has included daily emails, newsletters, videos and virtual staff briefings. 

A Pulse survey was conducted to understand more about how staff are feeling, and how to best support staff, as well finding out more about the things that it would be good to continue to do as an organisation.  

Team and organisational cohesion

Using video calls and check-ins work in the short term but most organisations that work virtually or with remote workforce all the time still have regular physical get togethers. In the short to medium term, organisations need to consider what they can do to bring people together regularly in an appropriately socially distanced space potentially outdoors. This is important to ensure that silo working does not re-emerge.

For some organisations where holding outdoor get-togethers may not be feasible, considerable thought should be given to how you will recreate this in a virtual way. Consider moving staff conferences online, think about letting go of the agenda and allowing staff to determine discussion areas. Think about the contributions that your staff networks could make. 

Returning to the office

People need to feel confident to return to work in offices, so ensuring that they are fully informed about the measures being taken to ensure their safety will be important such as social distancing, sanitising desks and equipment, ventilation.

Share your COVID-19 secure building plans along with your risk assessments. If feasible, share photos and videos of what the new working spaces will look like. Clearly articulate how everyone will move around buildings and spaces – including lift management, one-way systems, desk booking systems. Consider using your experts such as Facilities Management to host virtual briefing sessions on to the return to workspaces – allow time for Q&A. 

Visible leadership

Throughout this emergency the need for effective visible leadership has been highlighted with many chief executives and strategic leaders stepping up with videos, question and answer sessions, visible presences on social media. Some senior leaders will need coaching and technological support to be visible in the virtual world.

Organisation-wide emails or staff newsletters should come from a named leader to show accountability and to increase visibility.

Consider what practical advice you can give senior leaders in creating their own content – especially as you won’t physically be there to check things like appropriate backgrounds in videos or noise levels. Check with your media team if there are any guidance notes that you can repurpose.

Senior leaders need to lead by example – and internal communications leads can help with this. Remind senior leaders of corporate messages about wellbeing and taking time off – as well as corporate priorities. Help senior leaders show staff that we’re navigating change together. 

This will need to continue and be amplified as we return to some semblance of normal.

Communicating with councillors

All councillors (majority and minority group members and those with a portfolio or frontline position) have a vital role to play and are well placed to act as key message carriers and connect mutual aid groups with local needs. To do this, it is essential that timely and accurate information is shared with all councillors to support them to respond to and reassure their residents. The LGA has produced guidance for councillors to help them adjust to their new role in the midst of this crisis.

Camden Council – keeping Members informed

The London Borough of Camden has been in regular contact with its councillors to keep them informed in the current fast-moving situation. 

The council has built a FAQs page on its website, as well as a coronavirus news page, both of which are continuously updated. 

Having set up a dedicated COVID-19 Members inbox, there is a team monitoring the types of questions being sent in, to inform the organisation and prepare FAQs for the public. The team is providing councillors with a high-level snapshot of the queries that have come into the inbox so far, as well as a closer look at the questions from the previous week. 

This provides insight into the range of concerns councillors are picking up from the community from topics such as schools and families, to food provision, financial support and volunteering. Topics asked about most frequently include adult social care, business and employment support, and protecting Camden’s communities and places.

This insight informs the regular Covid-19 email updates sent to all councillors, which provide them with updates on government announcements, key council services and communications to share with residents. Communications are also shared through the all-Councillors’ WhatsApp distribution list, which keeps members informed and helps them to communicate with residents.

The council is also supporting members in their role as community leaders to communicate Covid-19 key messages with residents through our community languages project. This has seen councillors filming videos and specific content produced for the borough’s Bengali and Somali communities. The council has also been providing a weekly Skype conference call for all members, in which the leader and executive directors update them on the latest developments and provide answers to specific questions submitted by members in advance of the call. 

Internal v external comms

As always, the relationship between internal comms, press and external relations is key. Many organisations will be facing pressures that require public engagement, awareness or comment. Where it’s feasible and has a direct impact on staff, messages should be shared internally first – even if only a couple of minutes before a media interview hits the screens.

Key external messages should be shared with colleagues regularly. Where internal communications resources allow, consider building out staff led case studies – showing the people and team behind the headline. This can be resource intensive so include links to media centre and highlight important topics through usual internal communications channels.

