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Five steps leaders can take to think about performance differently during a pandemic

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On this episode of Culture, Comms, and Cocktails, we have Rita Zonius, Director of The Enterprise Social Engineer.

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails is internal comms served straight up, so settle in, drink in the knowledge. Some shaken, some stirred, and maybe even some with a twist, and enjoy the top shelf guest I have lined up for you. I’m your host, Chuck Gose, Senior Strategic Advisor at SocialChorus. On this episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, we have Rita Zonius, Director of The Enterprise Social Engineer.

The Enterprise Social Engineer is a consultancy focused on corporate communications, change and supporting organizations to be the most collaborative they can be. Led by experienced corporate communications.

“The pandemic may come and go, and it’s got a long time to play out here. But people’s memories are long. They’re going to remember how you treated them. So leaders who are trying to manage through this in a transactional way and just seeing what they can get out of this for themselves are going to not have a fun time on the other side of
” —Rita Zonius

We feature communications leaders every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Don’t miss an episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, brought to you by SocialChorus. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts (Apple, Google Play, Stitcher, etc.)

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails Episode #36 Transcript

Chuck Gose: Hello everyone. This is Culture, Comms & Cocktails. Internal comms served straight up. I am your host, Chuck Gose, Senior Strategic Advisor at Social Chorus. And I’m so thrilled today to be joined by my friend Rita Zonius, the Director of The Enterprise Social Engineer. Rita, welcome to Culture, Comms & Cocktails.

Rita Zonius: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here with you again Chuck.

Chuck Gose: Well, let’s go ahead and get started here in the Culture, Comms & Cocktails. Obviously we are not seated together, or else we would be sharing a cocktail, which we will get to those a little bit later in the podcast. But before we begin the questions Rita, where does this recording find you today?

Rita Zonius: I know it’s your morning, but it’s the evening here in Melbourne, Australia, where it’s now winter and it’s getting pretty cold here. And we also just happen to be in lockdown 2.0 here in Melbourne, because of the virus. So lots of staying put at home right now.

Chuck Gose: And I think this is the first time, and it’s easy to get confused, anybody that works with colleagues in Australia, your today is my yesterday. Or is it my today is the tomorrow? It gets very confusing.

Rita Zonius: Australians are always running ahead of the Americans when it comes to the time zone. So it’s Thursday evening here.

Chuck Gose: And we see that, it’s a great segue to my next question, which was to ask one, how you and your family are doing during this pandemic. We know each country has its own challenges, but it does seem like Australia is running ahead of America during the pandemic. So how are you and your family doing?

Rita Zonius: We’re doing okay. The kids have adjusted. So my 14 year old son says, “Mum, I just keep spending a lot of time in my bedroom, which is what I like to do anyway.” So for him it just feels quite normal. And my kids actually just started back at school this week. So we again have distance learning going on here. So that is a challenge, frankly. To juggle that with work and other things going on, that can be quite tricky. But we’re doing okay.

Chuck Gose: Now, going back, you used to be an in-house internal communicator. It was at ANZ. I’m asking people this question who used to be in-house and now work as consultants. When this pandemic came about and you saw this resurgence in communications and started thinking through what were these internal communicators doing, did you get jealous and miss it, or are you glad that you were not part of that?

Rita Zonius: You know in a weird way, it would be fun to be back in-house steering the ship on this. This is the ultimate issue. None of us have ever lived through anything like this, and we’re most likely not going to again. So a little piece of me was jealous. But then also too, it’s been interesting for me as an outsider to observe what’s been going on in comms shops in organizations, and absolutely the internal comms people are run off their feet right now.

Chuck Gose: And let’s take this into a real world scenario that you and I have experienced. You mentioned your son enjoying being in his bedroom. Our sons know each other, have never met, but know each other through video games, playing Fortnite. And this got me thinking about how in the corporate world, we all have colleagues that we never meet face-to-face, but end up building relationships. So is there a scenario where this next generation will become the experts at distance communication and disperse organizations, because they’re building relationships over technology?

