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Rethinking communication and innovation in the time of Covid-19

COMMENT

As we see a spike in Covid-19 infections and the death toll soars, leaders around the world grapple with what the upheavals wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic means for their citizens, organisations, workplaces and employees. Never before have we had to face such need for, and scope for, mobilisation testing our ability to communicate. And with the spread of fake news about the pandemic, the consequences of misinformation are dire. 

Not only does information have to be accurate, timely and regular — all particularly important attributes in the context of uncertainty and upheaval — it also has to be compassionate and empathetic. 

Communication is crucial to the functioning and success of organisation, as well as organisations, on both societal and institutional level. The technological transformations triggered through the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) provide unprecedented ways for communication and information-sharing. This said, organisations often battle to reach their employees and broader stakeholders. And no more so than in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which communication and information is crucial to ensure the health and safety of employees, as well business continuity, amid lockdowns and physical distancing. 

With all the means of modern communication technology at our disposal, this might seem an easy task. Not always so. Information-sharing is one thing; communicating quite another. Communication is built on relationships: it is not about how many messages and newsletters we send out, but about the how and the why of the communication and messaging.The latter is important, because, in the context of organisational communication, innovation is often thought of as being interchangeable with technology adoption. 

Organisations do well in understanding how communication and innovation are interlinked and how this extends beyond technology. After all, technology is but a tool for communication and innovation. And although innovation drives change and transformation, communication is central to all human endeavours: through communication we reinvent ourselves and the world around us. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, employers need to reappraise what communication and innovation mean and how central these are to the future success of their organisations. 

Innovation through collaboration

Traditionally, organisational communication is about image creation and the diffusion of values, internally as well as externally. Much as it is about ensuring business continuity and success through keeping employees appraised of policies and procedures related to core objectives and operations. Importantly, communication also serves to build relationships and should serve to improve staff morale, job satisfaction and fulfilment. Employers need to communicate change and start conversations about the future and foster 21st century skills that facilitate innovation through collaboration, co-creation and creativity, an increasingly important objective in light of 4IR and fast-paced change.

To do this, organisations need to understand how innovation and creativity is fed by diversity and inclusivity, and how increased interconnectedness forms the fabric of modern society. Nowhere is this need more evident than in the societal changes wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. Equally, there is growing polarisation globally, fuelled by identity politics and the resurgence of racist and nationalist ideas. To counter this, appreciation for diversity in the broadest sense of the word is needed at all organisational levels. 

In this regard, diverse, nonhierarchical and lateral organisations fare better than authoritarian, hierarchical, bureaucratic, siloised and politicised ones. Organisations need to narrow power distances and diversity needs to be ensured in all communication practices, including the voices and views sought and heard from across the organisation. Empathetic communication here plays a crucial role, as does communication that emphasises listening — and the understanding and valuing of other perspectives. 

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, communication about core operations and business continuity needs first to centre on what the organisation is doing to ensure the health and safety of its employees and how employees are supported to ensure that tasks relating to different roles and portfolios can be carried out without major disruption. Second, communication should serve to give employees a better understanding of changes brought about by the pandemic and lockdown, both in the short and long terms — whether this relates to maintaining policies and procedures or adopting one. Third, ensuring that communication remains empathetic and attuned to the needs of employees in a time of great disruption and by facilitating and creating platforms for co-operation, creativity and innovation can grow and fears be allayed. Importantly, this can allow people to feel connected, even if they are physically isolated. 

Hence, not only is it important that we communicate, but to assess how and what we communicate. And, if we have not done so before, we will, in the current context, have to be innovative in the ways that we use communication tools, not only to reach employees, but also for lateral communication and conversations throughout the organisation. Physical distancing rules do not have to mean that we work in isolation from each other; on the contrary, the scope and need for communication and collaboration has never been greater and we need to be innovative in how we communicate. 

How we manage communication is central to how we manage the current Covid-19 pandemic and ensure the future success of our organisations. 

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Ylva Rodny-Gumede
Ylva Rodny-Gumede is a professor of communication studies and the senior director of the division for internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg

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