How to Effectively Communicate with Employees During the COVID-19 Pandemic – and Beyond

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    The importance of internal communications within your business comes to light during times of crisis. However, when that crisis involves moving millions of employees from office facilities to remote work environments, as has happened in response to COVID-19, communication becomes the crux of operations. The same is true for essential industries like healthcare, government, grocery stores and others, as they now need to deliver more regular and urgent information than ever before.

    For newly remote organizations, it’s no longer possible to call a quick morning meeting without some form of technology. And for essential industries, when a safety protocol changes, they need to tell their staff as quickly and efficiently as possible. Digital communication is how many companies across the globe are distributing information, coordinating team projects, accepting feedback and answering concerns at this time.

    Leaders have three big questions:

    • Who will be accountable for internal communications?
    • What do we need to communicate?
    • How will we execute those communications?

    Not every company has a robust, dedicated internal team to take responsibility for these vital functions. Who is going to write urgent emails, update internal apps or websites, send notifications and handle employee feedback? And if your organization does have an internal team, are they prepared for the level of communications you need right now? Or are they struggling to manage?

    As we all know, your people are the backbone of your organization. You must take care of them first and foremost, and communication is key, especially right now. Just as you would build a strategy for communicating to customers and prospects, build your internal communications strategy so it can be effective today – and into the future. A lot of the same principles apply.

    Assign Responsibility

    Choose your communicators. You may ask individuals from your Human Resources or Public Relations teams to assume these responsibilities, or you may choose to outsource. In making your decision, look for people who are effective and sensitive communicators, and who are proficient in collecting and processing information from multiple sources. Choose individuals who will take ownership and accountability for these communications. But don’t let the accountability end with them. Leaders should be involved in the development and approval processes, and should consider forming a small review team to ensure proper messaging before delivery.

    Know Your Need

    Each company will have different information to deliver at different levels and on different platforms. For instance, a home services company may prefer using an app to deliver quick notifications to employees in the field. And a company with thousands of remote employees might find that an internal website is most efficient. For a small company of 10 to 20 employees, regular emails may suffice. You must determine your communication needs to develop the appropriate strategy.

    Information you may need to communicate:

    • Guidelines, policies and expectations for remote workers
    • Updated guidelines for workers who are still coming in to the office, facility or store
    • Company decisions and changes, such as reductions, closures or redirection

    Information you may need to collect:

    • How employees are doing and how you can support them
    • What employees need to perform their jobs, whether remote or in-house, during this time
    • How teams are interacting and if they need support
    • How your leadership is performing and if they need support
    • How morale is affected by your actions and policies
    • Whether your communications are causing confusion for employees

    Information-sharing tools you may use:

    • Emails
    • Newsletters
    • Text messages
    • Internal app
    • Internal website
    • Online text and video chat
    • Video conferencing
    • Regular on-demand informational videos
    • Employee surveys

    Communicate Effectively and Mindfully

    The way you communicate with your employees today may look different than it has in the past. You must be sensitive to circumstances your employees are managing as individuals, team members and part of a workforce. According to McKinsey, leaders may need to assume more conciliatory and emotionally supportive roles than before. To communicate effectively and mindfully, incorporate the following into your strategy:

    1. Broaden two-way communications.

    Broaden the lanes in your feedback loop so your employees can easily convey their issues and concerns, and so you can address those concerns quickly. Prepare to receive new types of feedback and requests, like help coping with the new work/life landscape. Know where to direct employees to receive the best information and professional care. Use this two-way communication to crowd source for feedback on how you’re managing today and how you’ll move forward. And, importantly, be sure you’ve created a safe environment for submitting feedback. This may mean allowing for anonymous submissions, or it may mean sending repeated messaging that guarantees no retaliation or consequences for negative feedback.

    2. Consider your language and tone.

    How you say things is important right now, even in emails and on your internal website. Getting it right isn’t easy. However, there are studies that provide guidance for messaging in critical times. For instance, as McKinsey describes, research suggests people respond better to positive messaging than negative. As you build out each message, be cognizant of negative phrasing and framing. Instead of an email that focuses on what employees shouldn’t do right now, focus on what they should do and de-emphasize the negative language.

    You should also be careful to use helpful language that is not diminutive or condescending and avoid overstepping in sensitive areas when help is not requested. For instance, instead of an email headline that reads, “How not to go crazy during a pandemic,” opt for something like, “Tips to stay healthy and productive during challenging times.”

    3. Put yourself in their shoes.

    One of the best ways to show that you value and care for your employees is just that: Show it. What does that mean? It means:

    • Thinking deeply about their needs and trying to anticipate them. What would be most useful for them right now considering feedback you’ve received, work conditions they’re managing, and issues related to the pandemic? Thoughtful communicators should reference McKinsey’s chart detailing the right timing and framing for various communications based on known human responses and expectations through a crisis.
    • Informing them of relevant changes before they hear it on the news. Though it’s a challenge for businesses with outside stakeholders, such as with publicly traded companies, you don’t want your workforce to be the last to know about major shifts at the company. This is especially true if those shifts will drastically impact their roles.
    • Be a resource to them. Let them know the resources and benefits available to them through your company, as well as relevant resources in their area. Make sure they know the proper contact information for various issues that might arise. And as you deliver this information to them, make it easy for them to reference when they need it, such as on your internal website or in a shared file.

    4. Encourage and equip your leaders.

    Aside from your chosen internal communicators, your leaders are the frontline to the pulse of your workforce. They can be a great resource in both delivering proper communications and receiving helpful feedback, as well as processing and managing requests within their teams. However, even stand-out leaders are facing new challenges right now that they may not feel equipped to manage.

    Give your leaders the tools to perform their duties and support their teams through these still-evolving times. Seek research and guides specific to crises, and to COVID-19 in particular. The tools to navigate this new landscape exist in different forms and you certainly don’t have to rely on your own gut instinct to help your leadership at this time. For instance, the McKinsey leader’s guide referenced throughout this article has useful crisis communication tips for leaders, including a call for candor and clear messaging.

    And of course, your HR specialists should play a critical role in developing and executing your internal communications strategy. Unless you chose HR teams to run your communications, your communicators likely aren’t experts in HR or employment law, so please ensure the messaging and approach you select meets applicable legal and internal policy standards.

    At 3 Aspens Media, we have experience managing and producing content for internal communications. If you’d like to assess and bolster your current strategy, we’re here to help. Reach out to us at [email protected].

    How to Effectively Communicate with Employees During the COVID-19 Pandemic – and Beyond