Coronavirus or COVID-19 is most likely upending your daily life. Here in Colorado, we’re under a state of emergency with schools closing, events being cancelled, people encouraged to maintain social distance (especially those with immunity challenges and over 60) and work from home if possible.
Colorado isn’t alone. Many states in the U.S. are restricting events, closing restaurants and gyms. Other countries have and are in the process of taking strict measures.
What can you do? First, don’t panic. But it is time to jump into action.
1. Review business continuity plans, immediately
Hopefully, you already have plans in place, people prepared, and more. Use that as your guide to everything else, including communication.
If you don’t have plans in place, scramble now to make that happen. Here are a couple of resources to get started:
- Government resources: https://www.ready.gov/business-continuity-plan
- ElevatePoint disaster planning: https://elevatepoint.com/4-ideas/
Part of your continuity plan should include tools for communication, including your company intranet and intranet news. Microsoft recently announced offering Microsoft Teams for free to help improve communication at companies during this uneasy time.
2. Communicate with employees
Follow guidelines from your business preparedness and continuity plans. In general, employees need some assurance right now and probably some semblance of a routine. As part of your communication with them:
Be transparent and demonstrate caring
It’s a simple thing to do, but shouldn’t be overlooked: communicate you care about your employees. Let them know you care about their health, safety, and emotional needs during this crisis. Let employees know you understand their lives, just like yours, are being upended. Use empathy to understand they’re worried about family and friends who are 60+ or who have underlying health issues.
Also, be as transparent as you can. Leverage existing crisis communication plans to let people know what’s happening.
When you use empathy and transparency as the basis of communication, even when you have to communicate bad news, it’ll be more honest and better received.
Provide tools, procedures, processes, and policies
Ensure employees can work from home, if that’s an option. Ask them to log in and check all the applications they normally use. In fact, if possible, ask them to work one day at home as practice. Don’t forget to staff your Help Desk accordingly. No doubt during this practice, employees will run into hiccups if they don’t normally work from home. Along those lines, make sure working from home is easy.
If employees can’t work from home, let them know exactly what precautions you’re taking to protect their health regularly. Also, ensure they understand the process needed to protect your customers, including benefits available (through your company, the state, or federal government) should they need to take off due to illness for themselves or loved ones.
Work-related travel policies should also be clear, weighing the importance of that travel with state and federal guidelines. If workers must travel, provide ways to improve safety where you can.
Remind employees of company policies and procedures as well as online etiquette, including using their equipment. It may also be a good time to remind employees of organizational values.
Increase communication, especially managers
It should be the mantra, at least temporarily, to over-communicate.
All employees should understand their role in communications. But it’s especially important for managers to vastly increase and improve communications. Managers should set expectations about hours of operation and checking in online on projects as well as how to handle issues that arise — cancelled school days, sick family members, etc. They should also communicate their own hours and check-ins. Engage managers on how they can share information quickly as well as how to get assistance themselves (such as using a leader portal). Ask managers to go beyond email, taking advantage of other tools such as Skype, Teams, Slack, and more. Employees will still want and need video face-to-face interaction.
That means that up-line managers will need to communicate more, too. After all, you’re demonstrating the behavior you want employees to show during this time.
Beef up HR-related activities
It probably goes without mentioning that this is a good time to remind employees of the benefits they have, including anything that can help them as they handle new stresses — your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to medical benefits. Additional benefits may be released by the state and federal government to protect workers; communicate these as well. If your state has state-oriented CDC guidelines and testing kits available, especially drive through, direct employees there, too. Understand you may need to staff HR more heavily during this time as people worry about their health. You can also use a chatbot driven by AI to assist.
Beef up IT-related activities, too
As workers start working from home more, you may need additional people providing Help Desk support as well as the various tiers of your existing support plans. A chatbot driven by AI can assist here, too, especially handling routine questions about password resets, finding Wi-Fi, and more.
IT personnel may have to prioritize communications, too, ensuring the right tools are available for employees.
Help set general expectations
No doubt there will be fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Employees who can’t reach needed managers or HR personnel, for a variety of reasons, need to know about decision-making criteria and authority. They may need more latitude in making decisions, as well. For example, if an angry customer is dealing with them, they may need more discretion to provide discounts or rebates.
Set expectations about when the company will communicate and how. Along with this, use more than one method to communicate. Your communication vehicles will be log-jammed, so be judicious about real priorities. For example, under normal circumstances, you may want to announce a completed project. In addition, if you need to close offices or locations for any reason, let employees know how to find out quickly — such as go to your website or pay attention to local news.
3. Communicate with customers
During this stressful time, you’ll need a plan in place to let customers know the following:
- What steps you’re taking to protect them
- What steps you’re taking to protect employees
- What these above steps may mean to their products or services
- Your commitment to them, despite all the challenges above
Use the above as a guide. For example, as much as possible, you’ll need to be transparent while also reassuring customers.
These communications, and they should be ongoing as information and circumstances change, should reflect your brand while being empathetic to them and their situation. For example, you may need to communicate an event or service is cancelled to protect them. Make sure your customers know that.
Don’t just rely on email, either. Now is a great time to engage your account managers and customer service representatives. They should reach your best and biggest customers as well as those impacted the most first, answering questions and showing commitment that your company and theirs are in this together. (That’s really the case — this pandemic is nationwide and worldwide.)
As questions come in from customers, add them to a frequently asked question (FAQ) list you can post on your website. Of course, add questions you believe customers will ask to seed communication. But don’t rely on people coming to your website and finding it, as you communicate with them let them know where it is.
4. Stay informed
During this time, events are changing and shifting constantly. Keeping up with the news and guidelines is tricky, but necessary. Resources you should access include:
- Your vendors and supply chain
- Your customers, including their questions
- Your state CDC and health information
- Local news
- National CDC information
- National news
- Specific guidance from organizations, such as the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) and IABC
In addition, don’t forget about getting feedback from employees.
5. Practice self-care
It’s a stressful time for everyone. If you’re leading communications, working with the public to understand information, in the healthcare industry, etc. — your blood pressure is up constantly these days as coronavirus infects more communities.
Do know human beings have limits and that your health is important. Here are a few things you can do:
- Get plenty of rest — aim for 8 hours a day
- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals
- Follow CDC guidelines yourself, including practicing social distancing yourself (as appropriate)
- Make your own chain of command clear, in case something happens to you or your family
- Understand your limitations
Realize it takes a village
We can all agree, it’s chaotic with lots of change being hurdled at us. The stock market is bouncing around along with our 401(k)s. And our emotions are just as jittery.
But at the heart of it, if there’s a silver lining, that’s it — we’re all in this together. Every workplace, community, state, and person is being impacted. We’re all dealing with the same issues and challenges — closed schools, cancelled events, loved ones having to refrain from leaving the house, financial anxieties, health worries, etc. That means we’re more empathetic to the plights of others, especially when it matches our own plight.
It’s time to put the humanity back in communications. If your heart is in the right place, chances are good it will be received well even during these uncertain times.
We’ll get through this all … together.