Communications in a Time of Uncertainty

Uncertainty needs to be countered by clarity, which is now the pandemic imperative for corporate communicators.

Stowe Boyd
May 6, 2020 · 15 min read

A Wholesale Move To Working From Home

We find ourselves in an unprecedented time of global upheaval. The SARS-CoV-2 virus (aka the coronavirus or COVID-19) has tumbled across the world, infecting 3.5 million and accounting for 250,000 deaths, as far as authorities can tell.

After the first-order tragedy of so many fallen, we find that we are also constrained by the epidemiological maneuvers that our governments are imposing to slow the contagion. Many areas are in a near-total lockdown in an effort to ‘flatten the curve’ of infection. With so many staying home, many industries have come to an almost total standstill. Travel is curtailed, hotels are empty, manufacturing plants are shuttered, and none but the most essential front line workers and first responders are venturing out to work. As a result, tens of millions of American workers have been laid off, furloughed, or at the very least are working from home.

Image for post
Image for post

We are only starting to understand the scale of these enormous changes. MIT’s Eric Brynjolfsson and a group of researchers surveyed US workers and found an enormous swing to remote work in the weeks prior to the report’s publishing on 8 April 2020 [emphasis mine]:

We report the results of a nationally-representative sample of the US population on how they are adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey ran from April 1–5, 2020. Of those employed four weeks earlier, 34.1% report they were commuting and are now working from home. In addition, 11.8% report being laid-off or furloughed in the last 4 weeks. There is a strong negative relationship between the fraction in a state still commuting to work and the fraction working from home which suggests that many workers currently commuting could be converted to remote workers. We find that the share of people switching to remote work can be predicted by the incidence of COVID-19 and that younger people were more likely to switch to remote work. Furthermore, using data on state unemployment insurance (UI) claims, we find that states with higher fractions of remote workers have higher than-expected UI claims.

[…]

Of the respondents, 14,173 reported something other than “None of the above…” This gives an implied employment rate of 57%, which is slightly lower than the BLS estimate of about 60%. For the rest of our analysis, we restrict our sample to those reporting being employed four weeks prior.

The distribution of answers pooled over all respondents is shown in Figure 1. We can see that the most common response from workers was that they continue to commute, at 37.6% (95% CI is [36.3,38.9]). But the next most common was that they have switched from commuting to working from home.

The fraction of workers who switched to working from home is about 34.1%. In addition, 14.6% reporting they were already working from home pre-COVID-19. This suggests nearly half the workforce is now working from home, significantly more than the Dingel and Neiman (2020) estimate of 34% of people working at home.

Image for post
Image for post
source: Eric Brynjolfsson, et al

The researchers looked at gender, region, and age but those factors are less relevant than the stark reality: it appears that those who would otherwise be commuting to work are either a/ working from home or b/ filing for unemployment insurance.

However, the growing consensus is that workers and businesses alike will find the benefits of working from home, and these practices will become established in the new patterns of work, as reported by Protocol:

“We anticipate that approximately 60% of the workforce will shift to some balance of ‘in office’ and remote work,” said Roy Abernathy, executive vice president of global workplace strategy at Newmark Knight Frank.

Zapier recently surveyed over 1200 employed US adults about their perceptions of the change, which could be an indication of where we may be headed:

Among those who have transitioned to working from home in the past month:

- 65 percent feel their productivity has increased now that they work from home.

- 80 percent say they can better manage interruptions from coworkers now that they work from home.

- 80 percent enjoy being able to see their family during the day now that they work from home.

- 77 percent say they’re finding new times to be productive outside of the normal 9–5 hours.

Even if these perceptions are an embellishment of people’s actual productivity, this new model of work seems to be making workers feel more productive, allowing them to see their families more, and more work/life balance, as suggested in the Zapier study.

However, 66% still would prefer working in the office or workplace over working from home. Strangely, only 42% miss socializing with co-workers, so the missing 24% must relate to other factors not explored, perhaps issues like not having an adequate workspace at home, slow internet, or worries about lack of face time with their managers.

Ian Scherr suggests that Zoom’s 700% increase in weekday evenings use is not just spreading work beyond the normal work time frame:

Zoom said it’s tallied a 700% increase in weekday evening meetings on its platform since February, and a 2,000% increase in meetings on the weekend. While users have flocked to the service and social Zoom calls are now du jour, the numbers could also hint at an overburdened work force pushing meetings to out-of-hours when kids have gone to bed.