Rita Zonius: Absolutely. I think they will do that for many reasons. And I wrote a blog post about this a little while ago, and I was musing over how my children were going with their distance education. We’ve all been taught in life to not really put a lens on ourself and not talk about ourselves, and keep everything super professional. Our kids are being told to ask a lot of questions, to be curious, to seek help when they need it. And I think we, the adults in the room, can learn a lot from our children about this and they will be the future of work. They will work in a more visible way and open way, in a way that’s been very difficult for us as adults to rewire ourselves to do this right now.

Rita Zonius: So I think the kids have got it made, they’re going to be quite well sorted out for the future of work. They just perhaps need to learn how to go and read their emails a little more frequently and check them a bit more often. That was just so awful to tell my children to have to do that when they were starting the distance learning, “go and check your email.” But they’ve learned faster than some adults. So they’ll be just fine.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. I was thinking through the amount of trust that builds up pretty quickly, and I think they would argue that playing Fortnite is much like work. I think you and I might argue a little differently. But the amount of trust and how they do rely on each other, I think it’s pretty fascinating to see that relationship build, that you and I have had happen virtually with people. But I wonder if that’s going to now happen more with this next generation. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, especially around this pandemic, because we thought we might get out of it and now it looks like we’re in it for a little bit longer, unfortunately. You published a LinkedIn article talking through these five tips for leaders. What I want you to do is quickly summarize four of them and what they are, but that fifth one, which is the one that you think is the most important. What’s the most important tip?

Rita Zonius: Well, given what we were just talking about, I would say it’d be around helping people rewire their minds to work more effectively in a digital workplace and the job that organizations have to do. But let’s just rewind and talk about the other four. So the article was about performance anxiety, and it’s a bit tongue in cheek, but how did leaders manage before the virus? You would set a performance line for your people. You would give them some goals. You would set objectives with them. Everyone would run hard. You could see where you were going. The pandemic has thrown all of this up in the air, and even this second round of lockdown where we thought we were starting to see this light at the end of the tunnel. We’re in an unknown world, everything is upside down, and so we can’t manage the performance in the way we used to.

Rita Zonius: So I think the things that latest can do right now to deal with this is, to build trust through their words and actions. So be open and honest with your communication, tell people the things that you do know, tell them when you don’t know, role model the standards that you want to set. So that’s the first one. The second point is around purpose. And I think those organizations that are not clear about who they are, what they stand for, what they won’t work past, have got some real work to do. Because we’ve all been having this existential moment in our kitchens, living rooms, wherever at home. We’ve all gone home and we as individuals, we have sat down and thought about, what does life really mean to me? What is it that I want to do? What is it that I really want to get out of my work and my life?

Rita Zonius: People have found themselves at home. They’ve quite enjoyed the experience of working from home, where perhaps previously they might’ve thought it was not possible for them, or even accessible to them as far as their employers were concerned. So I think doubling down on purpose is really key. This would be how we entice talent and keep talented people working for us. That they come out of this wanting to make sure that when they’re getting out of bed to do something, they’re contributing to something that really matters to them and really speaks to them. So these old ways of rewarding people, even down to the tactical things, the cool office with the bar, the cool office with the ping pong table. Who cares about any of that now? These are not going to entice people. So I think HR people have got lots to think about there.

Rita Zonius: The third point is around empowering people. So there’s nothing better than helping settle people down by giving them a bit of certainty in the form of routine. Giving them things that they can do even while there is still a lot of uncertainty going on around the place. And people will feel a bit more in control when they feel they have stability and some routine going on for them. So I think a leader can provide that.

