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Too Much or Not Enough? Employee Communication During COVID-19

In a crisis, businesses often rush to communicate with their external audiences – customers, investors and the media. But COVID-19 has reminded us that employees should come first.  They need, and deserve, to be informed, reassured and heard.

But pacing is essential. Communication overload can make employees ignore critical messages. Conversely, saying too little can ignite anxiety and rumors, or even threaten employee health and safety.

Here are some general guidelines for striking the right frequency of employee communication during the COVID-19 crisis. Two caveats: We’re assuming employees already know about the virus and basic personal safety practices. Second, you understand your employees best. Customize your internal communication to what is practical, effective and fits your culture.

What to Say: Keep it Simple

Anticipate you employees’ deepest concerns. If you’re not sure, ask them. One “essential business” recently held an online forum for all of its employees. They could simultaneously listen to key leaders and submit real-time questions. Here’s some of what workers wanted to know:

  • How will we be kept safe on the job?
  • How will any outbreaks be communicated?
  • What happens if we get an outbreak? Will we close temporarily?
  • How long will office/administrative workers be working from home?
  • How will this (COVID-19) impact our company financially?
  • Can our company make it through this?
  • How is this impacting the industry?
  • What is the impact on customers? How much is product demand down?

Some companies are opting to send short, personal videos from the CEO or owner. Employees can submit questions in advance and the leader will provide answers in the next video. This works particularly well for large employers and those with shift workers.

As for content and tone, write with sincerity and clarity. You want an ongoing dialogue that reassures employees they are being heard and that you, as their employer, are doing your best to care for them. Don’t hesitate to send brief messages of support and to share good news, too.

Remember, employees can be a company’s biggest source of advocates and influencers. Good communication now will pay off in higher loyalty, morale and trust, after the crisis.

How Often: Message Frequency and Segmenting

If you’re unsure about frequency, ask your employees or have your leadership team and managers talk with employees. Finding the right balance varies greatly by your type of business. If your company is still operating, daily updates might be needed, but keep them brief. If your business is temporarily closed, a weekly update might be enough. Above all, stay nimble to how quickly the situation changes.

Keep in mind the dangers of each extreme. Under-communicating can cause confusion, worry and misinformation to spread. Over-communicating causes message fatigue and recipients to tune out.

  • Frequency. Let your employees guide how often you’ll send updates, and then stick to the schedule. You want to reduce uncertainty and help people control what they can. That said, address rumors or workplace gossip immediately.

Other tips: Date each message and tell recipients at the top what the message contains. Prioritize the message content and make it brief; stress affects our concentration. Have one point of deployment to avoid duplicate messages.

  • Segmenting. Instead of always doing company-wide communication, send job-specific updates only to those affected. For example, employees currently working from home probably don’t need to know the intricate safety protocols required for your in-person delivery drivers. However, employees working on personal laptops from home do need to know about data security.

Where to Share: It Depends

Know which content format and delivery methods (low- and high-tech) work best for each audience. It might be combinations of emails, intranet postings, videos, flyers/posters, leader talking points, FAQs or a website situation room were employees can find all the information. Have a reliable process and communication channels for providing continual updates and for collecting feedback and questions from employees.

Learn from – and Admit – Your Mistakes

Even the most experienced communicators are learning how to move through this crisis. Every day, and for some, every hour, is different. Despite their best intentions, those handling employee communication may make mistakes and misjudge; we’re all human. If that happens, act fast:

  1. Notify employees immediately.
  2. Admit your mistake, apologize and provide correct information.
  3. Be available to answer questions and mitigate the damage.

Lastly, have a system for tracking gaps and weaknesses in your company’s employee communication (and overall crisis communication) plan. We WILL emerge from COVID-19, and it will be a great time to refine your communication plans with all you’ve learned.

If your business or organization is struggling to manage its internal communication, our team is available to help on a temporary or long-term basis. Learn more on the Activated Growth website: employee engagement.

 

Sources:

“Crisis Communications – How to Communicate with Your Employees During a Crisis,” Valene Jouany, Smarp, April 2, 2020.
“Employee communications and the coronavirus: What you need to know.” Tim Vaughan, Poppulo, March 21, 2020.
“What, When, and How to Communicate with Employees about Coronavirus,” Andrea Lebron, Rave, March 16, 2020.
“Internal Communications Can Make or Break Brand Reputation During Coronavirus Crisis,” Nicole Schuman, PR NEWS, March 18, 2020.