The "new normal" of remote and hybrid workplaces has created many challenges and opportunities. Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre discuss how these changes are affecting both internal and external communicators.
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Communications Remains Front and Center in the Workplace."
If you enjoyed this episode, check out the PRGN Presents podcast, hosted by Abbie Fink, featuring conversations about PR, marketing, and communications with members of the Public Relations Global Network, "the world’s local public relations agency.”
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The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Arizona.
Everyone agrees that the nature of work -- where, how, when, and why we work -- changed fundamentally, profoundly, and perhaps irrevocably in 2020. We're not going back. This genie is out of the bottle, and new hybrid workplaces, diverse and dispersed workforces are, to coin a phrase, "the new normal." What does this mean for communication, both internally and externally? How are communicators, those professionals tasked with managing the message, the motivation, the impact, the marketing, how do they do their work in this new environment? Here to talk about that is Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations. How are you, Abbie? What's on your mind?Abbie Fink:
Well, thanks. I was scrolling through Facebook this morning, as I am known to do, and in my memories from two years ago, today was a post that said, "You know, we've been home for a couple weeks. We just need to kind of hang tight. Everybody take good care of yourself. We'll be back to normal any day now. Just hold tight," and of course, we thought that within six weeks or so of the, "Take your work and go home for a bit." As we know, that did not materialize as we had expected, and here we are two years later and we are new normal, as you said, and I think what's been most interesting from a communications perspective, as the business owner of a communications firm as well as how I have been advising our clients, is that a lot of the things that we really thought were going to be difficult to overcome, and I'm not minimizing any of what's been happening, of course, but things in the workplace that were going to be difficult to overcome, how could we work from home? How could we have a hybrid workplace? We didn't even know what a hybrid workplace was. That word, that phrase did not really exist, and how are we going to continue to serve our clients, those of us that do that in the agency environment, as well as those at work in-house and a communications team? How are we going to do that? What strikes me is we probably were the best ones to deal with that, right? We are communications professionals. We are trained to listen and evaluate, and make recommendations, and adjust, and modify, and all sorts of actions that have to be taken in order for messaging to make it through to our intended audience, and so we might have been, and I think continue to be, the best place for these tasks to land is in, with your communications team. Not without its challenges, of course, but I think we are best suited, if nothing more than we are educated and trained, to respond to the unknown when it presents itself. Now that we're in, if we can comfortably say two years later, we're past some of these kind of things, a lot of our industry associations and industry publications, media outlets that cover the communications industry are really doing some interesting research to see, where are we at now? What has been the impact of what the last two years has done? What changes have we made in our workplaces? How have we adjusted and responded to that? And then, what are we doing with that information to guide us forward? We're here now. We've had a benchmark. Now, what is our moving forward strategy now that we have this information?Adrian McIntyre:
It's striking as an anthropologist, who for many years, both in academia and then in field research, dealt with questions around culture, that when it comes to the workforce and to the way that leaders relate to their people, this question of culture continues to be a top concern. And I think we've gone well past the place -- and this is good in my view -- we've gotten well past the place where we think culture means the foosball table and unlimited snacks, and we start to understand that the fabric of culture is communication and the way we communicate with each other. The conversation is the atomic unit of culture at some level. Of course, my academic friends are rolling their eyes at this point, but really, when it comes to the workplace itself, to deal with culture at work means to deal with the conversations, the communication that is happening all around us. And it doesn't much matter whether that is a Slack channel or an actual water cooler. Humans are going to communicate in whatever way that we can. It is our innate desire and unique ability to do so. So really, the question now becomes for communicators, internal or external advisors to the leaders of the company: How do we face some of these new challenges and new opportunities? Let's just start with a quick rundown of what are some of these challenges? The new phrases that we're now becoming more familiar with, "hybrid workplace", "deskless workers," that's interesting. We were never really talking about that before. What are some of the top challenges, and then let's talk about some ways communicators are dealing with them?Abbie Fink:
