The coronavirus has seen companies rush into using messaging and collaboration tools like Slack, Teams, Zoom and Asana. On the face of it this would seem sensible. These are good virtual tools for the job of an economy in lockdown.
But given the speed of the situation that has developed under COVID-19 has there been enough thought given by corp comms teams on how these tools should be used effectively and strategically? A report by messaging app company Guild, Mastering Messaging in the Workplace, suggests not. It asserts that in-house comms teams are not undertaking the necessary legwork to understand which channels to use for what communications.
Michelle Goodall, head of marketing at Guild, admits that certain pressures have contributed to this situation. She explains: ‘There has been so much pressure on communications teams across the board to adapt quickly to COVID-19, both personally and professionally and to prepare for the bleak picture they see in front of them for the next few months and years. Understandably, most in-house corporate comms teams simply haven’t had the time to take the step back required to analyse their messaging channels and technologies.’
But for Martin Flegg, internal communications specialist at ggelf IC Consultancy, the situation provides a wider insight into a lack of strategic planning. ‘The COVID-19 crisis and the sudden enforcement of social distancing measures caught many organisations out, and exposed years of underinvestment in internal communication tools, planning and resources,’ he warns. ‘It has also meant that corporate communication teams didn’t do any meaningful strategic thinking as they rushed to implement new messaging and collaboration tools as part of a crisis and business continuity response.’
What the current situation does reveal is a lack of planning on this issue irrespective of the current crisis. Before the current crisis, Guild commissioned research to help understand why messaging as a medium was so ill-defined in organisations and why having a messaging strategy was the exception, rather than the norm. ‘Very few organisations have a clearly defined messaging strategy that looks at possible efficiencies and return on investment,’ says Goodall.
‘Getting messaging definitions right can help define the different technology required and shape different organisational policies and approaches to messaging. As we introduce more digital tools into the internal and external communications mix, it’s essential to consider the purpose of that medium and tool – as well as the communication, business and personal needs that can be met by that specific medium.’
Flegg agrees: ‘You need a clear internal communication channel strategy for the organisation built on clear channel definitions for each channel that is in use. Not having this makes implementing a new messaging tool, and understanding now this should be used and integrate with everything else, rather tricky.’
He also observes other challenges companies face embracing these tools. ‘Another interesting feature of the recent rapid implementation of new messaging and collaboration tools in organisations is that, for some, it’s a first foray into allowing employees to use internal social media and the features this affords. I suspect that there have been some interesting debates in HR and communications teams – and if there haven’t, there probably should be –about the acceptable use of social features such as emoji and GIFs in the workplace given the potential misunderstandings and offence these features can cause.’
Problem that needs fixing
From here therefore, in-house comms teams must think more about how they are really planning to use messaging and collaboration tools. ‘What’s the problem you’re trying to fix?’ asks Advita Patel, director at corporate communications advisory firm Comms Rebel. ‘People are very quick to jump to solutions without fully understanding the why. Once you know the why, you can move onto the how and what.’
She adds: ‘Once you know the answers you can start building your strategy and then explain the rationale behind the tool you might be introducing or reinvigorating. Bringing random tools into the business with no explanation on why you’ve introduced them are likely to fail or be misused.’
Offering his own advice, Flegg comes from a similar place: ‘Fundamentally, when implementing any new piece of messaging technology, you need to be asking What communication problem are we trying to solve here and what is the need? and defining both of those accurately with some internal research rather than relying on generalisations such as connecting people, maintaining employee engagement or improving collaboration.
‘Not doing that upfront means you have no way of measuring the success or failure of the implementation later, increases the risk of confusing end users about how they should be using the new tool and unleashing chaos in the organisation.’
Patel also notes comms teams should look at their current working. ‘Think about how you’re currently communicating with your workforce and research how colleagues are communicating with each other. Do they have closed Facebook groups? Are they using WhatsApp because they don’t have any other tool to use for messaging? Ask your workforce what they prefer and create a model that works for you. Don’t bring things into the business without asking the right questions and understanding fully where the issues are.’
