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I am confident that I have not been the only college administrator who was frustrated that the Department of Education did not have ready-to-go pandemic guidance for educational institutions as we navigated our COVID response. For the most part, we were instead left to define protocols and best practices for our own individual campuses, spending countless hours awaiting every news brief from the Centers for Disease Control. In hindsight I wonder if the lack of a one-size-fits-all operations plan was as adverse as it seemed to me in the moment. It forced colleges and universities of all sizes to look within, and it was the strength of our own established organizational cultures that shaped our resilience. Regardless of whether your institution’s resilience has been stronger than you imagined, just enough or could be better, now is the time to prioritize your internal communications plan for employees. Why?

We’ve spent more than a year on extremely task-focused response and planning. While scientifically proven COVID-19 protocols help keep us safe, it’s our people -- their attitudes and their actions -- that will determine the health of our organizational cultures on the other side of the worst global catastrophe so far in my lifetime. And our people are not all OK.

According to 2020 research by Gallup, less than 50 percent of U.S. adults evaluate their lives as "thriving," the lowest since the Great Recession of 2008. Even those who are not clinically depressed are languishing, describes The New York Times. Many are worried about health, finances, childcare, job security and more. Combine that with the fact that only about 34 percent of faculty and staff were engaged with, or in other words emotionally attached to, their workplace before the pandemic. Now, PWC reports that after working from home for nine months or longer, more than half of American workers prefer a hybrid-remote office environment.

Personally I am eager to get back to campus and engage in person with my colleagues, and I see anecdotal evidence suggesting that overall employee engagement has increased in higher education. We’ve established a rhythm of employee communications related to pandemic response. Digital technology enabled us to keep most staff members engaged with their work and with one another by continuing all previous in-person meetings as virtual ones. Faculty and staff members coalesced around a central purpose -- students -- and doubled down on the college’s commitment to delivering an exceptional education.

However, it’s clear why around the country many faculty and staff are burned out, frustrated and tempted by new careers that would allow them to work from home. It’s important to view this moment as a crossroads for employees, and a research-based employee communications strategy is key for continuously engaging, or in some cases re-engaging, employees. Engagement supports retention, thereby influencing group morale, performance, economics of replacing employees and eventually recruitment of future employees.

An understanding of your institutional culture, or brand identity, in marketingspeak, is central to any internal communications strategy. Whether you define it in sentences or keywords, start with culture. After that, no two internal communications plans should look exactly alike, but following are some important questions to address for employee communications strategy.

  • Are your institution’s employee communications, regardless of medium, two-way conversations?
  • What input and listening mechanisms exist or need to be implemented, and what will leadership do with that information?
  • How do employees view their individual identities within the larger organization?
  • What are the smaller segments or relationship connections inside the organization with which they engage, and how can the institution nurture them?
  • What are the major shared experiences at your institution that are important to employees?
  • Can your employees easily define the institution’s values and the institution’s actions that represent them?
  • Most colleges have persistence plans for students, but is there an equivalent for employees?
  • How can current employees be advocates for recruitment and retention of employees?
  • In the event of another national crisis that pulls people away from one another, what resources can your institution and your employees not do without?
  • How engaged are employees with the existing resources that support health, wellness, diversity and inclusion, professional development, and other people-first priorities?
  • What do your institutional data suggest are the most engaging media and formats for employee communications -- executive emails, printed letters, email newsletters, print newsletters, in-person forums, virtual forums, videos, podcasts, web stories, etc.? Do the data match what employees say they prefer? (Hint: Just because someone says they prefer digital communications does not mean they read information online as thoroughly as they do printed communications.)
  • How will your institution measure successful employee engagement?

As some of our institutions potentially move to hybrid work environments, employee communications and engagement will prove to be more important than ever. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all internal communications plan. Each institution must know its own internal audiences -- employees as well as students -- and develop a strategy that nurtures the assets of its institutional culture and that guides toward the aspirational.

Melissa Farmer Richards serves as vice president for communications and marketing at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.