If we want to understand what’s happening in the comms world now, we need to think about how things will play out by 2023.
In the age of COVID-19, where dislocation, pain and upheaval have been a day-to-day norm, it’s become very easy to lose sight of the longer term picture.
Nevertheless are threads and trends emerging, that, if left unchecked, will likely dominate the future field of play we see in organizations, and will have longer-lasting impact than the immediate pandemic cleanup we’ll see in 2022.
Some of these reflect basic developments in the economy, and others represent specific areas of opportunity that are still subject to influence from leaders and communication pros.
To look at what we need to do today, let’s see how they could play out by 2023.
Networks vs. Hierarchies
The battle between networks and hierarchies will take center stage as the world emerges from the pandemic.
Masked by the important-but-not-central question of workplace strategy, the biggest battle will be between organizations who see themselves as being driven by agile informal networks and multi-hatted job roles, versus those who see the formality, specificity and discipline of their hierarchies and org charts as core to their organizational strength.
Network vs. Hierarchy is not a question of “remote” vs “office-based”. Some networked organizations will eagerly return to common workspaces, and some hierarchies are clear that they don’t need corner offices to remind people’ who’s boss.
Indeed, the enforced use of remote working has helped strengthen networked working in some cases and reinforced hierarchical relationships in others.
Physical location has a lot of implications either for a network driven by informal relationships or for formal organizations where status drives speed. As does the level of seriousness invested in internal community management. But the big battles will be in whether networked organizations can sustainably and reliably deliver the right solutions to the market compared to more traditional competitors, and whether top talent will choose hierarchical organizations when more networked alternatives are available in their spaces.
From Purpose to Ideology
For the last ten years, organizations and organizational experts have talked about “purpose” as the next great driver of organizational performance. This is a trend that shows no sign of abating, and in fact is a key driver of millennial career preferences.
But organizational purposes are often ambiguously worded or inconsistently pursued. This inconsistency and ambiguity can dilute the intent of the purpose, or even give space for people to defensibly work at cross purposes.
Many in organizational life have so far dismissed the need to actively drive organizational alignment, and specifically, to invest the time and understanding to drive shared mental models and define shared language. But in an increasingly dispersed and networked workplace, the need for more sharply defined rules of engagement become more paramount. Expect to see today’s vaguely worded purposes become more fleshed-out as organizational ideologies as we head for 2023.
When Diversity meets Ideology
In parallel, the pressure organizations face to incorporate greater diversity will continue. In the world of diversity there are two substantial and concurrent trends: the need for organizations to redress persistent racial, gender and cultural inequities on the one hand and to improve the range of thinking and perspectives that get incorporated into culture building and decision-making on the other.
The need for unambiguous purpose-aligned ideologies to emerge at a time when organizations are under pressure to become more demographically and attitudinally diverse represents a high-risk challenge that could shake organizational alignment and cohesion.
Hybrid to Bye-brid
In a profoundly changed landscape with high-octane organizational and commercial challenges, the prevailing current focus on creating hybrid work environments capable of equally satisfying employees and management appears outsized at best and unsustainable in many cases.
In contrast to remote-led approaches where physical presence is the occasional exception, or office-led approaches where remote work is the occasional exception, hybrid will be an effort to manage a system of ongoing exceptions, adding countless opportunities for friction and drama.
Unless organizations maintain their current real-estate portfolios and attendant costs to allow employees’ friction-free access to desks and meeting facilities, a Hybrid workday of early-morning and early-evening meetings is hardly going to satisfy a workforce that’s being promised pain-free flexibility. Even with optimized access to work facilities, employees will be forced to remain in their current locations, and employers will still have to persuade new talent to relocate.
In sectors where competitors are successfully embracing remote working, shedding the cost of real estate and tapping into global talent bases, companies struggling with hybrid will be forced to abandon it.
Multidimensional M&A - and a lot of it
One by-product of Covid is that there are a ton of assets out there - some of which are still-functioning businesses - that are, or will be, for sale when the worst of the pandemic is past.
M&A communication is a profoundly challenging and strategic area, one that combines highly strategic internal comms and cultural integration with the full range of external communication activities. It will be a massive growth area both for in-house pros and for consultancies with experience with the intensity and nuance of M&A comms.
But post-pandemic M&A communication will be a very different animal from what’s been seen before in this space. Add the dynamics of workspace strategy, networked vs. hierarchical culture, and the likelihood of major acquisitions being made by buyers from China, India, and other less-traditional economies, and M&A comms will take on increasing complexity and urgency.
