Lara Hadjetian, Head of Employee Experience Practice at Edelman, explains what organizations need to consider when communicating with their workforce in times of a public health crisis, as they capture the learnings from COVID-19.
The COVID-19 outbreak has created challenges around the world, going beyond public health. As the global community mobilizes to contain and treat the virus, the impact to business can’t be ignored.
With numbers continuing to climb globally, and in the region, organizations must be prepared to make timely decisions to protect the health of their employees with minimal disruption to their operations. The question is: How do you lead your workforce through this period of uncertainty?
We’ve been having many conversations with clients navigating the challenges presented by COVID-19, particularly from an employee response communications perspective, and partnering with them on effective communications that foster trust and credibility.
From our work with leaders and organizations, we’ve set out what we view as essential in guiding communications with employees through crises.
Know the fundamentals
Certainly, one critical trait that distinguishes communications is trust. Companies truly steeped in trust know that the strength of their message starts on the inside – with their workforce. We know for a fact, based on the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer findings, that 71% of employees (globally) and 79% (in the UAE) want their employers and CEOs to respond during challenging times.
In the midst of a public health emergency like COVID-19, start with the fundamentals of employee communications and build on top of that to set the stage for responding to any future repercussions.
Transparency- It’s critical to be as open and empathetic as possible so employees know that the business is in control of the situation. Don’t shy away from the truth or hide facts. Employees are looking to their employers for direction, and you’ll want to do so proactively without shielding them. In such circumstances, organizations may have to communicate before all details are determined, so explain what is currently known and unknown.
Timeliness- Speed is about more than just responding immediately. Communicate with employees frequently and with the right specificity. Monitor daily updates from national and global authorities. Furthermore, let employees know where they can access more sources on precautionary measures and health advisories.
Relevancy- The provision of relevant updates is important, particularly as media coverage develops. Distribute trusted information across a diverse range of channels. Go where your employees are and get their attention with messages that are understandable. Consider tailored guidance based on workforce locations and employee demographics. Certain correspondences are pertinent to just one office, while others may require regional or global dissemination.
Clarity- COVID-19 is a fluid situation and employees are going to have questions. As with any public health crisis, there’s plenty about the virus being published. This can be overwhelming for the public. When you communicate, don’t leave room for ambiguity. Increase the level of understanding of health risks and promote the steps that protect employee wellbeing. For example, provide clear instructions for employees who suspect they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 in a simple manner that delineates any immediate next steps.
Balance- Your communications should be coordinated with key internal stakeholders – senior leaders, human resources, business continuity, and the likes. Activating a taskforce can help strike the right balance between providing what’s necessary for employees to know, and what could spread unnecessary panic. To tackle misinformation, it’s also imperative to avoid sensationalist stories and debunk any fake news reports that are circulating.
Plan beyond COVID-19
There’s still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19 or what further impact it will have going forward. What’s clear is the responsibility for organizations to communicate efficiently with their workforce and help mitigate the outbreak in whatever ways they can.
COVID-19 may not be the last global health emergency we’ll experience, but it’s a case in point that businesses need to be prepared. This is the time for them to optimize and battle-test their response communications, ushering their employees through the crisis- and plan for the next one.
Opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.