The folly of making predictions in these stormy times is what started my widely read ‘trends for 2021’ article a year ago. At the most, we now know that the storm is far from over. Still, I’m giving it another go, mainly because I see so many opportunities for us communication people – but also still so many obstacles that I would like to help you overcome.
Before I start, it is fair to take a critical look at my predictions from last year. Then you know if you should start on my new list at all. Last year I talked about hybrid working, engagement, the purpose, X-boarding and internal communities. Let me put it this way: at least there has been a lot of talk about it…
It will come as no surprise to you that the new list overlaps with these points. But this year I’m trying to make it more concrete, to offer starting points that you can use. These trends certainly do not only apply to hybrid works. All organizations are increasingly digitizing and are therefore confronted with these developments. But I’ll start with it.
1. Structured hybrid working
Also this year at number 1: hybrid works. We have now learned that it is here to stay and offers us great opportunities to better organize our work – and our private lives. But we also have a lot to learn, such as that ‘everyone his/her own choice’ is a very bad (lack of) policy. In the short term we will survive, we have seen that, but in the longer term things will inevitably go awry.
In my previous article I explain why. In short: seniors work “nice and quiet” at home, while juniors and newcomers are swimming in the office; leaders are stuck in the old way of thinking and in the meantime we all assume that things will work out.
I’m not the only one who doesn’t believe in that. Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley emphasizes in her recent book Remote Work Revolution that you need to relaunch every team for hybrid work. You have to look together at shared goals:
Shared views on roles, functions and obligations
Shared understanding of available resources, including information and systems
Shared standards for collaboration
As communication professionals you can, no, you must play an important role in this. Below I indicate per subject what is important.
2. Asynchronous Communication
To start with, it is essential to make clear agreements about how we communicate and which means we use. For hybrid works, but certainly not just for that, these are of course mainly digital resources. Many organizations have rushed into using Microsoft Teams during the lockdowns, but often only for video calling and chat. And how: since corona (video) we meet twice as much and we send each other 50% more chats. No wonder tech fatigue is hitting everyone!
Video calling is synchronous communication, where participants are all online at the same time. Chat often is, too, with its annoying beeps. For many purposes, asynchronous communication is much better. For example, the lion’s share of meeting time is spent on exchanging information and keeping each other informed. This can all be done asynchronously, for example in messages on a collaboration environment.
Asking questions is also often better done asynchronously, such as in a group of specialists. Then everyone can, in their own time and with full attention, think about the right answer – and that answer can then be found by the next colleague with the same question.
So check before every meeting, phone call or chat message: is it necessary to disturb my colleague for this? For coordination, discussion or team building the answer is a resounding yes, but in other cases experience shows that asynchronous communication is often a better choice.
3. Remote on-the-job learning
Speaking of learning, you probably know the old maxim that 10% of your knowledge comes from formal learning, 20% from coaching and 70% from copying. But how do we shape that 70% on-the-job learning in an increasingly digital and hybrid world? Seniors therefore often work from home undisturbed: they know what to do and have a good workplace at home. Neither does juniors, so they’re all in the office. But the distraction of the senior is precisely the learning moment of the junior.
We must therefore properly structure digital learning, for example in communities of practice. In it, participants exchange information on a specific topic and ask for help with problems they encounter in that area. The group works together to develop solutions for this, which are then documented in best practices or manuals. Working Out Loud – more about this below – is a very good way to shape that collaboration.
The onboarding of new employees deserves special attention. Make sure that they have access to all digital systems, preferably before their first working day, and that they are quickly familiarized with its structure and manners. Use their (youthful) open-mindedness to get other colleagues digitally active, for example by linking them together as buddies.
4. Scheduled Serendipity
We desperately need that open-mindedness to continue to innovate. We think we have been very innovative lately. For example, we have made working from home possible, we are constantly adapting to new government measures, and we are finding solutions to supply chain problems and staff shortages. But that’s all reactive.
