Jenni Field is a business communications strategist and founder of Redefining Communications. Her first book, Influential Internal Communication, was published by Kogan Page in 2021. She is also an international speaker, facilitator, and Vice President of the CIPR.
In this post, she shares how the Field Model ™ can be used by internal communicators to understand, diagnose, and fix issues in organizations for the long term.
Recently an article appeared on the BBC news website about a call to ban out-of-hours emails from bosses.
The article said that the pressure to reply to emails “isn’t sustainable.” And members of the trade union Prospect called for the UK government to give employees a legally binding “right to disconnect” — banning bosses from “routinely emailing or calling” outside set working hours.
Now, I’m a big believer in setting boundaries and putting mental health first — but government control over when people can email is not a solution.
The debate about “out-of-hours email” highlights how we look at symptoms of a problem and swiftly suggest a quick fix to address them without looking at the root cause.
For example, it’s (relatively) easy to do a campaign about mental health — it’s much harder to look at and change processes or line management behavior.
To internal communication professionals’ credit, often we can see that we’re only treating the symptoms, but we aren’t always sure why or what to do about it.
This is exactly why I developed The Field Model — to understand, diagnose, and fix issues in organizations for the long term, and help teams and individuals go from chaos to calm.
Symptoms and causes of organizational chaos
Chaos can manifest itself in many ways in an organization — there could be burnout, high turnover, misaligned functions after an acquisition, a crisis, absenteeism, or poor collaboration across teams. If this chaos is ignored, it becomes toxic and very damaging.
In regards to the issue of “out-of-hours email,” the symptoms are employee burnout and employees working unpaid overtime. The root cause, however, is likely to be a lack of boundaries and awareness of individual needs.
Both the symptoms and the underlying cause can be fixed, but you have to look at what’s underneath the behavior of emails being sent “out-of-hours” first.
Though it might seem easier and faster, if you only focus on alleviating symptoms, you won’t be fixing things for the long term. It’s like taking a Tylenol for a persistent headache, instead of addressing whether you might need new glasses, are spending too much time at your screen, or need to drink more water. Sure, the pain might go away for now, but it will be back with a vengeance because that underlying problem is still festering.
So how do you go about identifying these root causes and making lasting change?
Let me introduce you to The Field Model.
The Field Model applied to internal communications
The Field Model has three steps:
We often understand something is wrong, but we don’t know why. In this step, we seek to understand the symptoms.
What’s happening that is creating chaos? What’s the problem you’re looking to solve?
Next, we diagnose the root cause of the symptoms.
This takes time.
The right method of diagnosing depends on your situation, organization, and budget. The conversations at this stage need to be approached with an open mind, with no preconceived ideas of what the solution might be.
We diagnose through a variety of tools: surveys, focus groups, listening interviews, and more.
From quick wins to longer-term projects, this is the way to make changes that stick.
This stage requires vulnerability, bravery, courage and a lack of ego.
Here, we delve into processes and ways of working, while also looking at behaviors and actions from those in the organization. It can take anything from a few months to a few years to truly fix issues — but it means you’ll actually be fixing the root cause of the symptoms and investing in change that will last.
Applying the Field Model to the “out-of-hours email” problem
To understand what The Field Model looks like in practice, let’s apply it to the “out-of-hours email” issue that we’ve been discussing.
People are feeling pressure to be “always on.” There is a sense of people feeling stressed. There are people expressing a desire to leave due to the culture of the organization.
Now that we understand that people are feeling pressure and stress and want to leave the company, we need to figure out the root cause.
To best way to figure out what is going on, in this case, is to have conversations rather than using something like a survey. We need to do a deeper dive to find out if this problem is present across the organization or specific to a certain team. We need more details to find out what is really going on, which makes conversations a great place to start.
Through diagnostics, we have identified (for example) the reason they feel pressured and stressed is because there is a group of managers in one part of the business who email out of hours and requires responses at the same time. It’s confined to a group and actually isn’t a problem everywhere. They don’t feel they can say no to replying and they have to be ‘on’ all the time.
