It’s been almost a month since Australia started to really feel the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the country has moved through various phases of feeling ‘we’ll be okay’ to shock, optimism and then pessimism.

Company leaders continue to field questions which they cannot answer as situations shift and future scenarios change. Many employees remain distracted by significant home and safety questions such as “how will I keep the children entertained”, “is it even safe to get groceries”, and “how long will this last?”

During this challenging period, there’s a significant risk that the gap between a company leader’s ideas about a company’s direction and those of its employees is much wider than normal.

Loose and equivocal language from leaders is now an even greater danger to corporate cohesion. Leaders may feel nervous communicating about COVID-19 issues because they are not pandemic experts, but they should be an expert on how their company is responding, and be proactive in communicating this to staff.

Employees need and deserve nothing less. They are the lifeblood of a company, carry out critical tasks that allow profits to be generated and function as corporate ambassadors in communities. If employees do not fully understand what is going on within a company and the way the firm is interacting with external parties as COVID-19 unfurls, business as usual will be harder to maintain.

At this time, company leaders should be working hard to provide specific, action-related information and reassurance and hope that over time things will improve. While specific planned actions may and will change as the environment shifts, the commitment to act and respond accordingly must not change.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center emphasised how important it was to employees to hear the voice of the leader, whether live or through email, phone messages or social media. This noted that while a company may feel that a shocking incident has created a financial crisis, it’s more likely that it has created a human crisis, where the real task is communicating clearly and effectively with distracted employees, and sustaining employee trust to maintain operations and rebuild morale.

When communicating with employees in a COVID-19 world, organisations should follow these three key tenets.

1. Have visible leaders who reach out to employees, but who stay focused on the business
In the past this would have involved walking the floor and going where employees are. In today’s world it means using all social distancing compliant communication channels, especially videoconference software to appear before employees so that they can obtain facts and information first-hand and feel included.

It’s important that employees understand the significance of their role and the contribution they’re making to help Australia get through the pandemic. While leaders need to show they care, they also need to focus on where the company is going and how employees are helping to drive it.

A focus on work can also be tremendously helpful to employees during a crisis. It can provide a channel for their desire to help those seriously impacted, encourages them to maintain a normal routine, helps foster pride in what they do, and can lead to stronger bonds between employees and customers.

2. Have an internal communication strategy and follow it
A company must have an internal communication strategy and plan that flexes as the situation does. The plan will ensure there is regular and appropriate communication to all internal stakeholder groups through a range of channels using largely consistent key messages.

This will usually include physical as well as virtual channels such as display boards, e-posters, the company’s intranet, a Yammer enterprise social network or Slack channel, email, SMS, teleconference, and videoconference calls.

While consistency is important, leaders should not be afraid to alter communication strategies and messages should this be necessary as the situation being addressed changes.

3. Provide timely information rather than waiting until you know all the answers
Companies should provide employees with daily updates and at the very least communicate every second day. Leaders should strive hard to be inclusive and as far as possible let employees go behind the scenes to understand why decisions were made. Leaders should:

  • state the facts, but make sure they have been verified
  • be open about how the business has been affected
  • demystify the fear – outline steps the organisation is taking to overcome challenges and threat
  • reassure by emphasising actions employees can take to stay safe
  • discuss company policies and positions so there is no doubt about sick leave and other entitlements
  • above all, display strong leadership that provides direction and certainty at a time when these are in short supply.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated once again the importance of investing in communication activity which builds a bridge between a company and its employees. Leaders who reach out proactively, have an internal communication strategy and follow it, and commit to providing timely information and help employees understand why decisions have been made will be able to sustain trust and maximise their organisation’s ability to function and emerge successfully from a crisis.

Jeremy Kirk (j.kirk@fcr.com.au) is a Director of Financial & Corporate Relations (FCR).