Left luggage

As the new year begins the pandemic is far from over and there is a naive and misplaced optimism that there will be some rapid improvement and a return to normality. The cruel reality is that the first nine months of 2021 are likely to be every bit as challenging as the last nine months of 2020. What should internal communicators be planning for, and should asking ‘why’ more often be our new year’s resolution?

Happy new year. Ready to make some new year’s resolutions then, or leave the excess baggage of the old year behind?  

I’ve never bothered making resolutions. Making a deal with yourself to do something, or more likely stop doing something, because the calendar changes has always seemed pretty futile to me during more normal times. In the current and continuing abnormal of the pandemic, making new year’s resolutions feels even more irrelevant. But this year, I definitely feel that I need to leave some of the excess baggage from 2020 far behind me.   

I’m writing this a couple of days before the turn of the year, when we can finally and resolutely give 2020 the boot, and relegate this annus horribilis to the history books.

Despite the satisfaction that doing that will bring as we usher in 2021, it all feels a bit doom and gloom as the coronavirus infection rates rise ever upwards in the UK and a downward lockdown spiral continues, plunging more of the population into Tier 4 restrictions.

Incredibly, against this worsening backdrop, I’m seeing many people start to make plans for some kind of a return to a near normal life in 2021. Possibly bolstered by ministerial assurances that this mess will be all over by Easter. Err right, remember what they told us about a near normal Christmas?

Yesterday I received an invitation to a friend’s special birthday bash postponed from the first UK lockdown in 2020, and leafing through a magazine I noticed a huge number of adverts for live events, urging the early purchase of tickets to avoid disappointment. And then, there’s Ryanair’s ‘Jab and Go’ summer flights and holidays TV marketing campaign. Really!?

Are businesses, advertisers and people so naive that they think this pandemic is suddenly and quickly going to start fizzling out shortly after the clock strikes midnight on 31 December 2020? To me it feels completely premature to be planning parties, booking holidays and buying tickets to mass live events in 2021.

A cruel reality

The cruel reality is that the first nine months of 2021 are likely to be every bit as horrible and challenging as the last nine months of 2020 and I think that even planning a face-to-face Christmas party for December 2021 is currently ambitious, to say the least.  

But we’ve now got vaccines, I hear you cry. Yes, we have, and they are nothing short of scientific miracles developed in record time. However, the logistics of getting them into people’s arms, and the time and effort that this will take are not to be underestimated.

This morning some newspaper headlines proclaimed that the NHS in the UK would start to vaccinate 2 million people a week, and that this was necessary to prevent a third wave of the virus. This is the same NHS that’s nearly overwhelmed by coronavirus patients in some parts of the UK, with waiting lists for routine work at an all time high, and 1000s of staff off sick or self isolating.

Against that backdrop it seems like a fine, but unrealistic, ambition to jab so many that quickly. Even with a fair wind, with a two-shot vaccine to administer, it will likely take most of 2021 to complete the task and create enough immunity in the population to enable us to stand down the masks, handwashing and social distancing. And, don’t forget that, if there are large numbers of naysayers who decide to refuse the vaccine, it might take even longer to achieve that and keep us in the purgatory of restrictions until the end of 2021.

Then, take the macro view, and consider what progress other countries will make in vaccinating large numbers of people and how long that might take in less developed parts of the world. No one is safe, until everyone is safe, and that could take humankind well into 2022 and beyond to achieve.      

A time for realism and pragmatism

All this misplaced and naive optimism that there will be some rapid improvement in the early part of 2021, makes me wonder what internal communicators should be planning for this year. Whatever it is, we should not be planning anything that assumes some kind of return to the old normal anytime soon. We need to be realistic and pragmatic.

We should also not be looking to reprise exactly what we did in 2020. For example, I’m still seeing lots of talk amongst the internal communications community about continuing the mass delivery of wellbeing first aid to workforces. Come on, wasn’t that so last year?

Whilst employee wellbeing is an important issue at the best of times, I think we need to start to move on from this after the topic overly dominated much of what we did in 2020. If the workplace wellbeing sticking plasters and the communication campaigns that support them are still needed in abundance, we should instead be asking some searching questions about why.

Perhaps it has something to do with dysfunctional organisational cultures, management and leadership  that are ill suited to the pandemic driven and rapid changes in how and where we now work. Maybe we should be seeking to address those things in 2021 instead. Treat the root cause of the wellbeing problem, not the symptoms.

Make ‘why’ your new year’s resolution

My experience of working in internal communication for a long time has taught me to look beyond what manifests itself in front of me, and to look deeper for the root cause of a problem. It’s a skill that has made me a better communicator and helps me to come up with better solutions.

I’d urge every internal communicator to learn how to do this. Particularly if the stakeholders you work with are prone to handing you a list of communication tactics with a request to just ‘comms this out’, without any consideration for what they are trying to achieve or understanding of the business problem which they need to solve.

If you must make one, make this your new year’s resolution for 2021. Learn to ask ‘why?’ more often, and keep asking why until you uncover the real need and reason to communicate about something.

This Brexit inspired blog (topical as the UK just finally left the EU!) I wrote a while ago, might give you some ideas about how to have a more productive conversation with stakeholders to help them achieve their objectives.

Excess baggage

There is also a downside to a long career and the acquisition of experience along the way. It is all the ‘excess baggage’ you also accumulate alongside the wisdom.

Whilst experience and wisdom give you the tools to get things done, the baggage that comes with it can make you a prisoner of past defeats and bad decisions. It can hold you back, make you risk averse, stop you doing things and diminish you as a person and practitioner. Trying to carry too much of it along with you in perpetuity will eventually drag you down.  

For me 2020 wasn’t just a bad year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Personally, physically and professionally, I wrestled with a number of challenges that wrecked my self-confidence and even drove me to seriously consider throwing in the towel and leaving the internal communication and PR profession for good.

I survived and am still here, with a stronger resolve to help our profession progress, but I know that I need to divest myself of the excess baggage I accumulated in 2020 and in the years before that.

That’s why, for me, there will be no new year’s resolutions again, but a long overdue visit to the left luggage office. I will have no intention of returning to collect my deposit, once it has been made.

I wish prosperity, success, a healthy dose of realism for all internal communicators in 2021, and the confidence to ask ‘why’ more often.

Happy new year.

Martin    

Image by andreas160578 from Pixabay 

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