How Covid has changed the way we communicate at work
This is the second in a series of articles which have been designed to explore the employability skills needs of those affected by Covid-19 and how myself, alongside key colleagues, stakeholders and employment specialists at Skills Forward, NCFE and beyond, are working together to try and support them with our ‘go the distance’ initiative.
Follow Dan on LinkedIn to read the rest of the series first.
Here we are, nine months into a workplace revolution born out of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Most of us have just about got a handle on what communication in the workplace now looks like – to varying degrees of success. New skills and technical capacity are now required to ensure that many businesses can remain operational, and successful.
What does this mean for those entering the workplace for the first time, or for those who are now faced with re-entering a workplace that looks vastly different from the one that they may have left between March and now? How do we, as employability professionals, ensure that we are supporting the development of evolving communication skills to ensure they are fit for purpose in a range of workspaces and sectors?
The evolution of the workplace
Workplace communication and culture changes aren’t a new concept. For those of us who have at least a few years of working under our belts, can all unanimously agree that the workplace of today is different from the 3-5 years that preceded it. If you go back further still, it’s almost unrecognisable. The workplace has been evolving at pace and often these evolutions are the result of major developments that have changed way we work, such as the adoption of computers and email. Culture and processes have changed too, for example an increased focus and legislation around health and safety, working hours and the changing demographics of the standard office.
Speaking generally, from 1970 to 1990, office culture consisted of self-directed working in a largely male-dominated environment with a linear hierarchy. When we think to that time, we think of working lunches, networking in smoke-scented bars and entertaining clients over a round of golf or dinner. The internet and email were still but a twinkle in the eye of the billionaires we know today.
Driving technology and inclusivity
From 1990 onwards, the tech boom really took hold, changing the infrastructure of offices across the world. Alongside that, there has been a rapid upward swing in two-income households which has created a more gender-diverse workforce. A growing population, freedom of movement and immigration, as well as new and updated policies such as The Equality Act have also been conducive of a more diverse
workforce – although it’s important to note that these efforts are ongoing. The merging of cultures, backgrounds and additional needs that come from diversity has meant that workplace communication has changed with it, to support the workplace to be more welcoming and nurturing for all.
How Covid has changed communication
Not only do our communication skills need to be respectful and supportive of a diverse workforce, and so refined that we can both make friends and influence people, we also now need to understand that we are operating in a different world.
Covid has changed the face of the working environment for many, with remote working on the rise. Data from the latest release from Office for National Statistics showed that 28% of people in the UK are working exclusively from home. As a result, many people are enjoying the benefits of increased work/life balance and no commute. Businesses are choosing to reduce their overheads by reducing office space, and this, alongside no ending for the pandemic in sight means that many are suggesting home working is a trend that will continue.
On the other hand, building positive working relationships now has an added level of difficulty. Many of us are unable to rely on non-verbal cues that let us know a conversation is going well – 93% of communication is said to be non-verbal. We don’t have the opportunity to have a quick face-to-face chat to resolve an issue, ask advice or talk through an idea with a colleague. Email and written communication feel more formal. When sitting at home, with only your screen for company, there are a thousand ways to infer the meaning of a two-word response and the silences when working from home can be particularly deafening. Picking up the phone, without warning, when you know someone is at home feels more intrusive.
We have been subconsciously modifying our communication skills to manage this emotional rollercoaster – whilst still trying to do our jobs effectively. Now imagine individuals without this prior experience, having just left school or re-entering the workplace after a break. It must be extremely daunting.
Supporting ‘good communication skills’
‘Good’ or ‘excellent’ written and verbal communications skills, a standard requirement on most job descriptions, we know are highly sought after. When honed correctly, these skills power your ability to be a team player, have more effective conversations and improve listening to access the right information. They allow you to present yourself with confidence, to adequately reason with others and help to explain and justify your point of view or your decisions.
Communication skills: key focus areas for learners
No matter the changes we may continue to face, supporting learners to develop communication skills will help them gain sustainable employment and manage the workplace. Here are some areas to focus on when working on communication skills that are future-proofed.
Active listening means really taking the time to hear, absorb and consider what the other person has to say – not just waiting for a gap in the conversation to make your next point. Listening opens a world of opportunity for new ideas and innovation. Encourage learners to take note of important points, repeat back key information, ask questions, and observe open body language and maintain good eye contact. In remote working scenarios, they can make use of chat functions or ‘hand raising’ tool so as not to not interrupt the speaker.
Thinking before pressing send
There are a lot of emails going back and forth now and many of us can be too hasty in our urge to respond and get on with the next task. Encourage learners to pause and read the text back as if they are the one in receipt of it, proof spelling and grammar and consider the ‘tone’ and context of the email and how it might be interpreted.
Collaboration is key
Working well with others is an important skill to cover with learners. If they are used to working alone, admitting they don’t have all the answers might feel counterintuitive. Help your learners to understand that good collaborators open the opportunity for innovation by sharing a supportive communication space. This enables others to have their views heard and allows for a constructive discussion to find the best solution and builds good working relationships through trust. Communication skills are a key component of Skills Work, an employability skills test from Skills Forward and NCFE’s ‘go the distance’ initiative. You can test your learners’ individual starting points and skills set and support them with resources to help them give them confidence and get ready for the workplace – whatever it looks like in the future! For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ncfe.org.uk/gothedistance.