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Beating the Lockdown Blues Is a Business Imperative

The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly turned company buildings into ghost towns. Many employees have been working from home for months now – and under completely different psychological conditions with greater demands than before the outbreak of the virus. After all, working from home does not simply mean working from a desk, kitchen table or sofa. For many employees, it means working while simultaneously home schooling and caring for young children or other dependents, while managing the many daily distractions that come with being at home. It also means work is limited to interacting with colleagues and customers in a purely digital way. And it means working despite concerns about one's own health and that of loved ones, or feelings of loneliness after weeks and months of limited social contact.

One year in, and zoom fatigue is being joined by lockdown blues. Both threaten the general well-being of employees as well as their motivation, enthusiasm and productivity. For businesses, the timing couldn’t be worse. This is precisely the moment that companies are most dependent on an energetic, clear-eyed workforce as they look to transform in order to survive and thrive in our new economic environment.

What can companies do to revitalize their employees? Corporate communications can help:

1. Help the C-suite connect with employees\ Employees need strong leadership right now more than ever before. For answers, they look to the company’s management. C-level executives must ensure that they are not only visible, but visible through the right channels and formats to reach their employees – wherever they are. They also need to find the right tone, one that conveys confidence despite an uncertain future, and one that may stand in contrast to the often pessimistic and alarmist pitch of political and media communication. Adopting more personal formats – for example, swapping the staged speech at the lectern for a personal monologue from the living room – and prioritizing two-way dialogue will humanize leadership and foster engagement.

2. Make managers fit for remote leadership\ For most managers, leading remotely is a completely new experience, which means they need support in terms of content, methodology and suitable tools. This starts with remote-manager training, including teaching active listening skills, and extends to offering virtual events so that managers and team members have an opportunity to meet informally and have fun together – which is critical to building belonging and comradery.

3. Communicate more – and more effectively\ When employees are dispersed geographically, communication is the glue that holds them together. A regular cadence of touchpoints is key – and, when in doubt, err on the side of over-communicating – even if there’s nothing new to say. Just reaching out to make sure everyone feels connected is critical. Repetition is important to ensure messages are understood and absorbed by people who are distracted and often under stress.

4. Shape the future of work together\ Companies have been paying lip-service to the future of work and new ways of working for a long time – now it’s time to walk the walk. The pandemic has catapulted companies forward into the digital future. The challenge now is to create the right conditions and culture to make the changes sustainable, and ultimately serve the business. This is the shared playing field of HR, IT and Communications – functions that must work hand in hand to ensure a positive and consistent employee experience in our new environment. Seeking dialogue to engage employees in co-creating this tech-focused, new way of working will be crucial to long-term success.

5. Refocus employees on the corporate purpose\ The saying goes: If you know the “why”, you can endure any “how”. Making employees aware of and connected to their common purpose can help revitalize an exhausted workforce. A good corporate purpose should articulate the contribution the business is making to solving customer problems, and its role in the larger community. It’s no longer only about the bottom line. Social responsibility is especially important to keeping a workforce engaged.

One year into the pandemic, companies and employees are facing a brave new world of working and the workforce engagement challenges that come with it. This is an inflection point for many businesses. How companies and leaders engage – or don’t engage – employees will determine their success in 2021 and beyond. Leaders need to take on the challenge of revitalizing their workforce with determination – and with a thoughtful communications strategy to make it a reality.

First published in PR week