Morale among employees may be low at the moment, but if there is one guiding light, it’s a consistent internal communications strategy. Here are some of the ways you can use your company’s comms to lift, inspire, and quell the slow-burn of the COVID-19 crisis.
One step forward, three steps back – it certainly feels like we’re going nowhere fast in the current state of affairs. While many countries teeter on the precipice of more COVID lockdowns, how do we keep our collective heads above water?
As the slow burn of the pandemic continues, business leaders are turning their attention to their workforce. Over six months into the ‘new normal’ and as the light at the end of the tunnel is diminishing, patience is beginning to fray, moods are turnings, and the outlook is bleak.
How is this affecting business? How do we help our employees? How do we all navigate a situation that continues to change?
Breaking through the six-month ‘brick wall’
If your employees are currently experiencing feelings of despair, frustration, or hopelessness at the present time, it’s to be expected. According to psychology research, the six-month milestone in any sustained crisis is always difficult. Medics in war zones have highlighted this stage as being the most challenging to deal with, both mentally and emotionally. In a critical situation, the half-year mark is the point when most people feel like they’re running out of steam. However, experts warn that we’re only around one-third of the way through this marathon. The problem is far from over.
Psychologists recognize this slump to be a very real and normal response to a prolonged and challenging period. It usually lasts up to four to six weeks before people feel able to ‘break out’ of it and resume feeling any relative ‘normality’. Right now, individuals may feel an intense desire to remove themselves from the situation. Yet, in a global crisis, there is no option other than to endure it. This “six-month brick wall” reaction is our psychological and physiological way of getting ready for the next stage: we’re currently equipping and adapting ourselves for the period to come. But, with a workforce who are likely to feel depleted, how can we help them through this temporary rut?
As leaders, it’s important to recognize that this experience will be common among everyone. Six months of survival instincts and low-level anxiety has left an exhausted and weary workforce. In order to get through the next six months, it’s time to change tack.
Why internal comms is an organization’s trump card
The organizations that will be most successful through this period will all have one thing in common: they will all have an effective culture of internal communications at the heart of their business.
This ease of communication and two-way dialogue between employers and employees is integral to any business undergoing great change. When a few offices become a thousand home offices, organizations face huge risks: broken communication lines, issues in connecting, and information going to the wrong channels. The consequences of this are disconnection, uncertainty, and confusion – not exactly needed when operating in critical-mode.
Communicating with staff during COVID-19
However, those with the force of effective internal communications behind them are far less likely to be affected by, say, a move to en masse home working. An employee could be in any location, in any time zone, and still feel part of the workplace community. It is the tight network of communication lines set up that will ensure workers understand what is going on within the business and feel part of the larger picture.
A steadfast comms strategy pulls everyone together, providing the much-needed touchpoints and information distribution needed in times of upheaval. It has seen businesses work through the present challenges and will allow them to recover more easily post-crisis. Ineffective comms, on the other hand, could be the death knell for some organizations right now.
“When a few offices become a thousand home offices, organizations face huge risks…”
So with the right infrastructure in place, what concerns should you be addressing in order that communications with your workforce make the most impact?
#1. Focus on the psychological impact
The damage that COVID-19 has caused isn’t necessarily protected by social distancing and mask-wearing. These past six months have been the largest psychological experiment ever conducted, and it’s the invisible effects that should be a chief concern to employers.
We may all be giving each other a thumbs up and partaking in friendly conversation on zoom calls, but dig a little deeper and the impact of six months of negative emotions and widespread fear will be evident.
At the beginning of the year, before various countries had deployed any form of lockdown, The Lancet published a review of 24 studies that examined the psychological impact of quarantine. They defined quarantine as the “restriction of movement of people who have potentially been exposed to a contagious disease”. The findings from these studies, (all carried out pre-COVID), help us to understand what the long-term implications are for individuals and households on a global scale.
To summarize, the studies show that people who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms of psychological stress and disorder, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. The review highlighted that low mood and irritability were the two most common traits.
All of which leads to the assumption that the toll of this year could result in poor mental health, absenteeism and other avoidance behaviors. Taking action through comms now can mitigate the toxic effects of COVID-19 lockdowns.
#2. Highlight the need to adapt
The most important thing we can encourage our employees to do throughout the pandemic is to adapt to the changes that are happening. While it’s important to implement all the necessary precautions – staying home, practicing regular hand hygiene, and wearing a mask when necessary – we should foster a culture of things being ‘business as usual’ as much as possible. The stage of panic and fear is over. The next phase is acceptance and resolution.
“Internal communications should provide the steadying hand that helps employees adapt to this next chapter.”
