Communication and Compassion

Early in the COVID-19 lock-down a group of Organisational Development practitioners working in Higher Education came together to collectively notice and reflect on what we were learning from this disruptive period.  At a time when the sector had moved swiftly to remote working and online learning environments, we identified several ‘shifts’ in our communications.  These examples are, perhaps, helpful nudges towards things that we may choose to alter or sustain in the future.

Informal and enjoyable

Suddenly, communicating at work has become informal.  Seeing people in their home environment, wearing a tee-shirt instead of a suit, the kind of books that they have on their bookshelves, their taste in wallpaper or art, all conspire to create a more informal environment in which to ‘do business’.  In some cases, children slip into the room and, whilst parents seem embarrassed and move to discourage the ‘meeting bomber’, others appear to enjoy the interruption.  All these examples remind us that we are real people, with real families, with lives outside the organisation – a real connection of human to human, instead of role to role.

We have found ways to enjoy communicating online.  Virtual coffee breaks have replaced spontaneous office banter; and starting a virtual team meeting with a quiz has helped people to feel more comfortable adapting to online environments.  Time and again those inclined to introversion have shared how much they prefer being able to turn off the video and to contribute to a meeting via ‘chat’ rather than having to speak up – and how much they have welcomed not having to engage in ‘small talk’ in the corridor, or at the start of a meeting.

Belonging and bumping

Many universities moved swiftly to engender a sense of belonging for staff joining during the lock-down, moving to a revised model for induction with onboarding taking place online.  And we grappled with ways to celebrate and recognise with dignity the contribution of those who had belonged to the organisation for some time and who were leaving and retiring during the lock-down.

Less positively, people who joined just before the lockdown have described how the ‘rug was pulled from underneath them’ as they did not have an established network in the organisation and were now working in isolation.  Yes, buddies and line managers have been supportive, but they do not replace building relationships with the wider organisation.  We recognised the value of ‘just bumping into people’ on campus, informally or in a more formal setting, making connections, discovering common ground, discussing experiences, seeking inspiration, and constructing networks.  As time goes on it will be interesting to discover how we create something akin to ‘bumping into someone’, but in a virtual space.

Timely and imperfect

Several commented on the necessary speed of communications, for example to keep pace with daily advice from government.  Interestingly those institutions described their communication as ‘more effective than usual’.  When we examined what this meant we noticed how the need for speed in communication eclipsed the need for perfection.  The usual mode for business communication has been several drafts, approvals and sign off, with each stage losing just a little of the purpose and the passion along the way.  This new way of communicating has been timely, relevant, just a little ‘rough around the edges’, but more authentic because of that – and ‘nothing bad has happened’ because of ‘less than perfect comm’s’.

Corporate yet compassionate

Sydney J. Harris, an American journalist, once said “The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things.  Information is giving out; communication is getting through.’

Often corporate communications are sent with the best of intent; however, they can be characteristically ‘one-way’.  It is not always clear if corporate communications reach their anticipated audience, and it seems that the ‘checks and balances’ that go into sending the communication are not followed through to check how it has been received and interpreted.

We explored the evidence that communication in several universities had ‘landed well’; we knew because, even though their staff were working remotely, they were bothering to give feedback on how they appreciated the corporate communications.  This stopped us in our tracks – what was it that meant that the communications were ‘getting through’?

When we looked further, we noticed that senior leaders were communicating with compassion.  By this we mean that the business messages were still there, but they included a more human touch, empathy even, acknowledging what was like to be working at home with the rest of the family,  how the writer was also wrestling with home-schooling, and in one example how they were finishing work a little earlier to play football with their son.

Along with the corporate message and the empathy, we detected a desire to ‘alleviate the pain’ of these challenging times.  For example, at least three institutions had included in their corporate communications explicit encouragement for staff to balance their home and work life; to flex their time; to focus on their family; to take regular breaks. This permission to ‘take the foot off the pedal’ now and again, the indication that people were entrusted to do their best, to both work and to balance their lives, were received well and welcomed at such a difficult time.

The author Shannon L. Alder said, ‘One of the most important things you can on this earth is to let people know they are not alone.’  This was the success of these communications – a measure of compassion, a sense of community and being in it together, and real desire to minimise discomfort.  In one university, students posted on social media some heart-warming memes based on the person who was sending the communications. The memes demonstrated how they felt protected and uplifted by the person sending the corporate messages.  That is a sentence I did not expect to write in a blog about business communication!

Not every example was completely uplifting though.  We found instances where staff had been encouraged to take care, to balance their work and home life, but the rhetoric and the reality were disconnected.  The messaging was well intended, however forthcoming deadlines were not changed to accommodate the work-life balance that was being encouraged.

This example led to further insight about the complexity of communication.  A decision may be well-intended, wise even.  However, communicated in isolation it is only information and the likelihood of ‘getting through’ is limited.  To increase its power, we observed the need to situate the information as part of a broader organisational story – not just this is what we are doing about ‘x’, but how it fits within the wider picture, how it impacts on ‘y’.  Add to this a dose of compassion – the tone of the message, acknowledgement of how it will affect the person, with a desire to alleviate or accommodate anything unsettling.  And think of pressing ‘send’ on the message as ‘the beginning’ and not ‘the end’, building in some checks and balances on how the message is received and interpreted.  Then we achieve the credential for communication with compassion, and a very real prospect of the message ‘getting through’.

We end this blog with only one question:

  • How can we more effectively incorporate and demonstrate compassion throughout our business communications to ensure that we are ‘getting through’?

Dr Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University, together with colleagues from the Learning from Disruption sessions that took place in April 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and lock-down:

Caroline Bryant, Regent’s University London; Lisa Stevenson, Sheffield Hallam University; Bethany Hyman, Brunel University; David Wallace, Queen Mary University of London; Rosemary Benson, London Metropolitan University; Laura Brown, University of London; Simon Inger, University of Bath; Sophie Lovejoy, Organisational Development in Higher Education Network (ODHE); Daniela Bultoc, University College, London; Sam McVaigh, Manchester Metropolitan University; Lisa Anderson, University of Dundee; Sophie Sowerby, Durham University; Sara Corcoran, University of Sufffolk; Annette Robinson, Lancaster University; Susan Kane, University of York; Saire Jones, University of Westminster; Trudie Donnelly, University of Warwick; Ailbhe Lynch, City, University of London; Sarah Akhtar, Sheffield Hallam University; Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University

Previous blogs:

What is Ours to Do?  1 June 2020

Agility and other ‘…ities’ 5 June 2020

Look out for the next Blog in the series…

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