Internal Communications and How to Connect with Your Staff During the COVID-19 Pandemic

This guest post comes from chief executive officer Harold Hardaway and chief creative officer Shannon Hernandez of Cardigan, an internal communications and employer branding consulting firm.

Many companies have crisis communication plans to address public relations challenges. Few business owners, however, have defined processes for dealing with the cultural and emotional challenges that we are all currently facing arising from the necessary social distancing due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In times like these, internal communications—how you talk to your staff— is a vital part of crisis management.

Many employees are having to adjust to working from home with the distractions of a spouse doing the same, all while possibly caring for relatives or children.

For many in the startup world, working from home is nothing new—a flexible work schedule and mobile workplace are the norms. Yet, there is also the need and desire to work collaboratively with your team.

How do we recognize the current challenges and help care for our employees and their families as we engage with our workforce? It is essential that you lead with empathy, develop a rhythm for your communications, and find effective ways to communicate.

Lead with empathy

It’s almost guaranteed that many in your workforce are going through some sort of change right now. It’s especially important that as employers, we communicate with empathy.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Image credit: J. Finkelstein Wiki Commons.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Image credit: J. Finkelstein Wiki Commons.

Maslow describes our hierarchy of needs as a way to understand how we must first meet our basic physiological needs for food, shelter, and safety before we can focus on fulfilling our full potential.

Given the current uncertainties, most people want to know if they will have a job tomorrow and if they will be able to house and feed their family. Most of your employees are currently focused on the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, making sure their and their family’s physiological and safety needs are met.

Leading with empathy means you recognize where your employees are and opens the door for other company messages you want to communicate.

Find your communications rhythm

Create a rhythm for your communications and pick a consistent time and delivery method. Knowing when to expect your updates will provide employees a sense of calm (e.g., every Tuesday at 1 p.m., you send an email from the CEO providing an update on your company’s response to the COVID-19 crisis).

Even if there is nothing new to report, message your staff anyway. In the absence of information, folks will tend to assume the worst. People like consistency, and this will go a long way to establishing a sense of calm in between updates.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to communications. Work updates into all of your internal communication channels, or if the impact on your organization calls for it, create a new communication channel.

When your team is distributed, a text preference center, employee productivity tracking platform, chat app like Slack or Chatter, or extranet (intranets you can get to outside of the firewall) are all very useful. Live company updates (e.g., Town Halls) using video conferencing software like Zoom are helpful as well. A virtual meeting provides an opportunity for all employees to hear the same message at the same time, with the opportunity for two-way communication in questions and answers.

Communicate important information

You may wonder what you should include in your internal communications to your employees. Think about including the following types of information.

Government Updates

You don’t need to be your employees’ resource for COVID-19 news. Include recommended links to both local and official federal government resources and consistently direct employees to those to stay current on the latest news.

Company Response

You do need to take local and federal government updates and translate them into how they impact your employees’ work lives. Your employees will look to you to tell them what this means for them. Local ordinances have forced many of us to work at home. There have also been several bills passed that impact upon available leave and benefits.

The key here is that your employees should always hear any company-related news from you first and not from a local or national news outlet. This will go a long way during this time to foster trust between management and employees.

Employees Benefits

Many employees will want to know how they can use their benefits. Can your employees get a 90-day supply of their medication versus 30 days to keep them from going outside as often?  If they are having a hard time and need to consult someone, refer them to your Employee Assistance Program representatives. Does your insurance cover telemedicine or telephonic doctor’s visits?  Think of what can help them and their families and make it as easy as possible for them to navigate the system.

Moving Forward

As we work remotely, schedule weekly “face-to-face” meetings over video conferencing to keep the feeling of connectivity within the team. Continue, or institute total company communications on a scheduled basis and live updates if possible.

As a people leader, schedule regular times to touch base with your direct reports, and leave time at the beginning for a one-on-one to see how people are doing. Just like you did when you were co-located, remember that people will have different needs for direction and oversight when they work remotely, so adjust your leadership style accordingly. Some employees will adjust nicely, while others will need more guidance.

We are all doing the best we can, but if we lead with empathy and a people-first mentality, we will make it through. Your employees may not remember every detail of this challenging time, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Featured image is of a laptop computer and cellphone on a desk. Photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash.

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