Five Imperatives for Employee Communications During COVID-19
- Internal communications — a neglected function in many companies — is suddenly front and center
- Understand the impact of the pandemic on different employee audiences to provide the most effective communications
- Support the need for social connection and emotional support as well as information
Many companies say that employees are their most valuable asset, but it’s not always evident in their behavior — especially when it comes to their investment in employee communications. Internal communications is often resource-starved and left out of strategy discussions entirely. With the COVID-19 crisis, there’s a sudden bright light on the importance of internal communications, and leaders of this function should take this opportunity to highlight the vital role that employee communications plays in supporting the long-term health of the business.
To get these discussions started, we offer these five imperatives for effective employee communications. Some of these are designed for quick implementation and others will require a longer-term commitment, but all are essential for optimizing internal communications:
- Establish a regular communication channel and cadence. Employees want to know where and when they will be receiving communications. This is especially important in a crisis. Set up a regular cadence of communications and stick to the schedule, even if there is nothing new to report. People consume and process information very differently during periods of duress, so keep communications simple and direct. Expect audiences to be more attentive, but potentially more critical. They may have exaggerated responses, or only hear part of a message, which can feed negative emotions and anxiety. Therefore, internal communications must be prepared to constantly listen for employee feedback and respond quickly when questions arise.
- Build a sense of connection. Humans are social animals, programmed for frequent, face-to-face contact. Think about how you can create a virtual watercooler — an environment that supports social connection through things like chat, communities, and virtual events. In companies that hold regular “all-hands” meetings, take these online. Use these occasions to deliver inspiring messages rather than simple information that can be saved for other venues. Tell the stories of employees who symbolize company values. Recognize those who are playing a role in their communities, and of course, empathize with those who have experienced illness or loss in their families.
- Support collaboration and productivity. Many employees are experiencing remote work for the first time and need help becoming and staying productive. Collaboration tools have been around for a long time, but can be disorienting to new users. In addition to training and technical support, emphasize the need for meeting best-practices. Employees should plan to arrive a few minutes early to overcome technical glitches. Encourage people to turn on their cameras (even with shaggy hair or no makeup) and stress the need for agendas, note taking, clear action items — all the things that we should do anyway but don’t. Also, be understanding when things don’t go as planned — lots of people are discovering what scholar Robert Kelly felt like in his famous interrupted live shot on BBC.
- Segment and “personify” your workforce. This is a longer-term project, but it’s a fundamental step in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of internal communications. Segmenting employee audiences and creating employee personas will help you understand what different audiences need, so that you can tailor communications to them. Essentially, you are creating a “go-to-market” plan for your internal audiences. In addition to segmenting by regions, levels, functions, and job roles, you can overlay the impact of the pandemic. Some audiences may be experiencing direct health effects. Others may be facing dire economic impacts. Most will be displaced from their normal working environments or facing other inconveniences. Your employee “go-to-market” map will serve your needs now and in the future.
- Build an ecosystem for speed and scale. This is another longer-term project — but one that is essential to a well-informed and productive workforce. Employees naturally gravitate to one internal communications channel or another (shocker — many simply prefer email). However, this should just be seen as a starting point. You also need to think about how to scale communications and allow employees to self-serve for their information needs. Is your internal communications ecosystem up to the task? An internal ecosystem includes a variety of digital and non-digital channels that link employees to a well-structured, well-maintained, easy-to-use intranet at the center. Unfortunately, many companies don’t have anything resembling this. The intranet is often the last place people will go to find anything. Dedicated resources are needed to fix this (we don’t expect our external websites to create themselves — but in many companies this is the expectation for their internal website). In the long term, the intranet can be integrated with your HR systems so that communications can be customized on the basis of role, geography, level, and other factors. Finally, we need to help employees to become more savvy information consumers within their own company environments so that they can self-service for more of their information needs.
During this period, when other marketing and communications activities may have slowed down, it’s a good idea to take stock of what can be improved today in advance of another crisis (sadly, will not be the last). The SiriusDecisions Employee Lifecycle Marketing Framework provides a systematic approach to understanding employee needs and company responsibilities in lifecycle phases. To learn more about how to modernize your internal communications function, clients can download our report on “The Emerging Role of Employee Lifecycle Marketing,” or contact us to learn about becoming a client of our Marketing Executive Services.