Right. Well, Ragan Communications, which is one of the industry leaders that does this type of research, publishes a lot of research did a survey towards the end of 2021, wrapped it up in early 2022 that really asked communications professionals these big questions. One of them was, what's the biggest challenge that we are facing in the upcoming year as it relates to culture? Really, no surprise was this everything to do with the workplace and however our workplace is, how are we addressing that concept of culture? You're absolutely right, it is no longer the fun room with the games and the half days of Fridays and whatever it is. Those things obviously can still exist, but if folks are not going into an office, then those things become less and less important. What we're seeing is, and I'm experiencing it in my own office, is a much more intentional effort to communicate with your teams, so we don't have that passing by the office, stopping in for a few minutes to say hello, or I'm in the kitchen making coffee, and you come in and we have a chance to get caught up. Those things aren't happening in the same way, so if I want to replicate that experience, I have to be very intentional about doing it, and so what we're doing and how we're doing it is really focused on making sure that we are meeting our employees and meeting our clients where they need to be, and meet not as in a physical sense, but if they are conducting their business 100% in a virtual environment, then how am I going to make sure that I continue to manage their expectations, manage those relationships and that same environment? You can do a lot of things, and we've talked about technology and what it's been able to do for us, a lot of things that we can do to continue that sense of culture and well-being amongst our teams, and that translates to what we're doing with our clients as well. One of the biggest challenges is recognizing the difference in the workplace and the needs of the individuals. I think there are challenges to be met in the onboarding process. When you do bring on a new employee to your team, how do you ensure that they feel like they're part of your team? Especially now, if they're entering in a workplace that had been an in-person environment and is now not, where part of the staff has had years of hanging out with each other, how do they integrate into that? What are we doing as managers of communication to make sure that we're working in partnership with our human resources teams and our management to make sure that everyone has a sense of belonging, even if they're not in a physical space, and what does it look like and feel like for that employee that's coming in for the first time and meeting people on a flat screen with a microphone, as opposed to sitting across the desk or sitting across the kitchen table, the conference room table with a chance to chat? There's a lot of conversations and a lot of discussion about that much more intentional sense of communication with our workplace.Adrian McIntyre:
This is one of those issues where I see also a huge opportunity, in addition to the clear challenge of, how do you manage nonverbal communication?, for example. How do you read body language? There's a variety of things that are real challenges for people to learn and grow together with, but the opportunity is that this has exposed many different types or categories of diversity in the workforce than we are accustomed to have been talking about. Specifically, what I mean is initiatives around diversity have rightly, for many years, focused on specific categories, race, gender identity, religious identity, things of that nature, things that everyone is familiar with and assumes we mean when we're talking about diversity, equity and inclusion. Now, that needs to continue. We're not anywhere near done with those initiatives and really making the workplace a place where everyone belongs, everyone is treated well, everyone is treated fairly, et cetera. Having said that, what's exposed here is another set of diversities in the way in which people communicate. For example, taken for granted was the fact that stopping by the desk to chat with somebody was a welcome thing to do, and certainly, I know there are many people who are so grateful that nobody can stop by their desk anymore, right? They are now relieved of that burden of the extroverts, of us bouncing around, wanting to chat everybody up, when they don't want that anymore. Trying to design communication practices that are now taking into account people's own communication preferences, how do they want to communicate? When do they want to communicate? What mode do they want to communicate? In a way, breaking up that face-to-face kind of physical in-person presence has given us an opportunity to think about some of these things in whole new ways. There's certainly been, for years, many personality type analysis, if you will. They're not really personality types, but people's leadership styles and communication styles, and, "What color are you, red, green, blue, yellow?," all of the things, right? There's a chance now for some of those assessments, that self-awareness that comes from participating, those two inform the way teams communicate together because you're not just stuck in the building together, and that means we have to address some of the nuances. I don't know. It's kind of random thought, but what do you think about that?Abbie Fink:
Well, it's interesting that you bring up the Myers-Briggs and the DISC and some of those other assessments, and we've all done them, and we've all done them for a very intentional purpose. We are embarking on a leadership development class, and we're all going to figure out what groups we're going to be in and whatnot. I've always felt that there was ... I didn't learn anything new about myself. I tried to cheat the system and figure out if I could fall into another category, and you just can't. You're just going to be whatever you're going to be in those things, but what I always learned and found valuable was recognizing the category that my colleagues fell in and how I was attempting to communicate with them needed to be on the way they heard it or needed it to come, versus the way that I thought. Hopefully, conversely, they would be looking at it the same way, and so it's interesting that you would bring that up because I think, without necessarily putting the name to it, but that really has been something that we have done without maybe saying, "Oh, we're communicating with our introverts this way and our extroverts that way," but when you think