We often ask our clients what keeps them up at night. That’s because we understand the power of strategic communications to solve thorny problems. In contrast to the trope that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” the communications toolbox is packed with implements that can reach a target audience with surgical precision or bludgeon a wrong-headed idea out of existence.
So, what are the captains of industry losing sleep over right now?
A recent survey of Florida bosses by our Breakthrough Research division showed that business executives in the Sunshine State are most concerned about slogging through another year like 2020, including being forced to operate remotely or at reduced capacity, and losing clients or customers due to a continuing economic downturn.
While we all turned the calendar to a new year with a renewed sense of optimism and a cleansing exhale as we left behind the unprecedented mess that was 2020, the fact is that 2021 hasn’t looked much different so far, with pandemic numbers peaking and political divides still running deep.
The tools of communication won’t erase COVID-19 or create harmony overnight, but they can drive awareness of how to stop the spread and promote greater mutual understanding when they’re used for that purpose. They can also play a role in mitigating most of the things that are contributing to business leaders’ insomnia.
Let’s look at what those night-stalking worries are.
An Unexpected Crisis
If 2020 drove home one lesson, it’s that you can’t entirely predict the future. Even if some shaggy-haired prophet had shouted from the rooftops that a global pandemic would cause most businesses to send their employees home to operate remotely – for more than a year – and drive a host of other disruptive changes, few would have heeded the warning and been ready.
COVID-19 changed all that. All employers and business leaders are anxious because they know that the only certainty is change, and they may have to adapt to business-threatening events at lightning speed. Having a solid crisis plan is more essential than ever, and leaders really get why – from painful, firsthand experience.
Expect to see more companies, nonprofits, and government organizations make it a priority to create or update a crisis plan in 2021. And unlike past years when a crisis plan may have gathered dust in a drawer, leaders who’ve been rocked out of complacency will view crisis preparation as a regular, ongoing, full-contact training priority. That means table-top exercises in which employees throughout organizations join with bosses to ask “what-if” questions to anticipate tomorrow’s perils – and mutually arrive at the rapid-fire tactics to counter them.
Declining Corporate Culture
Most businesses that logistically could pivot to work from home learned that that they could function that way without missing a beat. Only 6% of leaders surveyed were concerned about their ability to oversee remote workers. If anything, productivity has increased as workers who were captive in their homes – without the customary opportunities to travel and socialize – just put nose to grindstone and let the workday slosh over well past 5 p.m. Teams learned to collaborate on software platforms like Slack and Google Docs, and Zoom meetings were so ubiquitous they became the symbol and substance of the work-from-home experience. All good.
What’s not so good is the loss of human contact. Apparently, humans are wired to be together, and the isolation of 2020 has led to the elevated anxiety, depression, and disconnection of 2021. Corporate cultures are built on contact. It’s hard to hold effective virtual pep rallies. This has business leaders worried, so expect to see some interesting innovation in the way safe, socially distanced team- and culture-building is delivered.
Employee assistance programs are also likely to get buffed in 2021, as employers seek to meet the mental health needs of their staff. And while 2020 may have blown the roof off productivity for many, employers are worried that last year’s unrelenting work may lead to burnout and blurred lines, as employees grow accustomed to multi-tasking the laundry between Zoom calls. That means software that supports remote monitoring of productivity will get a second look.
But it also means that employers with an eye to the future will begin thinking about how to preserve the best of this experience while jettisoning the worst. Some will downsize brick-and-mortar workplaces, retrofit smaller physical space to primarily support collaboration, permit a mix of work-from-home and office time, and design offices to provide more of the comforts of home.
Last year witnessed unprecedented activism, as a diverse cross-section of Americans took to the streets to support racial justice and other social and political causes. Businesses are facing increasing pressure to get off the sidelines and lend their voices and influence to causes that matter to their employees, clients and customers. A national survey conducted in June found that 60% of Americans want to do business with companies that take a stand on racial and social justice issues, and 50% do online research to discover companies’ positions and actions.
Similarly, with trust in information sources fallen to a historic low, employees are turning to their bosses as a trusted source of information and leadership. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, business is the most trusted institution to lead, and 65% of respondents expect CEOs to address societal problems, filling the void left by immobilized government. What does this mean for CEOs? It will be harder to quietly watch from the sidelines as divisive issues rage. The barometer found that 86% are looking for leadership from CEOs on everything from COVID to climate change to racial justice.
Employers are getting the message. But for many, it’s a departure from the way they’ve operated for years, sidestepping potentially controversial or politically charged issues. This sea change has employers mentally wrestling with what to do, as they count sheep. Expect to see more companies figuring it out for themselves in 2021, finding ways to communicate that they are a purpose-driven brand in ways that are authentic and relevant to them.
For many, this will take the form of a greater focus on diversity and inclusion – and walking the walk when it comes to hiring, promotion, equity, and building a supportive environment for all.
It’s the economy, stupid.
James Carville, political strategist to Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, famously said this to focus attention on what mattered most to voters. CEOs seem to feel the same way, and nothing is causing them to lose more sleep than the economy and the threat of losing customers as a consequence.
The tools of communication may not right the economy, but they can help businesses more effectively compete by telling their stories, giving consumers what they want and need right now, and differentiating brands from the competition. Companies that rely on B2B for sales are leaning on new and better communication strategies as in-person visits have moved online. That’s driving a stronger focus on internal communications and training, improved customer service, and increased reliance on video and chat.
Like all of us, those at the helm of business have had more than their share of reasons to lose sleep in the past year. Those who know they’ve maximized the impact of communications to solve the problems within their control will reap the benefit in both $s and Zs.