Rita Zonius: And then the fourth point is around paying it forward. So the pandemic may come and go, and it’s got a long time to play out here. But people’s memories are long. They’re going to remember how you treated them. They’re going to remember how you treated your customers, how you treated your employees. These things are going to linger and they’re going to matter and they’re going to stick around in the memories of people. So leaders who are trying to manage through this in a transactional way and just seeing what they can get out of this for themselves are going to not have a fun time on the other side of this. So they’re the five key points.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. You mentioned about the memories being long. In addition to hosting podcasts, I also do listen to podcasts. And there’s another gentleman talking about, he is anticipating a bit of conflict happening in the corporate world where there are people who are going to remember how much they disliked being in the office and will want to maintain this new way of working for them. I know you and I have worked remote distance for a while, but that will be new to them. And then there will be people who remember how much they enjoyed the office and will want to get back to the office, and the break room, and that comradery. And I was joking with someone the other day about how it’s become this thing about talking about ping pong tables in the office, as a point to culture.

Chuck Gose: If anybody’s given away a ping pong table, I’d love to have one here. If you don’t want to have a ping pong table, I’d love to have one. Air hockey tables fully embraced. But I wonder about… We have positioned that as this culture, whereas communicators, I think sometimes we get insulted by thinking about, “oh the ping pong table is the culture side.” So what I’m curious for you, thinking through some of that, how do you see corporate cultures evolving and playing out? And is there going to be this battle between what a culture was, versus where a culture is heading inside an organization?

Rita Zonius: Yeah. Look, as a communicator, the Schadenfreude in all of this for me and where I get a little bit of delight out of what is playing out here, as awful and as catastrophic as it is for the world, it has certainly elevated the importance of communication in the workplace. Organizations that previously didn’t prioritize employee communications are fast finding they’re trying to navigate a really, really difficult landscape and trying to take their people on a journey, they’re not even sure what the journey is, where they’re going or why they’re doing it. So on the bright side, I think the cultures of the future will be shaped even more by communication. Again, coming back to some of the things I talked about before, rallying people around a common vision and a purpose. Why is it that we’re doing what we do here? Why does it matter to us? They’re important conversations that communicators can facilitate. And I think that the communications function will have a very, very strong bearing on the shape of organizations in the future and the type of culture that results.

Chuck Gose: And I want to go back to an earlier point, because I think this speaks to how some cultures operated before, where you mentioned the importance of, really, you should say during any time, but we see it more and more during crisis communications in a pandemic around leadership being open, and I think honest is the key word. What advice would you give to a communicator who was struggling with leadership? The communicator does not feel that leadership is being as open and honest. And I don’t want to use the words transparency and authenticity, I like focusing on open and honest. How does a communicator work with, convince their leadership to be more open and honest? And sometimes that also includes frequency of communication.

Rita Zonius: Sure. I think there’s a couple of different kinds of leaders when it comes to these problems. So they might be some where you can convince them and you can show them examples of where the wheels fell off when we actually were not timely with our communication. We know that great internal communications… A mutual friend of ours, Priya Bates, frequently says to me “when internal communications is working really well, fewer horrible things happen.” And I believe that that is absolutely the case. So there might be some leaders that you will be able to convince by having a conversation that’s focused on that and by showing them some examples. But I guess maybe it’s different for me, I’m at a stage in my career where I do believe that that is true and there are some ways this needs to be managed properly.

Rita Zonius: And if I kept on coming up against a leader, I found myself in an organization that just really didn’t want to know about this, then I would consider going and getting a job somewhere else, frankly. I just think having these arguments time and time again with leaders who don’t get it is very energy sapping, and I would rather be going and contributing in a place where leaders do care and do want to make a difference. And I think this will all play out. The survivors, the fit leaders, the survival of the fittest, will be those leaders who can actually be resilient through this. Be open and honest and take their people for this ride and not shy away from having any difficult conversations. So I think the pandemic will actually sort through some of these people. So indeed, actually, maybe another strategy is to wait it out because I think perhaps some of these leaders will become extinct anyway.