about putting a video call together and you've got six, eight, 10, 12 people on the call, inevitably, there are going to be some folks that don't turn their camera on, and it's because they're not comfortable in that sort of directed, everybody's looking at me kind of thing. I'll turn it on when I'm talking, but I don't need you to be looking at me while I'm just listening, where if we were in a room together, they're going to be sitting across and they can't hide. Now, they're there, and they're active, and they're participating, and they're putting comments in a chat box, but they're not making eye contact in the same way. Then, there are others, and I'm one of them, that are kind of, "How come nobody's got their camera on? I want to see you." Well, that's my way of communicating, and so thinking about that, I think really brings to the forefront a lot of different ways and maybe not even realizing how we're reacting to that. We've always shared our calendars with our team. Everybody can see what everybody's doing, and it really was to be able to schedule meetings for someone else. I need to meet with you, I look at your calendar, I can plug something in, I don't have to call you and ask you, which is still what it's being used for, but the other thing that it's doing now is I also can see when they aren't in a meeting, so I can pick up the phone and call, where maybe if we were in the office, I might have just sent an email because I know they'll eventually see it. The access to information is in a different way now, and I get text messages from some of my team, I get phone calls from others, I get emails from others, and some want to pop on to a video chat, others would just as soon never look at ... And so a very interesting dynamic that's happening, and all of which enters into this decision-making, in making sure our teams are cohesive, working well together, feeling like they're part of the organization, that their contributions are valued, and in whatever way is the best way for them to feel and communicate with us, we need to adjust accordingly.Adrian McIntyre:
Not to dwell on this too much longer, because I know we got a few more topics to cover, but I'm really, really in this moment, just as we're sitting here, getting goosebumps, because I'm sort of struck by this opportunity, and what a rich opportunity it is. You said specifically there's so much more data available, and this is true. To flip the example on its head, I can remember for years and years and years going to in-person events, conferences, industry events, things of that nature, and wishing that there was some sort of data overlay because the downside of those in-person events is you're in a room of 500 people, you might be one conversation away from changing the future of your business, but you don't know who to have that conversation with because all you see are people's heads and faces and stuff, and if there was some sort of Terminator kind of thing like an overlay heads-up display that would read, so you look at somebody, and then hovering next to them was a little bit of information about them, their LinkedIn profile type stuff. What I'm now thinking would be so great is if teams and communicators could certainly lead on this, had some sort of way of saying, "Listen, here's what we all know about each other," and putting together those, whether it's so and so prefers to be on email between these hours. I mean, it gets sort of mundane, but it gets into some interesting stuff, and then we can actually communicate with people the way they want to be communicated with, which is very different from, I think some of those early concerns about remote work, which we're coming from a place of, "Well, how do we monitor our employees and know they're actually doing their job?" I think we're past that, or at least we've answered that question to a certain degree, and now we're in the realm of, "What can we create if creativity and communication were at the forefront of our leadership culture?" Anyway, I'm excited about that.Abbie Fink:
Yeah. I hope we are past the monitoring my employees that work from home stage. The truth is, and anecdotally, I guess, because I think we are more productive, we have more opportunity, we've removed a lot of the distractions of a regular work day by being able to be at home and stay focused, and I just had a conversation with a college student who is doing a story for one of her classes on sort of work-life balance, and what does that look like now? I've been saying this for the last handful of months, that the work-life balance has actually been a little bit more achievable in spite of the fact that my work and my life are all in the same place now, but I can shut down the office a lot easier now than I could when I actually drove to a physical location, because what would happen is I'd go to the office, I'd do the daily work that I would do there, client meetings, whatever it would be, go to the networking events, come home, open up the computer and spend another three or four hours, where now, that part of my day is not being spent back on the computer. It is being spent in a little bit more meaningful ways. Some of that has to be, again, an intentional effort to do it, but the dynamics that we're operating in right now, and based on where I'm coming from, small business owner, ability to work at an at-home environment, there are certainly businesses that that doesn't work for, and some businesses adjusted much better than others. Again, I am not here to say this is the perfect solution, but those of us that have the ability to do this and can continue to do the work that we're doing owe it to ourselves to give it, the opportunity to be successful, but without sacrificing those same things that we would do had we been in our offices and we still have to celebrate the birthdays, recognize the anniversaries, create the atmosphere and the culture that would exist if we were in the office. We were a take-your-dog-to-work office. Okay. Well, every now and again, you're going to see my little dog poke her head into