Of course, the past six months have clarified how business is run when everyone is forced to work remotely. We all have a clear idea of how to work, communicate, and keep focus while remaining at home. Indeed, the majority of this year has been a trial on what works and what doesn’t. We now know the best ways of keeping in touch with one another, how to motivate our teams, different methods of collaborating on projects with people. And we also know our weak spots. We need to identify these now and tackle them as a team.
Internal communications should provide the steadying hand that helps employees adapt to this next chapter. The re-introduction of pre-COVID comms – an employee of the month announcement, or great feedback from a customer – helps workers adjust to the now ‘normal’ nature of doing their job remotely.
#3. Understand the need for empathy and transparency
Of course, employees need information, updates, and plans. But to underpin this, they need to feel that the business understands their perspective. If you’re in charge of internal communications, it’s essential that your focus right now is on empathy and transparency. To engage the workforce, a business needs to address how employees are feeling, what they are thinking, and what their fears are. Understanding this allows you to be one step ahead – after all, great internal comms answers the questions before they’ve even been asked.
Communicating with staff during COVID-19
Communications must also offer transparency into the business workings that are taking place around them. Employees are experiencing significant workplace stress, with restructuring, redundancies, and cuts. Without context, the business decisions that have had to be taken – and which will undoubtedly affect livelihoods – can look cold and unemotional. It’s up to internal comms to stand up and explain the whats, whys, and hows of these arrangements. Encouraging leaderships to vlog or blog regularly will strengthen this approach. Opening up these conversations can do a great deal of good – employees get a greater understanding of what needs to be done in order for the organization to remain afloat.
Those internal communications departments who understand the need for empathy and transparency will be able to help their employees modify their expectations and behaviors accordingly – allowing the organization to work together as one.
#4. Future-proof your workforce
Another method for riding out the challenges of the present is to focus on the future. Employers can help their workforce by devising training and development programs that will shore up talent retention now, and in the period to follow.
Many employees have trained on the go – being introduced to digital tools in the first few weeks of their onboarding period. However, for many businesses, developing and training can often take the back seat as more pressing priorities take over.
But right now could be the ideal time to reset and take stock of the human capital of your workforce. If you’re currently experiencing a quieter time in terms of demand from customers or clients, turn your attention on your greatest asset – your people. Internal comms and HR should work alongside every department to form programs that focus on developing people. A future-proof and high performing workforce will be essential for post-crisis recovery.
By upskilling staff, you’ll ensure greater adoption and engagement of tools, adherence to governance and best practice, and address skill gaps that can trigger service issues or potential security and compliance errors. Ensure you’re also identifying additional administrators, content authors, or support staff for effective management long-term. While a sense of ‘making do’ is acceptable in the short-term, bringing solutions up to enterprise-grade level is paramount for long-term performance and stability.
#5. Provide a much-needed light touch
Right now, many employees view work as a form of escape. While the pandemic exposes our powerlessness, in work, we can wield some control. For eight hours a day, our employees can turn their focus on to something they can influence, catch up with colleagues, and enjoy team successes. It’s important to harness this and provide an enjoyable workplace – somewhere we can all have influence, input, and, most crucially right now, fun.
Internal comms should provide some light relief against the outside world. While it’s important to inform and update staff on elements that affect them and the business, it’s also necessary to inject some cheer. A lighthearted approach in communications can provide stress relief and much-needed entertainment. With social lives on the slide, get conversations going on TV shows, topical memes, recommendations on good books. Parents can set up their own groups to share experiences. Pet owners can post amusing photos. Special events like Hallowe’en can be celebrated online.
And remember to share successes. Amid the present hardships, it’s easy to forget that business is still going on, and achievements are happening every day. Ensure your organization is informed of new deals, big sales, and good news as it comes in. More than ever, these accomplishments need to be highlighted right now.
Employees are our most important audience
It’s important not to play down the impact of COVID-19. Experts are handling this situation as they would any disaster or major incident. Business concerns might be overwhelming, but the welfare of our employees needs to be a main priority.
Internal communications has arguably never played a more important role than in the last six months. As the crisis broke, there has been a huge spotlight on how employees are communicated with, provided relevant information, and kept updated as news continues to change day-by-day.
But as we enter this next phase, we need to use our comms to encourage the grit and determination required to ride out this difficult period. Employees will need to brace themselves for continued turbulence of the pandemic, but also be aware that present hardships will soon make way for recovery.
We’ve learned a lot from this year, crucial lessons that will help us navigate our organizations into the next: how vital leadership comms are, the necessity to be transparent with our audience, the importance of fostering a strong workplace culture. It is these types of comms that will allow our employees to work together through these abnormal circumstances, but remain resolute in emerging fitter and stronger on the other side.