Chuck Gose: Mm-hmm. That’s an interesting approach. One I’m glad that you mentioned, that leaving is an option and that is scary to some people, especially when you really do like your job. But if this is that constant wall you’re running up against you, that is an option, but also leaving during the pandemic could be scary. And so that’s an interesting thought you brought up, around that this type of leader that maybe communicators have had troubles with in the past, could be extinct in the future because they’re not going to be living up to what everybody expects.

Rita Zonius: Well, let’s understand a typical psychopathic narcissistic leader and the traits. These people are typically very good at hiding around in their emails, at managing up, at dampening down the conversation that’s happening further. And in fact, actually acting like a permafrost and not allowing for the voices to be heard. This is all highly damaging stuff and makes short work of staff engagement when you have these people, incredibly draining when they’re around. So I think those people, now that we’re working in a more visible connected world, we’re not playing games in our email. We’re showing up in Zoom. These tools that are great leveler. The tools that we’re all using to work in a distributed way means the center of gravity of the mothership of the office matters a lot less now.

Rita Zonius: And so these leaders that have used these structures and all of these tools of power and control before, are now finding that they’re slowly falling from their grasp as they struggled to operate in a much more straightforward and open way when things are much more visible. I actually don’t mind it Chuck. I think it’s a good thing. Again, sorting out the genuinely good leaders that people want to follow, versus the ones who enjoy coming to work to play games.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. There was a story that I heard recently about a leader. I shouldn’t say recently a couple of months ago. Right when the pandemic started and ready to work from home, that it was a quite humbling experience for the senior leader who never took the time to even understand what it took to get high speed internet at home, had just relied on another family member to do it. Realized what they had at home was that good enough for him to run meetings. They had to send out a corporate IT person to his home to help set all this up. And they then realized, “okay, I’m a drain on the system. I have to up my game to level up to least where my employees are, when it comes to setting up working from, not from work, working from remote locations.”

Chuck Gose: And the communicator said that’s changed their relationship with that leader entirely, because they now started to feel their pain. They saw what life was like for that remote worker. And now they’ve changed policy as a result of it, which I think is pretty amazing. But it did take that leader to go through it themselves to have that experience.

Rita Zonius: And let’s not even talk about the micro managers. That’s a whole other conversation, but same sort of issues.

Chuck Gose: Those are the ones that I wonder though, the micro managers out there, they must be driving their employees crazy, maybe crazier than what it was like before in the office, for those that had to deal with that. But I would imagine the employees, now, it’s probably much easier to ignore that Slack message or ignore that email coming in than it was the tap on the shoulder. But I wonder that micromanager, you would think would have to just be struggling right now as well, because they don’t have that same control that they had once before. And they’re trying to still have that control.

Rita Zonius: Correct. Exactly. You raise an interesting point though. And I wonder if we can talk about this for a moment is, we’ve all gone home and turned on all of this technology and that leader you were talking about before had some help. But what I do worry about, it feels a little to me when I look around the world and how this is playing out, that we’ve turned it all on, we’re making do, we haven’t changed too many rules about the way we do things. We’re using new technology, but still trying to follow an old way of working. And I do think that this is going to become exhausting for people.

Rita Zonius: So this notion of always being on all the time, always fronting up into 10 Zoom meetings a day, always having to have your game face on and concentrate. This is incredibly draining. And we can see now this pandemic, this way of working, working in a distributed way, is going to be with us for some time to come. So I think organizations still have got some way to go to think about how they truly make it a more manageable experience so people are not going to collapse in a heap from exhaustion at the end of the day. So I think that’s a very real problem.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. I think it’s been interesting from the social core side of things, because we had both. We had employees who, when they went to work, went to work in an office. We had people who, like myself, work remote. And for those that went from the office to remote work, they had a new appreciation because their response was, “how can you sit there and stare at a monitor all day?” It was draining to them. But also no different than I experienced when I go into an office, sometimes that’s equally draining because it’s taken you out of your norm and where you get your energy from, how you take breaks. All of those things change. And it will be interesting to see how organizations evolve.

