Communicating during a pandemic is a bit like roller skating. On ice. While blindfolded.
No one knows precisely what’s happening nor which way we’re headed, so it’s hard to get any messaging traction or report any substantial progress. Things are changing quickly, and people want answers.
Ragan’s Best Practices in Internal Communications and Culture Virtual Conference featured guidance from industry pros on how to navigate these uncharted workplace waters. Elizabeth Owen, global head of employee communications for Levi Strauss & Co., shared insights on what communicators should be prioritizing and how they can be a beacon of hope for employees.
Owen said Levi’s largest store is in Wuhan, China, so the company has been dealing with COVID-19 fallout since the outbreak began. Here’s what she and her team recommend for COVID-19 change communication efforts:
- Collaboration tools are no longer a “nice to have” but rather a “must do.” It’s time to prioritize (and invest in) collaboration technology. According to Owen, employees are now willing to adapt behaviors while everything is in such upheaval. So now’s a good time to introduce platforms or initiatives.
- Communicate regularly with your team. “Establish a predictable cadence of communication,” Owen says. Consistent communication affords colleagues a sense of much-needed stability. Also, set team communication norms. Do you have cameras on or off during calls? How do managers keep their teams engaged and informed? Communicate consistently, but “don’t send only bad news,” Owen says. Provide scripts and talking points for managers who supervise frontline workers.
- Transparency helps get folks up to speed quickly. Owen said Levi Strauss is transitioning from an email-heavy culture to Microsoft Teams. Whatever platform you use, choose one where all documentation and action items live in one space. “Provide equal access to information,” Owen says. As much as you can, explain what decisions are being made—and how. Show that your leadership team is being proactive.
- Do your best to get ahead, even if by a step or two. Balance constant crisis “firefighting” with forward-looking vision, Owen recommends. Communicators should start planning for what’s next, including what your return-to-work rollout might look like. Also, determine what gaps or lack of accountability have emerged in this crisis, and fix whatever leaks have sprung.
- Use existing tools and relationships. Your crisis comms playbook probably didn’t anticipate a COVID-19-level event, but use whatever you have in place so you’re not reinventing the wheel, Owen suggests. Tailor existing plans to the current situation.
Empathy is everything
Jaya Prasad, former director of internal comms for Fannie Mae, stressed the importance of leading with compassion during these trying times. “Be sensitive to employees’ situations. Infuse every message with empathy,” she says.
She also urges communicators to keep employee recognition at the forefront of messaging. Who’s making masks for health care workers? Which employees are helping needy neighbors? Has anyone completed a project amid adversity? “Show that your company still cares about people,” Prasad says.
One way to show you care: gathering feedback. Seize this time to conduct surveys and see how employees are coping. As Prasad says, “People want to express what they’re going through,” so that creates a great opportunity to capture raw, honest opinions about what’s working and what’s not from a comms or technology perspective.
“This is great data to show execs,” Prasad says, and consistently gathering suggestions from employees is the surest way to craft empathetic communication that resonates and keeps employees engaged.