As the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues to mount, the workforce remains ever fearful. With unemployment rising by the millions, and those still employed wondering if—or when—the other shoe may drop at your company, it’s never been more critical to be transparent. Right now, your employees are looking to you for the kind of leadership that will help them, and your company, get through the crisis.
What are you doing to reassure them?
Your response to this question is critical, and the things you say, and actions you take, will be how you, and leaders like you, are measured for the foreseeable future.
So how do you tackle this once-in-a-career challenge? More specifically, how do you maintain a steady dialogue with your employees, who have already been bombarded with an excessive volume of messages around COVID-19? And, how do you position yourself to be accessible to listen to their ongoing individual challenges and be a voice of reassurance?
Let’s first look at what your employees (and by extension, your clients) need to hear; and how best to deliver it with consistency.
What Do Your Stakeholders Want to Hear?
- How is the Coronavirus Impacting Your Company, its Policies, and its Procedures? Fundamentally, people want to understand how business will continue to be conducted, and whether client deliverables will be impacted any further. Now is the time to formulate and communicate any new changes in COVID-19-specific policies and procedures, with a keen focus on business continuity. This will project that you are in control, which will continue to keep your team at ease. Employees and customers also will want to know what your plans are for business continuity, public-facing policies, and even fundamentals like how you are disinfecting the workplace, which employees are considered to be essential, etc.
- How Will Your Company’s Values Shape Your Response to Those Who Are Counting on You? This is the opportunity to get closer to clients and employees, in spite of social distancing guidelines. Address with transparency what your corporate values mean to leadership, and to your employees, in today’s changed environment. By using touchpoints to communicate these values, you will create a more meaningful connection between the company and its stakeholders. Make a special point of recognizing individual employees who are embodying these values today – and perform this step with regularity.
- How Do We Plan to Invest in Our Future? Many companies have spent the early days of the pandemic like a turtle retracting into its shell. Now we are entering the phase when you need to start defining what the future “new normal” looks like for your company. It’s critical to pin down your strategic approach to post-pandemic activity. Will you change your product offering? Will you change your marketing approach? How will sales be conducted? Communicating that there is a team working on specific plans for your company’s core functional units will demonstrate that you are not simply hunkering down, but strategizing ahead to rise above.
Four Keys to Solid Communications
- Deliver a Consistent Message: We can’t reiterate this point enough – be open, transparent, empathetic, brief – and calming. Be clear right at the start about what the message contains (perhaps even provide a bullet point index or summary to make sure the point is clearly received). As you write or deliver your message, do so with authority, humanity, and clarity. Also, maintain an FAQ type of mindset – with each point you are making, anticipate the “What does this mean to me?” question from employees. And, if you don’t have all of the answers, say so. People need to know that you are aware of what’s happening, and that you have a plan. They want to know that they are important to those plans, and that they are the biggest asset.
Oh, by the way: It’s very important to communicate a derivation of this message to your clients – and to ensure your employees remain on message with your clients as well. Your customers want to know that you are standing by them, and what options you can offer to help them weather the downturn. Let them know that you have a plan to survive, and to come out on the other side stronger than ever – together.
- Communicate Frequently: Ask New Yorkers what has been most reassuring to them during the crisis, and they will likely cite the daily briefings by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Delivering his remarks with authority, humanity, and clarity (see No. 1, above, for why this is important), Cuomo has rewritten the book for how regular crisis briefings should look. You, too, can seize the opportunity to be a regular voice of reason – even if you don’t particularly have any meaningful new information. Going silent can make minds wander, and wonder. To be seen as reliable and trustworthy, you will want to stanch any anxiety by speaking regularly, and projecting empathy, honesty, and transparency.
If you have created a COVID-19 task force, include them in frequent dispatches as well. And if new questions arise from your clients, address the answers to those questions in your next regular briefing session.
- Repeat: Hammer home the most critical information. No matter how often you think you are delivering key messages, it is repetition that will help the messages sink in with your stakeholders. It’s also a truism that during times of stress, people tend to struggle with processing new information. Don’t be afraid to make it a habit of reintroducing the fundamentals behind the message of your company’s approach and response to the pandemic.
- Encourage and Inspire: Your communications need not be all about business. Now is a great time to send brief, individual messages of support to each department and team member. Remind them of how valuable they are to you, and to the company. People are seeking encouragement and inspiration from wherever they can get it these days. Why not be a source of such enlightenment?
- Open Up a Feedback Loop: Make sure you are not just available, but open to be educated by your stakeholders. Soliciting and acting upon feedback from clients and employees is extremely important if you are going to stay on top of the most pressing issues on their minds. If possible, create a message board (an Intranet page is a good place for this) to allow interactive ongoing communications with, and between, employees.
Now is not the time for false optimism, sugarcoating, or opaque behavior. You are locked into one of the fiercest battles for survival that you likely will encounter. You cannot go it alone – so motivating the troops, being direct and transparent, and moving your team forward, can make or break your economic pandemic survival plan.