Once the kids go back to school, it may be that the historical timeframe of 9-to-5 work may be stretched forever.

The CEO of McGraw Hill, Simon Allen, also reports dramatic shifts in work patterns with the company’s 4000 employees now working from home:

A 32% increase in employees logging on to work weekends as they’ve been freed to determine their schedules — spreading their work hours across more days while taking time to enjoy family and better themselves. When offices reopen, Mr. Allen expects the percentage of his employees that elect WFH to double, from 20% to 40% or more. “We’re not going to go back to what we would define as normal before. I think the shift is going to stick. And that’s good because it’s forced people to think about how they set up their lives.”

But those wishing they could return to the workplace they exited a month ago will have to face the stark reality of a very different workplace once the pandemic burns out: the workplace of 2019 may never exist again.

For our purposes, in this report, I won’t attempt to dig too much into either optimistic or pessimistic conjectures about the shape of the world of business after coronavirus (whenever that may be). I instead want to turn to the immediate and more focused question of how should companies communicate with their people in the near term: now, when we are only a month or so into the interregnum, a period of enormous uncertainty.

The World of Work, Right Now

Let’s accept we have already moved in the past ten years into a world where work is increasingly distributed, decentralized, and discontinuous, what I call the 3D workforce:

Distributed — Laptops, tablets, and, most importantly, mobile phones have allowed the portability of work, out of the office, and away from the desktop-PC-and-company-server of the early part of this century. The shift to mobile devices that are always with us has proven to be exponentially more than just a convenience: it has altered the patterns of work. Note that 60% or more of portable device use is in the home or office, so we are opting to use devices that are close to hand, and where we can be reached without regard to place.

Decentralized — The demand for business agility and responsiveness has driven decision making and innovation to teams and individuals operating at the edge of companies, where partners and customers live, and away from the corporate center. The need for speed has led high performing companies toward a ‘fast and loose’ model of operations, away from top-down command-and-control.

Discontinuous — Workers are involved in many projects at once rather than doing single repetitive tasks, and as a result we find ourselves time shifting and life slicing many times per day. This is true in part because our devices make it easier to switch context, but also a shift toward awareness that team productivity is a greater good than individual productivity, so individuals are willing to accept requests for help rather than working in a totally heads-down mode.

We are moving from a world of problems, which demand speed, analysis, and elimination of uncertainty to solve, to a world of dilemmas, which demand patience, sense-making, and an engagement of uncertainty.

| Denise Caron

Add to the 3D workforce a wholesale shift to remote work during a massive upsetting of established norms for business, and we have new requirements for postnormal management.

One way to characterize our time is the concept of VUCA, a time defined by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Image for post
Image for post
VUCA

Denise Caron, the president of In Order To Succeed, says it well:

We are moving from a world of problems, which demand speed, analysis, and elimination of uncertainty to solve, to a world of dilemmas, which demand patience, sense-making, and an engagement of uncertainty.

I put it another way, writing about climate change, but which is directly applicable to our current situation, where the instability of events means we in a ‘postnormal’ era:

The biggest problem is that people’s thinking patterns are stuck in the old days, and I don’t just mean their expectations about ‘normal’ weather. No, even worse is that people can’t accept the reality that in this postnormal age we will never have the luxury of time to assess and then adapt. Linear problem-solving approaches will simply not work anymore.

But this is not a call for more old-world leadership, characterized by moving fast, and looking for permanent ‘solutions’ to well-defined and researched ‘problems’. Instead, we need leaders demonstrating the ‘VUCA Prime’ characteristics, as Bob Johansen has styled it.

Image for post
Image for post
Bob Johanson’s VUCA Prime

Johanson’s prescription is easier to say than to do.