To fix it, there needs to be a re-contracting of boundaries for the teams and individuals — particularly between the managers and the team. This needs to involve conversations with the managers to find out what is happening in their world that is driving this behavior.
The model isn’t linear — it doesn’t just go one way. You’ll be looping through the cycle of the three phases as you work through the model, and as you delve deeper into the processes and behaviors inside your organization.
In this case, a conversation around work time and expectations can start to fix the problem.
Why internal communicators rush to fix symptoms, not causes
It’s easy to see why we rush to fix the symptoms of issues in the workplace.
Discomfort and the bias towards action
Humans don’t like uncertainty, ambiguity, or when things feel out of balance. A lot of people are natural fixers — they don’t like the feeling of chaos, or of things being unsettled, so they rush to fix.
A lot of us have a bias towards taking quick action. We’re more comfortable with doing something — even if it’s counterproductive — rather than taking some time.
I encourage leaders to step back and take a more strategic view.
Use your natural curiosity to find out what’s really happening.
If you leave the ‘fixing’ to the final stage, you’ll more readily be able to bring a lasting sense of calm among the chaos, because you’ve prioritized figuring out where the focus really needs to be.
It’s about fixing what needs to be fixed, rather than making assumptions about what’s wrong.
Avoiding messy details and hard conversations
Another reason why people avoid delving too deep is that it’s often messy. Diving deep often requires addressing the hard relationship, behavioral, and process issues.
The fix for every team or organization is different, but the key themes that come up almost every time are leadership, blockers, culture, and strategy. Addressing these things can be challenging and messy.
And without a doubt, the "diagnose" phase of The Field Model will involve some difficult conversations.
When I worked with the Managing Director of Gallagher’s Employee Experience & Communication division to implement The Field Model, he described it as, "most definitely a challenging process because you have to act on the advice given; even if it’s tough. It’s easy to dismiss feedback because it’s sometimes hard to listen to.”
It takes resilience and guts to critique what’s accepted and challenge “how we do things around here” because we are nearly always on the defensive when someone tells us we need to do something differently.
As internal communicators, our work is often in the spotlight and of course, people will have opinions about it.
This is why we need data to help inform the actions we take. It’s also why change is so hard.
In Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson look at the neuroscience behind the difficulty of changing our mind:
Neuroscientists have recently shown that these biases in thinking are built into the very way the brain processes information . . . These mechanisms provide a neurological basis for the observation that once our minds are made up, it is hard to change them.”
We don’t like to be told we are wrong, and we are hardwired to justify our actions — so much so that we can believe things that simply aren’t true.
Fixing the emailing out of hours problem
It’s easy to say email should be banned out of hours.
But does anyone know what “out-of-hours” even means for global organizations?
Earlier, I mentioned that part of the fix to this problem could be to facilitate conversations about setting boundaries.
This may involve a team conversation about ways of working, agreements about expectations, or coaching leaders and line managers on their communication skills.
It takes time to support people with attention management and developing the skills of focus and productive working.
And as someone in my community pointed out, when those alerts go off on your phone or laptop, they are called notifications, not immediate demands; we must also have personal responsibility and accountability.
The whole concept of hybrid working — or “freedom within a framework” as I like to call it — can address different working preferences and styles. Though of course, these are also guided by organizational culture and roles.
Creating lasting change post-lockdown
In the wake of the global pandemic, the lines have become blurred. Problems have cropped up around hybrid working, culture, leadership, process, emailing out of hours, and more.
But as we explore how work changes post-lockdown, it’s important that we don’t rush to fix the symptoms.
Internal communicators need to take time to understand what’s going on, diagnose the root cause and fix things with a long-term view.
When I shared the BBC article on LinkedIn, one of the responses summed it up brilliantly:
Restrictions rarely work, accommodate everyone or provide a long-term solution to the issues of productivity, culture and behaviors.”
As communication experts, we must have conversations about what drives behavior and relationships and discuss a way to work together better.
And then we must take specific actions based on the facts and data.
Jenni is a business communications strategist and founder of Redefining Communications. She talks about The Field Model in detail in her book, Influential Internal Communication, published by Kogan Page.