This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.

The relationship between organizational psychology and internal communication has never been more critical than it is today. COVID-19 continues to test the relevance and adaptability of internal communication. As some companies prepare to return workers to the office after over a year of working remotely, understanding what employees are thinking and feeling are critical to ensuring a successful transition.

In a recent case study of a Middle Eastern company, I discussed how using multiple psychological models to develop internal communication strategies can support a successful return to the office. By leveraging psychological research from SARS and employing behavioral neuroeconomics, this company successfully returned roughly 50k employees to offices and sites from June 2020 to February 2021.

Research conducted throughout the process validated that employees understood the measures taken to ensure their safety, felt the company was demonstrating its espoused values in its response and were confident in the health of the work environment.

Ensuring Psychological Resilience
From the beginning of the pandemic, our communications objective was to support well-being during remote working while also mentally preparing employees to eventually return to the office. Based on research conducted following the SARS epidemic (Bonnano et al. 2008), we developed a targeted communications plan to promote employees’ psychological resilience throughout the pandemic by focusing on three positively related variables: 1.) maintaining a healthy lifestyle, 2.) worrying less, and 3.) sustaining robust social support networks.  This focus is supported by recent research that projects the cost of poor mental health may be as high as $1 trillion per year and recognizes the importance of clear communication with staff to promote well-being.

We used multiple channels to provide practical information to employees that specifically supported the resilience variables, linked to reinforcing posts by media/government, and developed educational materials.  To reduce worry, we established and maintained a consistent communications cadence (originally a daily message, now weekly) and used an AI ‘bot’ to help employees find answers to questions as policy and guidelines continue to change.

Promoting Compliance with Safety Measures
As employees began returning to office in June 2020, our communications strategy leveraged behavioral neuroeconomics principles to drive desired behavior in the offices. Behavioral neuroeconomics acknowledges the role that unconscious bias plays in decision making and uses triggers to ‘nudge’ individuals toward the desired behavior, recognizing that people will often behave irrationally.

As the return-to-office process continued, we found message fatigue was setting in, which we feared could negatively impact compliance with critical safety processes and guidelines. To counter this fatigue, we created and launched multiple ‘nudge’ campaigns encouraging employees to make choices to be responsible, follow safety steps, and ‘protect our family.’ Tactics included short animations circulated via WhatsApp groups (an effective method for reaching frontline workers without regular email access) and ambient marketing in offices and sites. We used multiple mechanisms to measure employees’ responses and behaviors.

Continuing to Evolve as Internal Communicators
Internal communication is a relatively young discipline that is now coming into its own and COVID-19 has caused a sea-change in how we engage our employee audiences. While the pandemic has posed challenges in reaching staff and assuaging concerns, the return to office is a highly emotive and complex change process. Returning employees to the office requires internal communicators to push themselves beyond their comfort zones and engage with psychological research to understand how employees are thinking and feeling, and ultimately support well-being and ensure safe work behaviors.

Baddeley, M. (2017). Behavioral economics: a very short introduction (Vol. 505). Oxford University Press.

Bonanno, G. A., Ho, S. M., Chan, J. C., Kwong, R. S., Cheung, C. K., Wong, C. P., & Wong, V. C. (2008). Psychological resilience and dysfunction among hospitalized survivors of the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong: a latent class approach. Health Psychology, 27(5), 659.

Bonanno, G. A., Westphal, M., & Mancini, A. D. (2011). Resilience to loss and potential trauma. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 7, 511-535.

DellaVigna, S., & Linos, E. (2020). Acts to scale: Comprehensive evidence from two nudge units (No. w27594). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Coni Judge, Ph.D., is a consulting psychologist and has helped some of the world’s largest companies improve their change, culture, and internal communications strategies.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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