‘The approach here should be to use nudge theory and steer behaviour as it emerges,’ says Marc Wright, founder of Simplycommunicate, the online community for internal communications professionals. ‘First of all you need to observe how channels are being used and then promote the good and find ways of thwarting the bad behaviours – but by making people decide themselves to do it your way.’
Using the right tools
Wright offers some advice on using the right tools for the job. ‘Messaging tools like IM, WeChat, Workplace Chat, Skype and MS Teams Chat are there to replace email where the information is very low level and transient. MS Teams and other channels that allow for groups should be encouraged for collaborative working. They are faster than email and more inclusive. However, they only work if truly integrated to how documents are created, stored and retrieved. So everyone should be encouraged to use the MS Teams directories to create and agree documents, and SharePoint to store them and make them accessible to all employees.’
He adds: ‘Broadcast channels such as Yammer, MS Live Event, Workplace Live and so on should be used for one-to-many communications where the subject goes beyond functional or team messaging. So Teams is used to develop new ways of social distancing at work, while Yammer is used to announce and explain them.’ At the same time, question marks surround some of the type of messaging tools to use. Many features of WhatsApp and other consumer messaging apps, such as Signal and Telegram, do not comply with privacy regulations like the CCPA and to GDPR requirements.
‘I have had a number of comms professionals tell me that they have been told to turn a blind eye to CEOs and senior team members using WhatsApp because it’s quick, easy and it gets the job done,’ reveals Goodall. But companies and organisations have seemingly learnt a lot on this front. Deutsche Bank has banned all text messages and communication apps on work-issued devices in order to improve its compliance standards. The NHS has also ensured that its teams enjoy the benefits of messaging without compromising patient data.
The tyranny of emails
The current crisis does raise more specific questions about company communications. ‘We feel that many organisations use email in the wrong way by doing this for internal communications or project management,’ says Goodall. ‘Messaging, project and workflow collaboration tools or simply working collaboratively on documents in Google Docs in realtime relieves you from the tyranny of unwieldy email chains, version control and the CCing of people.’
At the same time, messaging tools can create a strong company cultural sense of team working in times of difficulty such as under COVID-19. Goodall says: ‘Messaging creates a culture of belonging as it’s fundamentally about chat and community, this goes to the heart of what makes us human, discussing, reflecting, building and feeling like part of something bigger than us. Messaging can help organisations create an environment of trust, accountability and open dialogue.’
And there are many benefits of being part of a private messaging community. An interesting example of this is the Liberal Democrats in Norfolk. ‘They’ve created private messaging groups in Guild to coordinate councillors around policy development and specific project areas such as policing and crime,’ says Goodall. On the flipside, from a corporate culture perspective there are possible negatives. She notes: ‘There is the danger that using more messaging technology can lead to notification exhaustion and the feeling that you have to read and action outside of office hours.’
But Wright says that most companies have much room to manoeuvre in developing these tools. ‘Most staff are still using, but to a small degree, of their capability. Now is the time for corp comms to improve their digital dexterity – and fast.’
Flegg also notes the structure within an organisation is important when addressing new messaging tools. ‘Understanding the internal ‘ownership’ of any new communications tool is critical in the organisation,’ he says. ‘Who has the final say about how it should be used, particularly for messaging and content mediated by the communications team. Establishing this before going live, by perhaps explicitly explaining ownership and use in a channel definition, will avoid any internal ‘turf wars’ developing later down the line.’
He offers a simple rule of thumb: ‘Be really clear what each of your internal communication channels and tools are for and how you will use and integrate them together – and make sure this is understood across the organisation.’
In context of the current crisis, given that things have developed so fast, Wright notes all this will be providing lessons for comms teams for some time. ‘What is going on is the largest global field experiment in the history of the digital workplace. We will be analysing the results for a long time to come.’