The increasing importance of the line manager in internal communications and engagement

09 March 2021

For the last several months we have been running a regular Zoom group called the Comma Exchange, originally set up to help those who were experiencing periods of unemployment during the pandemic and were seeking support and encouragement whilst they found their next internal communications role. We ran it as a private group. 

However, the group and what we discussed has evolved over the months. Many of the group have now found new internal communication roles and we have found that there is more of a need to plan for the future as internal communications experts. For this reason we have decided to make our sessions public so that everyone can benefit from what we discuss and get involved if they so wish. 

Our most recent meeting was last week when we invited David Gallagher, Communications Consultant, to facilitate a discussion around the role of the line manager in internal communications – an increasingly important role in companies with so many people now dispersed – some frontline workers have not been away from the action all year, others have had to adapt to remote working and yet others have been furloughed, full or part time. 

What became clear was that we have a challenge. David described it very well. “In the last 12 months line managers and people leaders have found themselves thrust into leading in a whole new way, their people are out of sight (potentially out of mind) and staying connected is harder than ever, but the fact that people are working remotely is just a small part of it.  We’re a year into a global pandemic which has completely altered the landscape of not only where but how we work – and not only for now – but forever. Everything has changed – and forced change is never easy to accept. In the early pandemic we were talking a lot about physiological safety but now layer onto that 12 months of ‘fight’ mode means our colleagues (and our line managers) are feeling the burn like never before.”

When it comes to engagement, we know that a prerequisite is that people know what they need to do (they know what their job is and how to do it) and they are fired up to deliver on it. But with changes in our ways of working, do people know what they need to do?  Leadership is crucial and we’ve been saying for years there is a real challenge in the capacity within this population when it comes to communicating with their people, and the communications channel that is the line manager.  Many were struggling before and COVID has exacerbated the struggle.

Thinking about the role of line managers as internal communicators and engagers we have considered how we can best help. To start with the group highlighted the challenges for line managers and particularly those resulting from the pandemic 

  • feeling fatigued and overloaded/’unable to see the wood for the trees’
  • lacking the desire to communicate and engage with staff 
  • expecting/hoping that internal communications to do the communicating for them
  • worried about their own futures and ways of working
  • unclear about expectations of them  
  • trying to work in the same way as they did before the pandemic 
  • worried about how to manage all the differing expectations of how people want to work
  • not understanding how their people and teams are feeling

So, how can we help?  For the most part, we agreed it’s about dusting down what we have used in the past – around strategy and organisation – roadmaps, SWOTS, communication frameworks: introducing air traffic control protocols and rules to prevent communication chaos, signposting people with what they need to do with the communications they receive and when, creating clear lines of feedback so employees feel listened to and can shape their future, carrying out pulse surveys to check what is working and what isn’t, listening ….. the list goes on.

The difference is the environment in which we are needing to do this and the heightened role of the line managers.  On the first point, employees are more vocal and clearer about how they want to work in the future, they are less tolerant of communications that are not relevant or important to them, they don’t want long, drawn out campaigns but information they need – now, they expect their wellbeing to be looked after and to see empathy in their line managers and they expect to be communicated to in a way that is convenient to them.  On the second point, communications and engagement has never been a strong skill set of line managers but this capability gap needs to be addressed quickly and internal communicators need to work hand in hand with HR to address 

  • What is needed of leaders
  • Training needs 
  • Reward – how they are recognised and rewarded for these skills
  • What empathetic leadership looks like
  • Cultural change requirements  
  • What the employee experience will look like
  • How new people will be onboarded 

As David reminded us, ‘trusted advisor’ is a term now long used to describe what communications experts bring to the table and that expertise is needed now more than ever.

For Comma Partners, please email or call 07900057725

Published 9th March 2020

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