Employee communication in the time of Covid

Employee communication time of Covid
Picture of Becky Graebe
Becky Graebe

I was fortunate in my career to spend 16 years as an internal communicator at SAS.

The North Carolina-based business analytics software company truly is one of the best places to work. Don’t just take my word for it. SAS is always on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list. For the majority of those years, I helped lead our internal comms team. It was a dream position because the company valued the importance of transparent communication.

That level of trust paid dividends in challenging times when our team had to deliver messages to employees in the wake of local crises such as hurricanes and ice storms, as well as the precautions taken during global outbreaks of illnesses such as SARS, Ebola, and the Avian Flu.

But in hindsight, those seem mild compared to what we see with COVID-19.

In my role today as Senior Director, Communication Expert at Firstup, I talk to customers and prospects about their comms strategies. Everyone, understandably, is focused on the coronavirus.

There’s no playbook for this.

As communicators, we walk such a fine line because words and clarity matter. We want to help our leaders craft and share messages about the crisis that portray a sense of calm and reassurance without creating unwarranted alarms among our employees. It’s a delicate balance that I know well.

So, here are some of the things I’ve learned that might interest my peers as they make strategic decisions about employee communication in a time of the coronavirus or any crisis.

Context matters

Our role as communicators is not to simply re-report the news to our employees. Everyone is already looking at their mobile devices every chance they get to learn about the latest developments from their favorite news sources. Our job is to contextualize it.

We need to explain what the news means in our company setting. Here’s how it impacts our work community, product offerings, service agreements. We need to deliver a steady stream of messages that show we’re keeping an eye on the news and that we’re thinking through how best to cope with the situation. People want to know that our organization doesn’t have its head in the sand.

It might be this: “We may ask a majority of our workforce to work from home, and we’re thinking about what resources they’ll need.” It’s essential that people hear that kind of message – even if it never comes to pass – because it gives them faith and confidence that their leaders are thinking about them as well as customers. After all, the customer experience begins with the employee experience.

It’s OK not to have all the answers

Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. When anyone claims they do, it only plants seeds of mistrust.

Your people are smart. (It’s why you hired them!) They’re adults. Treat them as such. Tell your employees: “This is what we know right now. We’re in the process of gathering more facts and making decisions based on them. When we have more information, we’ll immediately share it with you.” Then let them know one place to find the latest updates, procedural changes, and points of contact.

That shows you respect your employees enough to be honest about what you don’t know while also acknowledging their legitimate desire for information. If a company intentionally keeps the workforce in the dark, people will fill in the blanks with their own (often dire) narratives. It’s just human nature.

Leaders must be talking and listening

Senior leadership needs to be talking to employees. The CEO. The CHRO. Other executives who have earned trust in the organization. Yes, I know that’s Comms 101. But it’s crucial that in times like this that the senior leadership delivers messages that are informative and demonstrate competence.

It’s not just talking, either. Leaders also need to be listening. There must be a two-way conversation. And, that might indeed be a little uncomfortable. But employees today already expect to have a dialogue with leaders. When people are anxious, they especially want to be heard and offered the opportunity to ask questions.

One more point. It’s not enough for the CEO to say, “I want to hear from you,” if he or she doesn’t provide a way for people to deliver feedback. Leaders need to put mechanisms in place where employees can do that.

Think about all of the employee roles

If you’re like me, you’ve been reading a lot about how this outbreak has launched the most ambitious work-from-home experiment in history. I certainly can relate to that idea because my experience at SAS was in a knowledge-worker environment. It’s easier for people to “self-quarantine” at home when they sit in front of computers for their jobs.

Not every worker, of course, has that luxury. Drivers. Healthcare professionals. Factory and manufacturing workers. Retail and restaurant employees. The list goes on and on. They can’t just tap out “WFH” on their office messaging systems and retreat to the kitchen table.

As communicators, we have to think about how we make sure we’re also reaching those frontline workers. Every person deserves the information that makes them feel valued, essential, and safe. And extra recognition for those whose role requires them to report for duty goes a long way.

Oh, and those work-from-home office workers have valid concerns of their own, too. Many may feel that being unseen puts them at risk of also being unnecessary. The idea of “out of sight, out of mind” can worry people about their job security. We need to be sharing the message that those fears are unfounded, and that remote work is simply out of an abundance of caution for their well-being.

Speed, speed, speed

This is no time to dawdle. When you have news, share it. Now. In a 24-7 news cycle, your company needs to be (nearly) as quick as cable news.

Maybe your company has been slow so far in sharing messages related to Covid. Perhaps it was because your organization wanted to have a better understanding of the severity of the outbreak. Well, this is what everyone is talking about, thinking about, and worried about right now. That’s just the reality. It’s an extraordinary moment. So, don’t wait.

This crisis shows no sign of going away anytime soon, and it changes daily. It’s not unreasonable to consider a similar pace for your workforce communication, with daily or every other-day updates.

Open, clear, and transparent internal communication is what our employees need – and expect. And in a time of unprecedented fear and disruption, it’s one aspect we can choose to control.

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