the Zoom chat because I took my dog to work again, so we need to respect those kinds of thing, and then think about how that impacts the rest of the work that we're doing and the other kinds of issues that are circulating around us. You mentioned DE&I. We are still grappling with social justice and the impact that that's having in the workplace. We've spoken before about our do good philosophies and what businesses are doing from a community outreach and really walking the walk and talking the talk about the things that are important to them and the things that they stand for. Those don't change. The need to do those things don't change whether we are going into an office or we are going to our kitchen table to work, and business leaders, and those of us that interact with teams who recognize that and what each of us is bringing to the table will succeed because they are honoring the individuals they have in their team and what they're bringing to the conversation all the time.Adrian McIntyre:
With all the opportunities, there are a number of challenges, and some of them are significant, so it's interesting in the survey that you cited, when they asked communicators, again, internal and external, what was their biggest challenge, everyone still said that not having enough staff and not having enough budget, those kind of traditional complaints that we all have had about trying to get a good job done, but those are no longer the top two. They've slid down. The one that comes in by far and away as the biggest challenge is too many last-minute requests, so we are now in a world where the instant communication, the email, the Slack channel, the whatever it is, email is far and away the way that people are communicating still, but the expectation is now that people should be able to respond quickly because a message was sent quickly. This is a problem. This is what professional communicators identify as the number one thing standing in their way of doing a more effective job at communicating on behalf of the organization. What are your thoughts about that? How should leaders, whether at the C-suite level or the director or below, how should they address and meet this challenge of their communicators getting too many last-minute requests?Abbie Fink:
Well, and the last-minute request that are ... Because of a lack of planning, I think is where the, if we want to read into it a little bit more. Your communications team, whether internal, external should always be a part of decision-making at your company. They are there for that purpose to guide, to offer recommendations, to play the devil's advocate, to be the objective voice in the conversation, to challenge decisions for the betterment of the organization. That is what our task to do. We are significantly more successful at that effort when we are part of early conversations. When decisions have been made and we are looped in at that point, there is not much we can do to modify or change or adjust. We are simply reacting to the circumstances that are there. There's no avoiding last-minute requests. I mean, the nature of our business will oftentimes lead to, "Oh my goodness, we need this and we needed it yesterday.” Okay, that's fine. We can respond to that. But the lack of planning that leads to last-minute requests is where you will find the least amount of success in that effort, and there may be a lot of reasons for those last-minute requests, but what we will always encourage, demand to the extent that we can is loop us in as early as you can, right? If we are there with you in all these conversations, we can do our best to anticipate those things that might be coming down the pike, and we are still okay that there might be some things we can't adjust for or plan for, but if you don't get us involved in the strategic decision-making, we are coming to that place with unprepared and not enough information, and our best bet is to be part of your team and part of those discussions from the very beginning. If we can help guide the planning process, if we can help create some of that strategy, help you set goals, how are we going to reach those? What are some of the steps to approve the efforts? What is getting in the way of our own success? That's where you maximize your communications team, is when they're part of that and can guide it off to a different direction.Adrian McIntyre:
There was an interesting addendum or additional insight that was carried along with this finding in the survey, that this is one of the things holding communicators back, and that is the fact that most communicators admitted ... Well, I don't know about most. I don't remember the exact percentage, but it was a sizeable percentage, admitted that they weren't necessarily doing the best job at using communication metrics to make the case for having a seat at the table, so clearly, responsibility here goes in both directions, certainly business leaders. Your communicators are some of the smartest people in the room when it comes to thinking about the implications of different initiatives, different messaging. Treat them as a sounding board, not just as a megaphone. That's clear. We can all accept that, but there's also, flipping the challenge around, we could say communicators figure out how to use some of the things you're really good at when it comes to measuring media impact or other effectiveness of campaigns and use them to make the case for why you should have a seat at the table. That's easier said than done, I think I will admit, because measuring that kind of data requires a whole different set of skills, but there's an opportunity there. What do you think?Abbie Fink:
