Editor’s note: We are re-running the top stories of 2020 as part of our year-end countdown.
Organizations’ employee communications skills are being tested as more cases of COVID-19 are reported around the world.
How you communicate with your employees during this time is essential to keeping them safe, informed and productive as they navigate and adapt to sudden and unexpected changes. With things changing at such a rapid rate, it can be hard to know what to say, when and how to say it, who should say it, or how much your efforts are helping.
Below is a nine-step guide to help you (and your employees) navigate through the uncertainty.
1. Communicate early and often. You may not have all the details. However, it’s essential to stay ahead of the questions. Share what’s known, acknowledge what isn’t known, and commit to communicating more as more becomes known. Use various channels when communicating to ensure that messages are reaching employees (e.g., email + Slack + newsletter + intranet). Note: With high-infection rates at global office locations, communicate extensively at the local level. Consider having a standing live video Q&A or other easily accessible channel to keep communications always on and open.
2. Stay focused. Construct messaging to provide information about what employees should know, feel and do. This simple framework will help guide the team and keep you grounded through the speed of change and multiple meetings you’re having with different executives and stakeholders.
3. Reinforce your values. Here’s how one academic institution reminded everyone what they stand for in a recent communication to the student body: “I understand the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 has created anxiety, concern and, in many cases, fear. It is important during these uncertain times to support one another and understand that racism, anti-immigrant messaging and stereotyping of certain races and cultures is not reflective of our values. COVID-19 is a virus that can affect all humans and as a close community, we are committed to inclusion and to being a caring campus.”
4. Be clear and calm. Avoid using heavy medical terms without providing definitions and context. Ensure your global communications are clear and inclusive. Seek to be understood by everyone—native and non-native speakers alike. Keep messaging factual and actionable, and avoid perpetuating fear through alarming language.
5. Establish a single source of truth. Set up a dedicated, well-organized and mobile-accessible location where all coronavirus-related communications and content can live. These can include corporate messages, FAQs, Q&A videos, policy updates (travel, cleanliness, working from home, sales calls, etc.), reminders about benefits in place to support employees (such as employee assistance programs), links to sources of authority such as the World Health Organization and those local to your global offices.
6. Assign authority. Employees want to hear from an executive so they feel secure/safe at work. Determine which leader will be responsible for communicating with employees on all things related to the coronavirus. This helps establish trust and provides a consistent, reliable voice through a time of uncertainty. In this case, it might not be the CEO. For many companies, the head of HR is probably the right leader. Whatever you decide, make sure it’s a sustainable decision in light of other crises.
7. Involve people managers. Equip supervisors with key messaging about policy changes to ensure they can answer questions and support the changes. Create plans to continue business in the case of having to close an office.
8. Show you care. Share what support is available from the company (such as health benefits and psychotherapy) and any community service or donations that the company is sponsoring or the role the company has in addressing the crisis (creating vaccines, providing equipment or medical materials). Note: Pay special consideration to other communications going out during this or any other crisis. For any communication, especially auto-scheduled messages, bring the team and business partners together to ensure nothing seems out of context to the employee experience.
9. Provide two-way communication. Crucial to your success is creating feedback channels so people can express themselves and ask questions. This, in turn, will inform your ongoing communications and FAQs.
Final thoughts: As you get pulled into meetings, though they’re focused on execution and measurement, it’s imperative that you keep your people at the center and remind those around you of your organization’s humanity. You don’t know what people are going through. This situation could trigger a traumatic event or illness, and employees might know someone infected or have lost a loved one. It’s a time for sensitivity and empathy, and for helping our organizations and our people adjust to the current reality.
Let us know if you need support. We really are all in this together.
Kim Clark is an affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group and specializes in strategy, diversity and inclusion communications, culture, and internal communications. A version of this post first appeared on LinkedIn.