Generational dynamic - a booming x-factor
For companies taking more of a remote approach, there will likely be some interesting generational shifts. As remote onboarding is more difficult than physical onboarding in a lot of cases, experienced people will become more attractive as contractors and even staff.
This will cause issues for getting new talent into work and into the careers of their choice (a reason why the influx of remote-preferring young millennials and the newly-arriving influx of Gen-Z graduates might soon gravitate into office-based roles early in their careers), but it could create a boom for Boomer and Generation X employees who were becoming increasingly rare in office-based roles but who become easier to slot into remote roles with less hands-on support.
Gender balance could benefit as remote roles could more easily accommodate mothers with young children and women returning to the workforce compared to in-office roles, and this dynamic could more broadly make the workplace more inclusive of people with caring responsibilities, disabilities and other issues that make traditional in-person, full-time employment unworkable for them..
The end of employee engagement benchmarking
Employee engagement benchmarking has always been suspect - given the difficulty of making valid comparisons between companies that have different organizational cultures, much less those in different sectors or with headquarters in different countries.
Add in the dimensions of office-hybrid-remote and networked-hierarchy, and add in different organizational purposes and ideologies, and employee engagement benchmarking becomes a random exercise.
Whether this drives alternative approaches or measures to look at how to improve and optimize employee participation remains to be seen. But the credibility of employee engagement benchmarking should finally take a long-deserved fatal hit. In its place should fall internal benchmarking, along with baselining and more extensive use of qualitative research.
Upheaval in the association world
The network vs. hierarchy battle will also rage in the world of professional networking in the communication and change world. Traditional dues-based, centralized associations are going head-to-head with online communities like Inko Club in the Czech Republic and the new, global ICology platform, sponsor-led events like Smarp’s Great Comms Debate, and even hashtag-based movements like Britain’s #CommsHero.
While local chapters and member-communities were once dependent on national associations to handle much of their “back office” activities, dues-free models combining face-to-face meetings with online recruitment and administration are proliferating and, in some cases thriving.
Still, established associations are faced with some golden opportunities - to emerge as champion advocates of the value created by their members and professions, to stimulate research from their members, as the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations seeks to do with its Research Fund, and to facilitate intergenerational mentoring, like IABC Ottawa is doing. Workforce dispersion may also create new demand for the Global Communication Certification Council’s offerings, the CMP and SCMP certifications.
But the time is running out for the traditional associations to make a compelling case why communication pros should pay $300 in dues when high-quality alternatives are increasingly available.
Space for the sparring partners
Based on my own recent research with communications leaders worldwide, there is a niche emerging between traditional consulting and the ever-proliferating world of coaching, where coachees are encouraged to seek solutions from within.
A new niche is emerging - that of the “sparring partner” - named for the practice partners employed by professional boxers. Unlike a consultant, the sparring partner aims to keep the client in the ring and focused on their own delivery rather than on identifying opportunities to source work. Unlike a coach, the sparring partner is there to offer advice, talk through solutions, and employ their own expertise on the client’s behalf.
There are some initial players in this space, most notably Jason Anthoine in the US, (and to be fair, this is also a space I am personally very interested in).
2023 is happening now.
Yes, much of the attention in our field is being focused on how to come up with the “right” hybrid working environments and on issues like wellbeing that are peripheral to the strategic opportunities communication professionals face at the moment.
But while the changes discussed above will take longer to develop, they are more significant. Indeed, they are potentially seismic for all of us in the profession.
We might not be able to get our stakeholders’ full attention as many are still thinking week-to-week or month-to-month. For us, we have no such luxury. We need to serve and satisfy our stakeholders as we help position them and ourselves to thrive in the near future.
Because the factors that will drive us in 2023 are being shaped now. We can shape them, or be shaped by them. It’s time to choose.
Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms, a consultancy specialized in communication strategy, research and content based in Reykjavik, Iceland. Author of From Lincoln to Linked In, a book on social and tribal communication in organizations and communities, Mike has worked with large private and public sector organizations including Cargill, Shell, Maersk, easyJet, Barclays, Avery Dennison and the US Federal Government. He also co-leads the Strategic Services business for Smarp, and holds an MBA from London Business School.
Thank you to Abby Hirsch, Amber Brittain, Sharon O'Dea and Stephen James for their review of this piece.
About the Author
Mike Klein is a communication consultant with extensive internal and political communication experience, based in Reykjavik, Iceland. A dual US/UK citizen, Mike has lived and worked in seven countries, for major organizations.