Newswise — Managers should listen more, be empathetic and be sure they give feedback — even if they cannot solve a problem immediately, according to a Baylor University study that focused on workplace communication during the pandemic.

The crisis highlighted the need for better on-the-job communication with employees now and in the future, when the pandemic recedes, researchers said. 

Workplace communication often took a back seat this past year, as employees and employers rushed to work remotely, struggled with technology barriers, adjusted to physical distancing and, in some organizations, dealt with layoffs.

“There likely has never been a moment with such demand for ethical listening to employees,” said lead author Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., associate professor of journalism, public relations and new media at Baylor.

For the study, published in the Journal of Communication Management, researchers interviewed 30 communication professionals in the District of Columbia and 13 states: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Interviewees represented technology, financial and legal services, food and beverage, hospitality, energy, health care, trade associations, transportation, higher education and consultants.

“We heard that the pandemic posed challenges in internal communication due to the alienation many employees experienced, and it prompted us to reevaluate the moral responsibility communications holds for keeping employees feeling connected to their teams,” said co-researcher Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of South Carolina. 

For all the organizations studied, “the desire and follow-through to ethically listen to employees appeared to be a challenge,” Neill said. 

Ethical listening means “listening with an open mind and being able to hear the good, the bad and the ugly. Strategic listening is then taking the good and the bad and the ugly and knowing how to use the information,” said one communication manager interviewed in the survey. 

Researchers found that while senior managers valued communication, it became less of a priority as companies grappled with such quick changes as mandated quarantines. With workers often no longer sharing physical quarters, the use of Zoom soared, whether for large group meetings or one-on-one sessions, researchers noted. For communications professionals, remote work made it harder for them to build trusting new relationships. They, like others, felt isolated, missing critical conversations and small talk.

A trade association of the hospitality industry — whose members are primary stakeholders in their companies — needed “a different type of empathetic listening,” said an association communication manager.  

“There were stakeholders saying, ‘I’m going to have to close my doors. Please do something.’ And there’s only so much we can do,” the manager said. “This is these people’s livelihood . . . But it’s not just their baby. It’s a baby that generates income for the employees they deeply care about. It’s not just that it impacts them; it impacts their employees, which is a double cut to the heart.”

Most participants said the ratio of management messaging compared to employee feedback was lopsided, with far more talking than listening. And confidentiality is crucial, so employees feel comfortable giving feedback and do not fear retribution.

“We cannot promise we are going to fix everything,” said a communication manager in the financial services industry. “But we have the mantra if you are asking for feedback, it is critical that you close the loop and say that.”  

A communication manager in health care encouraged senior leaders to schedule 30-minute “walk-around” sessions — whether masked and in person or via technology.

“You cannot really listen effectively if someone does not know you very well, because trust has to be built up over time,” the manager said.

A professional in a law firm said she makes it a point to invite the less vocal members to share their thoughts; another uses on-on-one meetings with them. 

“In groups, large groups, they do not speak as freely, because there’s a hierarchy,” she said. “If the older, more senior people are not saying anything, then the younger, less seasoned attorneys more than likely will not say anything.”

Communications managers often have limited staff to analyze feedback, as well as a lack of communication between departments, especially in larger organizations. One suggestion was that a communication professional sit in on department meetings and be a liaison.

Some internal communicators said they saw a need for shorter, more focused meetings, in part to cut down on stress. One consultant said that more visual communications, such as videos and video conferencing, seem to help employees feel that they are cared for. 

“I’m making sure that I have my eyes trained on the screen on the facial expressions,” said another communication manager. “It’s interesting because in watching in a monitor, part of active listening is also looking for visual cues of the reactions of your colleagues. Sometimes those indicators are not just verbal. So I’m taking notes, trying to use my eyes.”

The researchers said they were encouraged by study participants’ heightened level of moral sensitivity and empathy about the impact of organizational decisions on employees’ lives.

“We recommend that senior leadership and communication professionals seek ways to continue to improve moral sensitivity well after the global pandemic has receded, which can lead to more ethical decision making,” Neill said.

*The study was supported by a Page Legacy Scholar Grant from The Arthur W. Page Center at The

Pennsylvania State University’s College of Communications.

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