The term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) has taken on new significance since the beginning of the global pandemic and the role of communications in enabling organisations to survive, and even thrive, in this ever-shifting environment cannot be under-estimated.
Prior to lockdown, one internal communications director for a global brand had advocated for employee-friendly initiatives, such as company-wide access to remote working and employee wellbeing programmes, but was told these would take several years to implement. Yet, once lockdown was announced, these initiatives were rolled out in a matter of days. This is, of course, an all too familiar story.
Moreover, his aspiration to represent internal communications at the top table was suddenly realised as he found himself in daily executive meetings, playing a key role in the organisation’s decision-making. Indeed, with employee safety and wellbeing rising to the top of the business agenda, the case for internal communications as a key strategic function has been firmly established: it can no longer be seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ but is now recognised as critical for business success.
In such a volatile environment, we can no longer hold onto the idea of one perfect and permanent solution, which is why communicating a clear and coherent vision is more essential than ever. Focussing on the purpose and overall destination creates clear alignment across an organisation, however dispersed the workforce may be. This can provide a compass which enables employees to make decisions that help them navigate through turbulent times whilst continuing to head in the right direction.
Ensuring that the values of the organisation are clearly communicated is also key. This is not about words on the wall, but about actionable guidelines and agreed ways of working and behaviours as a way of creating a genuine feeling of shared purpose. According to Porter Novelli’s 2021 report ‘Purpose Perception’, when a company leads with purpose, 76% of respondents are more likely to trust that company and 72% are more likely to be loyal to that company.
Key to managing uncertainty is an organisation’s willingness to listen. As many have learnt the hard way, broadcasting information in these uncertain times is not enough. Employees need to feel heard and understood. Optimising feedback loops is essential, as well as leveraging channels and opportunities for two-way communications. This is not simply about communicating up and down the management chain but also about cross-organisational communication and actively encouraging peer-to-peer communications. With the boundaries between work and home becoming increasingly blurred, professional and personal lives are now more intertwined and communications has had to expand its remit to accommodate this.
In such a complex, shifting environment, timely, relevant communications are even more critical. This means adapting to the needs of a dispersed workforce and engaging them through multiple channels. Mobile communications have come into their own in the last 18 months, providing the means to reach employees whether at home or in the office, for desk-workers and non-desk workers alike. Research conducted by Staffbase for the Harvard Business Review showed that companies which utilised an employee app drove engagement levels to above 75%.
The willingness to inform and communicate can, of course, have the opposite effect if overdone, leading employees to become frustrated and disengaged. So targeted, relevant communication based on the information needs of specific target groups within the organisation is essential.
In an ambiguous environment, the temptation is to wait until more information is available before communicating with stakeholders. However, transparency around what is known, what is unknown, what actions are being taken, and what outcomes are anticipated can provide greater reassurance and prevent unfounded fear or anxiety. Moreover, it has become clear that the old command and control model is no longer fit for purpose. A small group of executives at the top of the organisation has neither the agility nor the capability to access all the information required for decision-making in a constantly changing environment, while the move towards more devolved styles of leadership also requires support from relevant communications channels. McKinsey’s 2020 report ‘The path to the next normal’ cites several examples of the need to decentralise communications in a crisis situation from the Royal Navy, Rio Tinto and Wendy’s.
From surviving to thriving
But operating in a VUCA world is not simply about managing threats. Such uncertainty can also create opportunities for innovation and even growth for organisations with the capability to listen and respond. Indeed, this is perhaps the most important role that communications can play: to facilitate listening, conversation and collaboration so that innovation can flourish. After all, it is clear that organisations have the ability not only to survive, but thrive, in this ever-changing, rapidly-evolving, post-pandemic world.
Kademy partners with communication leaders and their teams to raise the bar on performance. If you’d like to find out how we could help you thrive in a VUCA world, call us on +44 (0)207 157 9787 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.