10 Tips for Effective Employee Communication in the Time of COVID-19
Even if an organization handles the managerial and operational details of its response to the novel coronavirus pandemic well, the entire crisis response is bound to fail if communication with internal and external stakeholders is not timely, truthful, consistent, and coordinated. A botched communication response not only leads to unwanted stakeholder scrutiny, but it can cause significant physical and emotional harm as well as severe and lasting damage to stakeholder trust, reputation, and the bottom line.
While pandemic related information needs are extensive across all stakeholder groups, catering to the communication needs of employees is especially important when it comes to mastering the challenges that COVID-19 has given rise to. As a result, employee communication must increase in volume and frequency and effectively inform, educate, and empower employees. In addition, enabling employee feedback and developing, testing, and delivering clear and easy-to-understand messages must be prioritized.
The following 10 tips are designed to help decision makers at all levels of the corporate hierarchy manage potentially crippling adversity and actively preserve and even enhance the company’s reputation and competitiveness in the face of COVID-19.
1. Plan and be prepared
A successful response to the pandemic demands making and effectively communicating far-reaching and emotionally difficult decisions while under enormous pressure and often lacking complete or fully accurate information. Proper crisis preparedness planning therefore demands putting the necessary organizational structure, processes, and tools in place as soon as possible.
Develop, implement, and continuously improve a customized crisis communication strategy and matching crisis communication plan. Assign COVID-19 related internal and external communication responsibilities and thoroughly train the designated employees and their back-ups. Appoint communicators to the corporate and, if applicable, national, regional, and local COVID-19 response teams. Build realistic pandemic related scenarios upon which recurring crisis communication training and crisis management exercises are based.
2. Maintain ongoing dialogue
Management has a much greater chance of achieving its business and corresponding communication objectives if there is an ongoing and constructive dialogue with employees and other stakeholders long before a crisis occurs. Unfortunately, many companies fail in this and lack internet and media monitoring to identify and better understand the expectations and needs of external and internal stakeholders.
If employees are used to certain regular communication, see if the same channels and tools also work well during the pandemic and make necessary adjustments for instance due to the switch to home offices. In addition, develop, test, and implement new communication channels and tools that are better suited to facilitate two-way communication with employees throughout the organization.
3. Talk to employees first
Whenever possible, internal crisis communication should precede communication with external stakeholders. It is for example vital that employees do not hear negative COVID-19 news affecting their organization and employment from outside sources first. This will alienate them and hinder otherwise successful pandemic response and recovery efforts. Engaging in an honest dialogue with as many employees as possible also fosters better understanding and employee support for possibly unpopular yet necessary steps company leadership must take to secure the future of the business.
Whichever method of internal crisis communication a company may choose, the more upfront management is about what is happening, the better-informed and more entrusted employees feel. Those employees who are communicated with in an open, timely and truthful way are not only able, but also often willing to represent their company and support its goals internally as well as externally. This is especially true in the time of COVID-19.
4. Eradicate uncertainty
Underestimate the importance of effective employee communication during this pandemic and your company will suffer avoidable economic damage due to, among other factors, a lack of trust, low morale, and the subsequent loss of trained and dedicated employees.
To successfully manage the COVID-19 response it is necessary to increase the internal communication volume and frequency because employees have a high demand for updated information as well as the desire to provide continuous feedback.
Ask the following questions before communicating with employees:
1. What is the desired communication outcome?
2. What will be communicated?
3. Who will initiate the communication?
4. Which employees will be communicated with?
5. Where and how will the communication happen?
6. When will the communication take place?
Ask these questions after communicating with employees and as part of the evaluation and ongoing crisis preparedness planning process:
1. Were the communication objectives met?
2. How can we do better?
5. Tackle employees’ questions
Employees’ questions and concerns should be systematically anticipated, identified, and responded to on an ongoing basis. Because employees’ trust in management’s ability to handle the pandemic is critical, even those questions and concerns that seem unimportant or inconvenient should be addressed.
Especially in cases where the company may be responsible for any harm to employees – for example in connection with a positive COVID-19 test result – , consider communicating empathy as well as a clear explanation of the steps the company is taking to deal with the situation and prevent recurrences. However, do not base the messages on the views of management alone. Be sure to take into account the perceptions, opinions, and expectations within different stakeholder and employee groups. Also bear in mind any legal and other restrictions on the dissemination of certain information relating to the situation.