Yeah, totally agree. The question we often get asked is, "What's going to be my return on the investment? All right, I believe in what you do. I want you. We've got a budget, but how am I going to know you're going to be successful?" If we have questions we have to ask back, and in some categories, sales will increase, or this will happen, or we'll move this or do that, but we need to know what is a success measure for the organization that we're supporting, and then develop strategy to help them reach that goal. Our metrics have changed over the years as well. We used to talk about number of column inches or so many stories or however. Well, those things are still important, but they are not the measure of our ability to do the work that we're doing. We want, "Is the message getting through to the right people? Is it in the right place? Is it the right message in the first place, and did it help the organization reach its business goals?" All of those are what has to come into play in terms of the metrics that you use for your communications teams, but you're absolutely right, in that we have to have a deeper understanding of what is the measurement of success from the organizational perspective, and then the role that we play as communicators, how it will impact those particular line items. Again, that means everybody coming together at the same time in order to have those discussions, is what you don't want is the sales team going out and saying, "We're successful when we sell a million pieces and we need a brochure from the marketing department so that we can sell a million pieces." Well, that isn't going to get you there. We'll give you the brochure, but we have to have some other strategies around that.Adrian McIntyre:
When it comes to efficacy and impact, this is where channel specific strategies also become very, very important. I mean, again, this data and every other survey that talks about corporate communications or small business team communications identifies email as the predominant channel, and there's people who love that, people who despise that, but email's not going anywhere. It is still the preferred messaging channel for internal communications, and also to a certain degree, for marketing. If you think about building up an email list, proprietary first-party data, you want to be able to communicate directly with your customers, having an email list is important there as well. What's intriguing here, as we wrap this up, is looking at what's happening to social media. Social media is being viewed by communicators as the most effective channel for external communication, and yet, everyone admits that social media usage has been in a sharp drop in recent years. We've done a number of episodes of the podcast on different aspects of social media, from specific platforms to general strategies and things of that nature. What's interesting is watching this shift happen in real time. Those of us who were active on the internet, in the early to mid-2000's saw the beginning of the boom of social media. I'm not saying it's going away, but we are in a bit of a unknown because usage goes down, effectiveness is going down, advertising costs on these platforms are going up. It's unclear what the future of social media is in corporate communications. What do you think about that?Abbie Fink:
Well, and I think that the up and down of social media is there's two sides to that equation. It's consumer use of social media for the purpose of engaging with a brand, and then there's the one-on-one personal communication. I'm still using social media to connect with friends, that has not changed. My interaction as the me-to-the-brands has changed, and we become more sophisticated the more we use these things. The email, we know can look at an email address and know it's spam. We just know it by the way it looks and how it comes across. We can spot a typo in a spam email and just know that we're not clicking on anything. Well, we didn't know that before. It took us time to be able to figure that out, and I think the same thing is happening with social media as its ability to be very specific in its targeting and marketers have an incredibly more powerful tool at their disposal with retargeting and some of the other things that social media does. Consumers are getting as savvy with it as well, and there's a lot on how that works and how we target and why we target and what you can do as the consumer, but it will never go away. Usage, I think changes. I would argue that up or down might be a strange way to evaluate it. I think how we're engaging with it might be a better analysis, and that my days on social media are very client-focused. It is on their behalf, it is what they are asking and the campaigns that we've developed. It's less about Abbie personally on social, at least during the workday. Abbie that pops on to Facebook or Twitter first thing in the morning or last thing at the end of the day is a very different engagement than what my interactions are during the workday, so I'm not sure I want to talk about it in terms of social media usage is down. I just think it's shifting as consumers take back a little bit of the control of how they're interacting with it. We'll never be rid of email, much as I would like to. There are days when I just would like to turn the whole thing off and just be without, but you can't do that. We're using other messaging apps to communicate, and again, that goes back to, we talked about at the beginning of the podcast, about meeting people where they're at, and this text messaging or WhatsApp, or any other of the number of ways that we can communicate, but if we take the study here and we look at some of the statistics and we evaluate and put our own thoughts into it, the bottom line is and has always been we need to recognize our … What is our messaging? Who are we trying to reach? And what's the best way to get them? Whether that's employee teams, whether that's externally to colleagues, whether that's customer-focused, whatever that might be, a strong message and a plan to get it into the hands of the people that need to and taking advantage of all of the tactics that we have available to do that and being smart about the decisions we make about how we're doing that and when we're doing that, and that's where we will continue to focus on our workplaces, focus on the culture of our workplace, make decisions for and on behalf of the organizations that we work with that move their messages forward.