Communication with employees is the foundation of success for any business. It’s even more crucial during a crisis.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the present and future impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders are forced to address issues they never have before. Some are finding that their current internal crisis communication plan needs tailoring to tackle the unique challenges posed by COVID-19. For others, this will be a crash course in crisis communications.

To effectively communicate with employees during difficult times, it’s essential to keep employees’ psychological wellness in mind by being transparent, empathetic, and responsive. Here are a few tips you can follow to keep workplace morale from sinking, promote productivity, and position your company to be an employer of choice on the other side of the crisis.

1. Assemble a Crisis Management Response Team

Assembling a core team of managers from across the company to define protocols and processes in the response of a crisis is crucial. The team should include a member of the executive team, HR, marketing, IT, and operations to work together cross-functionally to ensure that unified messages are disseminated through multiple channels. 

If the crisis team provides timely and consistent communication with employees during a crisis, it will help prevent misinformation from spreading within the company, ease worries, and reassure staff that the company is actively managing the crisis.

2. Be Transparent

Employees will experience high degrees of uncertainty, worry, or stress during a crisis, and they will seek guidance from leaders. They want information that provides clarity about what is known, what is unknown, and why changes are happening. You can be a source of truth for employees by sharing timely, accurate, and helpful information.

Your crisis management team should determine what information can be disclosed when facing hardships. HR leaders and managers should discuss potential changes in compensation, benefits, and what will be expected of their staff. Executive leaders should be transparent when addressing the more difficult issues like the company’s financial position and possible layoffs. Bad news delivered with empathy is much better than no news, which can lead to a slew of fear-based rumors.

3. Be Empathetic

As employees navigate complex feelings around the global health crisis, it’s understandable that those emotions will converge with work. They have questions about their safety, their ability to be productive under unusual circumstances, the financial health of the company, their own finances, and whether they will be laid off, among a hundred other worries. One of the most important steps leaders can take is to approach employees who are experiencing stress with empathy.

Merriam Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…” One of the best ways to show empathy is to be a good listener who validates the other’s feelings without judgment or minimizing their worries.

  • Ask employees how they are feeling.
  • Listen without interrupting.
  • Repeat back what the other person has expressed.
  • Validate what they are feeling with a statement such as, “I understand why you feel that way. It’s a really difficult situation. I would feel the same.”
  • Don’t use minimizing messages like, “It could be worse.”, or “Look at the bright side.”
  • Ask them what they need from you and the company.
  • If you cannot provide answers or help immediately, make a commitment to get back to them within a day.
  • You may find that during a crisis, listening to employees with empathy takes a significant amount of your workday, but it will be well worth the investment. How you treat employees during difficult times will define your employer brand for months and even years.

4. Maintain Employee Morale

Working Remotely

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many managers and employees to work from home. While it can be challenging to create a sense of community when you are not in the same office, you can maintain a sense of connectedness through various digital tools.

Setting up virtual face-to-face meetings through video conferencing tools like Zoom will help teams stay connected and provide an opportunity to chat openly about fears and worries. Managers have gotten creative in overcoming the physical distance of remote work by holding happy hour video conference get-togethers and having employees share what their home workspaces look like – kids, pets, and all. While it’s not the same as communicating in-person, it does afford a level of connection with who your workers are as people and not just as employees.

In the Workplace

If your business is considered essential or life-sustaining and your workers are still working from your office, store, production facility, etc., be sure to keep your workers safe through federally recommended guidelines and open lines of communication.

Ensure your employees have the information and tools needed to keep themselves and their coworkers safe. Follow CDC COVID-19 guidelines for protective gear, social distancing, and keeping surfaces sanitized.

Communicate clear guidelines for reporting safety issues and always thank workers for their commitment to a safe work environment whenever a problem is reported. When concerns are shared, take them seriously and ensure proper follow-up and corrective action along with reporting back to all employees on the resolution.

In a crisis, developments happen daily, if not hourly, so maintaining a method for communicating regularly with your onsite employees will let them know you are on top of the situation and committed to arming them with the most up-to-date and accurate information to keep them safe.

5. Encourage Staff to Tap into Support Resources

As much as you do for your employees, you cannot meet all of their needs during a crisis. But you can educate your employees on the resources available to help them in this time of change and uncertainty, including company-provided benefits and local support services.

  • Remind workers of their health and wellness benefits, including telehealth services, if available in your medical plan.
  • Let them know they have paid sick time and medical leave rights under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (share the CDC FFCRA employee rights poster).
  • Remind employees about any employee assistance programs (EAPs), which provide access to therapists and other mental health professionals.
  • 211 is a United Way service that connects individuals to organizations within their local communities that can assist with food shortages, housing payment shortages, and other crises.
  • If you have to furlough or lay off employees, provide resources for them to apply for unemployment as well as information about accrued paid time off payouts, when benefits lapse, COBRA, etc. The DOL CareerOneStop has links to state unemployment resources for workers.

Establishing a cross-functional crisis response team and a cohesive communication strategy will provide a strong foundation to navigate the impact of the tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic on your organization. Even as circumstances change and you have to make adjustments, these guidelines will help you better position the organization to positively influence employee behaviors and morale. The investment you make now in your employee communications, during this most difficult time, will pay off on the other side of the crisis.


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