If we want to move forward, we need to proactively innovate, and that often starts with serendipity: accidentally and unexpectedly finding something valuable. In Nature I found a nice comparison of innovation with evolution: in nature progress comes about through random genetic variation. Just think of the Omikron variant. Such strokes of luck arise at work through chance encounters, in the hallway or in the canteen, but also at conferences or at a customer’s place. By talking in small company after a meeting or, for example, during a drink during a business trip. Those moments are much fewer these days, especially if you work hybrid.
This means that you also have to actively plan and facilitate here. You can almost say that you can no longer leave serendipity to chance. Connection and openness are keywords. Stimulate and help colleagues to start up communities of interest around knowledge themes, bring people together in online ‘JAM sessions’, organize brainstorming sessions with customers, partners and suppliers, or even invite them to your communication platform. Get everyone out of their bubble!
5. Building trust
In order for people to express themselves freely, there must be trust. Tsedal Neeley, whom I mentioned earlier, pays a lot of attention to this in her book Remote Work Revolution. She makes a distinction between cognitive trust, which is based on competences, and emotional trust, which concerns interpersonal relationships. Cognitive confidence is quickly given in work situations based on position, profile and first contributions in the group. Building emotional trust takes much longer, but is essential for engagement and team cohesion.
Therefore, also with digital communication, spend 10% of your working time on personal interaction. For example, during the first 5-10 minutes of a meeting, by organizing virtual team activities and with online social groups. Even a cat picture group can help – and so says one dog man! Also encourage the use of emojis and giphys to make communication more personal.
And if you want to destroy trust if necessary, install monitoring software with your employees to spy on their digital work behavior. In the US, this proven drug is used by 60% percent of companies, sometimes even without employees knowing.
6. The Great Resignation
That lack of confidence is undoubtedly an important factor in the sixth trend, the Great Resignation, which is blowing over from the US. Literally this means: the ‘Great Termination’, in which large groups of people quit their jobs or do not go back after a period of being forced to sit at home. The Netherlands is not immune: research by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence shows that no less than 76% of working Dutch people say they will be ready for a new job this year, although that can also be within their own organization.
Strangely enough, it appears that there is currently little movement in the labor market. Perhaps that is because the Dutch enjoy a lot of protection in a permanent job, unlike Americans. You don’t just give up on that. But here too, work is rapidly becoming more precarious, with zero-hour contracts, self-employed constructions and endless temporary jobs. The US shows the dangers of this for commitment and loyalty.
In addition to resigning, to resign also means giving up, seeing no way out. According to the Oracle survey, 67% of workers in the Netherlands feel ‘stuck in life’. That percentage has increased enormously due to the pandemic. People worry about the future and rethink what is important to them. This increasingly leads to burn-outs and long-term failure.
To solve this problem, all of the above come together: redesigning work to relieve stress, providing perspective and learning opportunities, and creating a safe, familiar environment.
7. Virtual Leadership
A very important task is reserved for leaders. Now that they see their employees less and less physically, they have to learn new ways to manage them. According to Frances Frei, also from Harvard, and Anne Morriss, leadership is about empowering people, even when you’re not there. This is all the more true for digital and (partial) remote working, where leaders generally have less experience. Not only are they often a bit older, they have also acquired their position in the old system.
Especially the dynamics in a team are more difficult to sense and adjust if you are no longer (usually) together. Just like in the outside world, cliques and information bubbles can easily arise online. (I wrote earlier about Trumpian traits in organizations.) Hairline cracks can grow into fissures unseen.
As a leader you can prevent this by constantly emphasizing the higher, cross-clique-transcending purpose of the collaboration. Build a strong group identity, but don’t force people into a straightjacket. Treat team members working together in the office the same as less visible remote individual workers.
Communications people can help leaders translate their leadership practices into a digital environment by providing direction, inspiring people, soliciting opinions, praising people, and chatting.
Stimulate them to structurally spend 10% of their time on personal interaction, also digitally. Leaders have an important role to play in this. So don’t just post serious news on internal channels and fine-tune the agenda in meetings. Get leaders to think about structuring communication, giving feedback and building engagement.
8. Working Out Loud
Much of the above can be achieved with Working Out Loud (WOL), and it certainly doesn’t just apply to leaders. WOL is sharing updates about the work you have done as a team and/or that needs to be done. This way others can provide input and help you make better decisions. So it’s not just about sharing, it’s also about involving others in your work. You used to do that by looking over each other’s shoulders; now you do that on a digital collaboration platform.