Chuck Gose: And I’ve seen some tips beyond just the normal how to zoom properly, which kudos to them for seizing all of this during the pandemic. That simple things, like yes turning your camera on is great because it’s good to see people and see that people are doing well and doing okay. But then once the screen sharing starts, once the conversation starts, it’s okay to turn your camera off. So even managing that, of being on like we talked about, but also still being available, still being active, still being engaged, but not feeling like you’re being watched all the time.

Rita Zonius: Yes. Active and engaged. See, now I’m going to talk about my favorite tool in all of this. So I do think some of the answer is we do think that we need to be always on, where actually now we have enterprise social networks which are perfect for working in a more asynchronous way. And for me, I work with people who are on the other side of the world. It’s a great help to be able to post a question before I go to bed tonight, see who will answer that question while I’ve been sleeping. A lot of this pressure can be taken away if we just think about the processes we’re trying to achieve when we’re doing our work and thinking about how we can use some of this technology and more creative and innovative ways, to just take away some of that always on pressure.

Chuck Gose: Rita, thank you so much for the conversation. We’ve spent time talking through culture. We’ve spent time talking through communications. Now I know the other thing you and I both have great appreciation for is a delicious cocktail. And as I was thinking through this question with you, over the years, you and I have shared quite a few cocktails. One that immediately came to mind, which sounds like a humble brag and I don’t mean it to was, we were both in Copenhagen several years back for Euro comms. Great night out, stumbled across this crazy old lounge somewhere in Copenhagen that maybe had eight chairs in it, it was super small, dimly lit. One of my favorite traveling cocktails I’ve ever had. But for you Rita, what is your recommendation? Either your favorite cocktail or favorite place to get that cocktail?

Rita Zonius: Okay, well first I just want to show you something, because this is about as close as I’m going to get to New York. So this is my son’s Lego construction.

Chuck Gose: Well done.

Rita Zonius: So I’m a little sad because I was meant to be in New York. And one of my favorite things to do is to go to… I frequently stay at a hotel in Midtown that has a great rooftop bar. And I would always end my night on the top of that bar drinking a Cosmopolitan and staring at the Empire State building. And for me it was my happy place, my happy drink in my happy place. And so I’m not in New York, but I have this and so I guess I can always make a Cosmo and have this near me while I drink it.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. Thinking back through what you just said about being in New York, I know that with this pandemic a lot of plans change for a lot of people, a lot of really horrible things have happened. But one of the more frustrating things for people like you and I, we are used to seeing each other at events and I would have seen you at PRSA connect in Charlotte and I would’ve seen you at IABC world conference in Chicago. So that is a miss, which hopefully that just makes 2021 that much sweeter. When we get through this pandemic, we can reconnect with friends, see each other face-to-face and hopefully get rid of this so that we can share a hug as well.

Rita Zonius: Absolutely. I would love nothing more than to hug you big fella.

Chuck Gose: Well, again, thank you Rita so much for the time today, sharing your advice and being on Culture, Comms & Cocktails.

Rita Zonius: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

Chuck Gose: If you enjoyed what you heard from this episode and want to check out others, find Culture, Comms & Cocktails on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. And when you do hit that subscribe button, so you don’t miss any future episodes. This has been Culture, Comms & Cocktails. Internal comms served straight up. Thanks for listening.

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Chuck Gose

Chuck Gose

I am a self-proclaimed Skyline Chili connoisseur and Duran Duran fan with nearly 20 years of experience in marketing, corporate communications, and internal communications. My passion and enthusiasm for the communications profession began early in my career at General Motors and Rolls-Royce, Since then, I have focused on weaving internal communications and technology in creative ways. I'm also the co-creator of The Periodic Table of Internal Communications and The Very Hungry Communicator. But most importantly, I got to fly in a blimp once.

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