How to engage employees with empathy around COVID-19

Every organization must be ready to demonstrate how it is taking care of its workers during this crisis. Here are some ways to ensure your reputation remains untarnished.


This is a defining moment for brands.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen a range of actions from employers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have stepped up with liberal PTO policies, limited work hours, teleworking flexibility and employee relief funds. We’ve also seen a surge in hiring among retailers seeking to meet consumers’ pharmaceutical, food and online shopping needs.

Our counsel to companies during this crisis has been to focus first and foremost on employees. Not only will it help build morale now, but it will impact corporate reputation in the long-term.

We’ve been collecting insights from clients across industries on what’s working, and here are a few takeaways:

1. Lead with compassion and empathy. This crisis has flipped millions of lives upside down. Employee communications must be empathetic and must consider the unique circumstances and needs of the employee. Everyone will experience this crisis differently depending on familial status, resources, and personal health and support system. Companies should keep their tone in mind when communicating with employees and put structures in place for employees to voice concerns and request support.

2. Communicate early and often. With change happening so quickly, it can seem like there is no perfect time for leaders to communicate. We see many leaders waiting to communicate until they have more answers. Now is the time for leaders to share information with employees frequently, even if they don’t have all the answers.

3. Own the narrative. As we go through this global pandemic, it is well known that certain sectors of the economy are already getting hit hard by changes in consumer behavior. Workers are aware that a slowdown in parts of the economy and increased uncertainty might impact their company as well. Instead of forcing employees to worry about what is going to happen to them, be clear. Set up a regular cadence of communication and don’t wait to share important updates.

Next steps

Although it is unclear when the crisis will end, now is the time to begin planning for the post-crisis reality. Businesses across industries are being hit hard and fast, and recovery is still a long way away. In the post-COVID-19 world, businesses will need to reevaluate policies for long-term efficacy, rebuild employee trust and reenergize employees who may exercise more caution, scrutiny and cynicism towards their employers. Employee benefit programs that might have seemed unnecessary or financially infeasible just few months ago will make all the difference. The companies that continue to advocate for their employees will come out on top.

Now is the time to:

  • Assign someone to think about the future. What you do now will pave the way for how quickly and easily your business can recover and return to normal.
  • Begin to chronicle your lessons learned and best practices so that employees understand you will be even better prepared for the next crisis.
  • Examine your most recent employee engagement results and decide what changes need to be made to reflect the lessons learned from the COVID-19 experience.

Kimberly Gardiner is a senior director at APCO Worldwide. Hunter Travers is a consultant at APCO Worldwide.

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.