  • In a time of high volatility, we can’t depend on the extrapolation of historic trends. Instead, we need a vision that encompasses many possible futures and imagine how to get to cosmos from chaos. To paraphrase Joi Ito, we need to trust our compass, not our maps.
  • Understanding is a counter to uncertainty: focus on developing an understanding of uncertain situations and so develop deeper insight into the risk factors and their interrelations.
  • Clarity brings what’s important into focus, and reduces the confusion of complexity through making things as simple as possible while avoiding the simplistic.
  • Agility means keeping options open since ambiguity acts like fog on a highway, so we must willing to shift from one tactic to another while remaining aligned with vision, and remaining committed to alway applying new insights rather than falling back into established — and possibly obsolete — practices.

In a time like today, leaders — and organizations as a whole — need to dedicate themselves to a new imperative: to adapt to a VUCA world, one now beset by a global pandemic.

We’ve adopted the patterns of remote work tactically, as an initial response to the health threats of Covid-19, but in the medium and long term, we will have to move strategically, investing in the development of new skills, practices, tools, and management approaches. And some of these, at least, these are quite practical.

Anita Williams Woolley, professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon, offered her insights about how teams can adapt to remote work in an email discussion with Sheryl Estrada:

“It is going to be important that everyone understands and has the same goals and objectives,” Woolley told HR Dive in an email. “Where goals are unclear or conflicting, productive collaborative work will be difficult whether it’s co-located or remote, but there are fewer opportunities to recognize and rectify unclear goals in remote work.” Determining what aspects of the work need to be done together, and what work can be divided up and completed independently, is also important, she said.

[…]

With a completely remote workplace, Woolley said it’s important that whomever leads the team “has a high level of social intelligence and strong collaboration skills.” Social intelligence, the ability to build relationships, is considered a soft skill. It’s also connected to emotional intelligence, defined as the ability to perceive, evaluate and respond to your own emotions and the emotions of others, according to a Jan. 9 LinkedIn Learning report. LinkedIn noted that emotional intelligence was a newcomer to its list, which “underscores the importance of effectively responding to and interacting with our colleagues.”

Companies that place an emphasis on emotional intelligence report higher levels of productivity and better employee engagement than those that don’t, a 2019 study by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services found. “A team that is well designed can handle pretty much any task remotely,” Wolley said.

Managers will need to adopt these skills and promote them for remote teams to remain focused during adversity.

The Centrality of Communication

David Gergen, the political commentator who served in the administrations of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, observes if leaders want their words to have impact they will need to be consistent and persistent. As he put it,

History teaches that almost nothing a leader says is heard if spoken only once.

Especially in a time of conflicting information, when many voices are raised, when uncertainty, ambiguity, and volatility are at their highest, that is when important messages need to be voiced many times.

Making the complex simple is a necessary skill for leaders — and for us all — and especially now.

The goals that leadership adopt as a response to crisis need to be shared with the organization so that each can interpret them, and find ways to make them relevant to their own reality, and so individuals can align with and animate these goals in the everyday context of work. Leaders — both official and emergent — will need to talk others through the way forward, and say those carefully-chosen words many times, not just once.

But as important as frequency and consistency are, nothing is as important as clarity.

Clarity, First and Always

If there was even a time when clear communication was critical, it is now. Our leaders, in government, business, health, and all our institutions need to be direct and speak simply. In Finding the Right Words in a Crisis, Carmine Gallo wrote,

Like a virus, words are infectious. They can instill fear and panic or facilitate understanding and calm. Above all, they can spark action. So choose them carefully.

Companies have scrambled to respond to the massive disruption of the coronavirus, and we are learning — if we didn’t know already — that clarity of communication is the most important factor in crisis response.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman observed,

If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.

Making the complex simple is a necessary skill for leaders — and for us all — and especially now.

Other aspects of Johanson’s VUCA Prime need to be secondary to the overriding need for clarity. Vision may have to be retargeted, understanding may need time and attention to the new realities to be refined, and agility may not emerge instantaneously or be restored in the near-term given the new disruptions. But clarity cannot wait.

Leaders must take Gallo’s words to heart: since what we say can spark action, we have to start from what we stand for. Leaders must return to core values and purpose, and recast them — in crystal clear terms — relative to the crisis. As plans are laid out they must be measured against the company’s values, and reflect enduring ends. We must start from a shared humanity, based on empathy for those affected by Covid-19 and their loved ones.

Vision may have to be retargeted, understanding may need time and attention to the new realities to be refined, and agility may not emerge instantaneously or be restored in the near-term given the new disruptions. But clarity cannot wait.

