Distraction at Work: What companies should do during times of political uncertainty, crisis or change

I love my job. As part of my role at Intactic, I have the luxury of presenting at and facilitating big conferences and events all over the world. Last week, I ran a conference with my fellow internal strategic communications and HR folks from some really cool companies including Lyft, Popeye’s, Levi Strauss & Co., Williams-Sonoma, AbbVie and many others. The focus of the conference was Strategic Internal Communications and Employee Engagement and the agenda was packed full of great content.

But considering that we were within the first two weeks of our new U.S. president taking office, and the dramatic political dialogue happening outside our conference room walls, I felt a strong professional duty to have a conversation that was not on the original agenda.

How do we, as professional communicators, provide guidance to our leaders about how the current political climate is creating a distraction for employees and impacting current levels of performance, productivity and employee engagement?

I polled the audience and the overwhelming response was yes, of course. First, we set some ground rules. We are all savvy communicators…we know the deal.

- Be respectful of others’ political opinions and beliefs
- Don’t go too deep into just your industry
- Provide value

What followed was a fascinating and relevant conversation, and here are a few of my takeaways.

1. Don’t ignore it.
Distractions are very real and directly impact levels of productivity and engagement. If issues are completely ignored and not addressed, the impact to the bottom line will probably be an agenda point at your next financial results meeting. Don’t let the reason for distraction become the ‘elephant in the room’ that is not addressed until it’s too late and the opportunity is gone.

2. Create a time and place.
A conversation here and a conversation there can be distracting. If you decide it’s appropriate, schedule an event or meeting and invite employees to attend and discuss the issues. This can help with compartmentalization and suggests that there is a right time and a right place to address concerns. Like with most important employee events or meetings, provide a way for people to submit questions ahead of time and then plan to address both the simple and more complicated issues during the event. Also, don’t forget to set ground rules for the dialogue and hold people accountable if they go off course.

3. It’s not just about politics.
Distractions can come from all angles. A natural disaster, a shift in leadership, a whistle blown, a merger or acquisition, financial climate uncertainty…the list goes on. Employees are human. We are all emotional beings whether we like it or not, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. It is important to understand that distraction can affect a small group of employees or an employee majority — a distraction can be all shapes and sizes.

4. Take advantage of the opportunity.
When managed appropriately, change and uncertainty can be an excellent opportunity to engage employees on a deeper level. It is an excellent opportunity to illustrate how the decisions your leaders make, and the stance they take, can align with the company’s core values. This may also be an opportunity to tell stories about how employees can demonstrate behaviors and take actions that are aligned with the company purpose, vision and mission. This might be a moment for your CEO to make a political statement, or it might be a time to reinforce your brand.

The call to action for leaders and communicators is clear. Ask yourself, how prepared is your organization for distraction? Do you have a communications strategy and infrastructure in place to deal with change and uncertainty?

We see it every day: distraction comes, and then we figure it out. Instead, prepare today. Run scenarios and prioritize your communication action plan for leaders and all levels of your business. Empower managers with the tools and talking points they need to be better “manager communicators.” And very importantly, take a close look at your communication channels to ensure that your company and your leadership can do their part to connect and engage with people throughout the process. This requires thinking beyond just email. Make the time for face time, and take a true leadership role. I promise the ROI will be there just when you need it to be.

If you attended the ALI event last week and I missed something, please comment. If you agree or disagree with any of these thoughts, please comment.

Let’s practice what we preach and keep this conversation active.