Also give consideration, that for local and regional government, many staff members are also citizens of the areas that they serve. Staff are your biggest advocates and can help build trust locally – give them the tools and language to clearly articulate what your organisation is doing. Share external campaigns including assets, such as shop local schemes. Consider if you can tailor shop local campaigns and promote discounts and special offers for staff.

Internal comms always needs to be listening and understanding the external climate – and making sure that messages reflect the world outside as well as inside.

Resourcing internal communications

Organisations should give serious consideration to how they resource internal communications functions. The level of change facing every single public body is unprecedented – and our priorities will need to shift. Bringing staff along and making sure that they are engaged is essential in creating a productive, focused and motivated workforce. Inevitably this means more regular internal communications messages and activities, often delivered at pace – and this needs to be resourced properly.

While undoubtedly teams such as HR&OD and ICT are vital stakeholders – delivering organisational wide strategic internal communications needs specialist skills.

Internal communications needs to be able to challenge senior leaders, articulate long term vision and priorities as well as nuance. 

Internal communications measurement and evaluation

Regularly reviewing and monitoring the effectiveness of your channels and messages will help make sure that key messages are understood and being acted on. Measurement can help you to determine where you need to focus efforts e.g. if a particular department has low readership of e-newsletters, try to find out why and consider tailoring content.

Not all measurement needs to be channel focused such as use sign up rates for Learning and Organisational Development (L&OD) courses, attendance at HR drop ins, or number of calls to IT service desks.

Consider how you build qualitative measurement including building a network of internal communications champions who can be your eyes and ears – sharing content and ideas as well as feedback on how well messages have been received. 

While we don’t have a crystal ball to predict what will happen next with the pandemic, try to build in opportunity to take stock. Review your pulse survey, ask your formal and informal networks for feedback and consider what worked well and what you may change for future internal comms and engagement activity.

Internal communications methods and channels 

Consideration needs to be given to the impact of internal communications so using the #FutureComms resource, the OASIS campaign model or AMEC framework is advised to be sure there are clear, deliverable objectives.

Existing owned channels

  • Intranet / SharePoint sites
  • Staff newsletters
  • Desktop backgrounds and popup messages
  • Emails
  • Video and audio conferencing - broadcast
  • MSTeams – team/ programme specific chat groups, workshops, meetings and live/recorded events
  • Webexe
  • Yammer
  • Facebook workplace - can support chat, video via portal, live events and video
  • Sharepoint
  • CEO videos and webinars
  • Virtual all staff events via Microsoft 365 (Yammer, Stream or in MS Teams)
  • Live Q&A with CEO/senior managers
  • Regular pulse surveys to check how people are feeling
  • Socially distanced outdoor events

Shared channels

  • Slack / Yammer
  • Facebook groups and events
  • Linked in events - professional groups
  • Collaborative tools via Office365 e.g. Planner, Forms, Yammer, Stream, Teams, 
  • Online collaborative freemium tools and services such as Trello, Zoom, Google docs
  • YouTube/Vimeo videos (both public and private)
  • Twitter chats
  • Facebook page - generic messaging to public thanking staff
  • Instagram – live and stories
  • WhatsApp groups or services such as Guild

Earned

Interviews senior leaders have given about success of the organisation

Prioritisation

There are a lot of topics for internal communicators to work with HROD and ICT colleagues and senior leadership to deliver. Below is an indicative schedule but this will vary by organisation, workforce makeup, geography and local challenges.

Inevitably, there will be huge budget pressures arising from the already tough financial year 2020/2021 would have been and compounded by the impact of additional ICT costs to facilitate large scale home working and extra services provided throughout  and reduced income which will not have been fully compensated by central government.

Organisations which longer term will operate in a new way with shift working and home working as the norm will need to engage staff and unions as it is likely that this will constitute a change to terms and conditions.

Short term (12 weeks)

  • Security and safety
  • Motivation
  • Performance
  • Team Cohesion
  • Equality

Medium term (12 - 24 weeks)

  • Organisational cohesion
  • Productivity 
  • Innovation
  • In year budgets
  • Investing in collaborative tools and techniques
  • Staff pay and conditions
  • Return to workplaces

Long term

  • Major changes to the way people work - needs engagement and legal/HR advice
  • Review of estate
  • Further transformation/mergers/structural reform
  • Reducing workforce/redundancies
  • Budget pressures for 2021 onwards
  • ICT investment
  • Impact on local economy where local authority is largest employer and staff no longer travel to key locations