Certainly, corporate messaging now must reinforce provisions for safety, for employees, and new practices designed to support those provisions. And any financial messaging should begin with the obvious concerns of workers, and treat issues like employment; furloughs; office, plant, and store closings; and other wrenching changes with honesty and sympathy for all affected.

To those ends, the details of company policies must be direct, comprehensive, and consistent with prior company policies. And because people need answers, communication channels must remain open — or be opened — to resolve issues and respond to problems as they arise.

Essential Workers: The Communicators

This points a spotlight on those that we can consider the essential workers in the service of communication: the communicators.

I do not mean to downplay the courage and sacrifice of front line medical workers, EMTs, police, and all those risking themselves so that stricken patients can receive care. Nor those who are driving public transit trains and buses, or the grocery store clerks, restaurant workers, and food delivery staff who are stepping up to get food out to the housebound. I honor them, and our clapping at the windows every evening is the smallest demonstration of appreciation at their efforts and sacrifice.

Likewise, I don’t wish to diminish the efforts of those who have been pulled out of the office and who are working from their kitchens, perhaps for the first time. They are bearing the brunt of this disruption, and their sacrifices, commitment, and effort are making it possible for companies to continue, at all.

But, with all respect, I want to borrow the analogy of essential workers, and apply it in the context of corporate communications. I stressed the point that clarity must come first in a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Getting to clarity, so that all in the company know what is going on, what the company’s plans are, and what they — as individuals — should be focused on, has never been so important, and perhaps never so difficult.

In my experience, not all leaders are naturally gifted communicators. In Nine Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall puncture the conventional wisdom that leaders share a set of common traits, such as superior communication skills. As the authors state,

If we start measuring the traits of leaders, the first thing that strikes you is just how many leaders don’t have them.

They make the case that ‘followership’ can be measured — by an organization’s success, people’s willingness to participate toward shared goals, or to just pay attention — but leadership can’t be easily summarized by a list of personality quirks.

Like everyone else, leaders are strongest, Buckingham and Goodall tell us, ‘when they are standing in their strengths’. And for many leaders, world-class communication skills may not be in their wheelhouse, and so it then falls to others to clarify the company vision, share understanding, and map out the shortest paths to agility.

Who are these communicators? Much of what is said by the company starts with leaders, but with the active participation of others. The Instacart delivery driver with your dinner in their hand did not cook the meal in the bag, but they are the last link in the chain getting the food to your door, and the one individual in that chain you have contact with. Perhaps that is the most important link in the chain.

In a crisis like this pandemic, many people have important news to share:

  • People operations needs to lay out policies regarding sick leave, pay, and benefits.
  • IT has to help people with connectivity, software, and hardware.
  • Department, project, and team leaders need to spell out how to move forward on day-to-day goals.
  • Senior leaders need to lay out strategic goals, and plans for dealing with the near-, medium-, and long-term impacts of the coronavirus and the effects of a post-crisis economy.

Each of these groups has different purposes, different domains, and while it’s best that all are authentic, clarity is absolutely essential in all cases. And consistency across all messaging is critical, as is frequency.

Internal communications has to harmonize with corporate purpose, vision, and brand, so marketing must be deeply involved. But, just as in the case of dinners being delivered to doors across the country, the one perhaps most instrumental is the last one to handle the bag. In this case, that is the head of internal communications, our essential worker in crisis messaging.

As with many essential workers, internal communications prior to the crisis may have received little recognition and only a grudging acknowledgment that their work is important. However, in a time such as we are living through, perhaps we should be applauding their efforts, at least a little.

Looking Forward

It has become clear to many, but not yet to all, that we are not going to return to the status quo ante. We are in a liminal zone, a threshold between two distinctly different eras. Ziauddin Sardar once wrote,

An in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense.

It is the job of corporate communicators, those essential workers, to help make sense of what is going on. I return to Carmine Gallo’s insight,

Like a virus, words are infectious. They can instill fear and panic or facilitate understanding and calm. Above all, they can spark action. So choose them carefully.

The company’s communications team — from the C suite to the internal communications leader — need to keep that thought in mind, and speak clearly, simply, and frequently, always striving to shed light in an uncertain time.

Work Futures

The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

By Work Futures

The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future Take a look

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store