Now I hear a number of people think: isn’t that possible with group e-mail? Although that is also asynchronous, there is a complete lack of overview and transparency of content, chronology and participants. This video is undoubtedly painfully recognizable for everyone. It’s no coincidence that we no longer email with friends and family.
It is essential that you do not spread the WOL across all kinds of platforms and apps. For example, our customers use Heineken and Nestlé Workplace and Teams and Philips does it on Yammer and Teams. Make clear choices about this as an organization, otherwise everyone will remain in their own email, LinkedIn and WhatsApp groups (and the techies on Slack).
9. Working In the Narrative
A new way to look at Working Out Loud is Working In the Narrative (WIN). As communication specialists, you can probably imagine an organization as a collection of stories: projects, processes, customer cases, innovation processes, problems et cetera. All these stories have a beginning and an end, stakeholders, deliverables and deadlines. With WIN you record this in a storyline, or a thread.
At WIN, four steps are important. The first is context. Explain why it’s important for others to read your message and what you expect from them. You can also add the file you are working on together. Then share updates, minutes, changes and comments in the same thread. This way you keep everything clearly organized. Actively involve others when you need help from them. On many platforms, this is possible with an @ and they will then receive a notification. Finally, it is important to conclude when your project or task is completed and to thank the participants for their contribution.
At one of our customers, the communication department works in the narrative. Producing content goes like this:
Posting a post with the title and a first draft
describe when it should be live, who the target group is and who should watch it
have all involved respond asynchronously and provide feedback on each other’s responses
post the final version, which can be approved by everyone with a simple like
Now put that next to your own process!
10. Microsoft Viva
I already said it: WOOL and WIN should be done in a central place. That could very often become the new Microsoft Viva in the near future, especially since the giant from Redmond is already the main supplier of most organizations. With Viva, Microsoft places an ’employee experience & engagement’ layer on well-known apps such as SharePoint, Office 365 and Teams.
Viva consists of four parts: with Connections you build a visually attractive online starting point for your employees, a big step forward on boring SharePoint intranet sites. Viva Learning brings together all of the organization’s online learning capabilities, including LinkedIn Learning, owned by Microsoft since 2016. That is about the 10% formal learning, for leaning-on-the-job and knowledge sharing there is Viva Topics.
This automatically categorizes content from all kinds of Microsoft apps per subject and makes it available. This can become very interesting, especially in combination with Working Out Loud. Topics is built on Cortex, Microsoft’s engine for Artificial Intelligence (so, I also cycled that hype in my trends).
The last part of Viva is Insights, which, as the name suggests, gives you insight into the engagement of your employees. That smacks of monitoring software (see above) and that caused a lot of bad publicity. That’s why Microsoft Insights has quickly anonymized it completely. Knowing Microsoft software, organizations will need help to properly set up this and other Viva components.
Internal communication: better coordination, fewer meetings
You have undoubtedly discovered a line in the above trends. Whether you are going to work hybrid, remotely or just as much as possible at your workplace again, the digitization of communication and collaboration affects you all. As a communication specialist, you also have a crucial role to play to ensure that this runs smoothly.
My advice: think along and help to organize the way of working in such a way that it leads to better coordination, but for heaven’s sake with fewer meetings. You should mainly use it for idea generation, decision making and building emotional trust. Make sure there is a central place online where everyone can see what others are doing, within teams but also throughout the organization. This prevents duplication of work, you immediately get newcomers up to speed and you ensure knowledge sharing and involvement.
That should sound like music to the ears of managers, but in practice you really have to include and support them in this. Make them especially aware of the dangers of letting everything take its course: inefficiency, silo formation, burn-outs, turnover, stalling innovation, apathy. You don’t immediately need new technology: Workplace or soon Viva offer many possibilities, but you can start fine in Teams. Start a pilot, gain experiences, WOL or WIN to share those experiences, even if only within a small group at first. And then carry on.
Let’s all make sure that the New Year’s trends above are all old (and cut) next year!