6. Create communication allies
Do not forget that employees have a vested interest in working with management to prevail over the pandemic and ensure the survival and ongoing competitiveness of the company. Many employees are very eager to put in extra time and effort to turn the ship around. Guide employees in their effort to speak up for the company internally and externally.
Empowering employees to take charge in times of crisis creates valuable communication allies who reinforce messages within the organization and carry them into the community. Remember that despite the wealth of sophisticated technology at the disposal of today’s professionals, face-to-face communication between supervisors and their direct reports remains one of the most effective communication tools.
7. Communicate facts, feelings, and actions
At this time of heightened anxiety, economic turmoil, and an unknown future due to Covid-19, succinctly communicating facts, feelings, and actions is more important than ever before. Managers must carefully listen to employees and openly communicate what is known (facts), how they feel about it (feelings), and what they are doing about it (actions).
Taking control of the development and delivery of compelling messages in this way eliminates conjecture and alleviates fears. In the absence of facts, stakeholders will fill such voids with inaccurate information fueled by fear and misinformation. Without understanding how leaders feel, stakeholders experience isolation and a greater sense of being alone. If actions and the reasoning behind them are not clearly communicated, these same stakeholders experience unease, concern, and alarm because they do not know what to expect.
8. Be consistent in messaging
With the goal of coherent messages and simultaneous communication in mind, more and more companies implement a one-voice-policy which dictates that only appropriately trained and designated employees, who are electronically linked with senior management and one another, may act as company spokespersons. The one-voice-policy may be difficult to uphold during COVID-19 as employees have a natural tendency to talk about stressful work-related events with family and friends, perhaps criticizing management’s handling of the situation.
However, a disgruntled employee sharing proprietary or damaging information on social media or with reporters poses a much more serious risk. Not only would this behavior sabotage the company’s one-voice-policy, but it may also diminish or even erase resources-intensive crisis response efforts. The development and implementation of a company-wide one-voice-policy is therefore a worthwhile investment.
9. Convince leaders on feedback
Employees appreciate and increasingly demand feedback options such as face-to-face meetings and technology-enabled two-way communication. But the best-laid crisis communication strategy may not work if continuous employee feedback is not included in management’s decision-making.
Use the following three arguments if you need to convince managers of the value of employee feedback in the time of COVID-19:
- Employee feedback allows management to track whether messages have reached the intended groups of employees and achieved the desired results.
- Employee feedback enables management not only to track employees’ opinions, perceptions, and expectations, but it also may reveal what colleagues and external stakeholders are sharing with employees.
- Employee feedback often contains valuable information and suggestions for minimizing damage, seizing opportunities, and enabling necessary change.
10. Involve senior management
COVID-19 causes unprecedented pressure and uncertainty for employees. To prevent rumors, false information and panic, senior management must be at the forefront of providing distressed employees across organizational hierarchies with relevant information, guidance, and motivation. It is particularly important to appropriately address concerns in connection with employee health and safety as well as the future of the company.
Aside from communicating with employees by way of traditional channels and tools, online communication solutions that facilitate two-way communication such as Slack, Yammer, or Zoom are becoming increasingly popular and essential to connect and communicate with employees in different locations.
In the last decade, many companies have continued to develop and critically improve their increasingly technology-driven approaches to communicating with external stakeholders in the event of a crisis. However, far too many management teams do not realize or fail to act upon the fact that effective employee communication is equally if not more crucial to successfully managing a systemic crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19.
Regardless of a company’s size, reputation, or industry, preparing for effective employee communication in the time of COVID-19 inevitably calls for assigning responsibilities, training employees, and establishing tools that enable seamless vertical – top-down as well as bottom-up – and horizontal employee communication, even in the face of extreme stress.
Only if the systematic planning, implementation, and evaluation of a company’s employee communication are conducted company-wide and on an ongoing basis, will management be able to rely on this valuable instrument for minimizing COVID-19-related damage, seizing the opportunities the pandemic may present, and converting resulting organizational change into competitive advantages.
Effective employee communication is an indispensable component of a successful crisis response and particularly important as organizations must navigate seemingly innumerable challenges posed by COVID-19. If management does not have the necessary theoretical knowledge or crisis communication experience, leadership should consider retaining qualified external consultants. They can assist in boosting the company’s ability to effectively respond to and recover more quickly from the pandemic.
This article was written by C4CS® President & CEO Oliver S. Schmidt and published by the Risk and Resilience HUB in June. It can be accessed via this link.
C4CS® provides strategic communication and crisis management consulting, training, and executive coaching to corporate, government, and nonprofit client partners in need of advice as they navigate COVID-19.
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