As the coronavirus sweeps the world, organizational leaders find themselves with a certain level of responsibility to keep their workforce safe and effective. Much of how they meet that responsibility involves how they decide to communicate everything from emergency policies to information that can help make employees feel safe.
We asked a number of leaders and experts a few questions about leadership communication in the face of this crisis, and we wanted to share their responses. Those commentators include Stacey Engle, President of Fierce Inc.; Gregg Thompson, President of Bluepoint Leadership; and Larry Clark, Managing Director of Global Learning Solutions at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning.
Before we explore these commentators’ responses, we want to share a very reasonable safety perspective on leadership communication from the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP):
“Another area that companies should address as part of their plan is how they will reach employees to provide information about workplace conditions, closures or instructions. Many companies have systems that deliver text messages or e-mails about weather closures and other emergencies that can be used for pandemic communications as well, provided the company has collected necessary contact information in advance.
“If your workplace doesn’t have such as system, then social media, traditional TV, radio or newspapers may be the only ways to let employees know what is happening,” says Deborah Roy, President of the ASSP. “Also keep in mind that if employees are working from home on their own computers and phones, their coworkers may not know how to reach them without having personal e-mail or phone numbers.”
Starting a Dialogue
As we see the cancellation of events, moves for employees to work from home at major companies like Twitter, and an unstable stock market, the novel coronavirus will have a significant impact on how business is conducted in the United States sooner than we might be comfortable with. How do leaders start a dialogue with workers?
Stacey Engle: Employees remember how leaders and the company treat them during rough times—often more than in the good. Ask key questions: What is the ideal way to move forward as a team? What are the big fears, and how do we best address them? It is also incredibly important for leaders to listen to these responses. Understanding the concerns of their employees, and thoughtfully determining how to best address them, is paramount. Times of crisis can highlight holes within an organization, but they can also result in employee appreciation and loyalty, if handled correctly.
Larry Clark: There are two parts to this: the “what” and the “how.” I would suggest that, of the two, the “how” is much more important. It starts with just having the dialogue—a two-way conversation during which leaders acknowledge that this is something on everyone’s mind, including their own. And, while there is clearly a need for the formal communication on changes to policies like travel or remote work, that isn’t dialogue. Checking in with individuals and teams to talk with them about the situation can help manage the temperature of the workforce and collect valuable information. For example, an employee may have a family member with compromised health, so that person may feel very differently than peers about the situation and the personal risk it presents. Or, another team member may feel a restrictive travel policy will set him or her up for failure in his or her job. Without dialogue, these issues can fester, and leaders may make uninformed decisions or communicate the decisions in a tone-deaf way.
On the “what” of communication, there are two critical points to reinforce in uncertain situations. The first is acknowledging things are uncertain, so the approach will be to assess what is happening on an ongoing basis and update people as the situation emerges. The second is that decisions will prioritize the safety and health of those involved—employees, clients, contractors, suppliers, and any other constituencies. Beyond that, it’s a matter of being clear about what is happening, what decisions are being made, and how they will affect the day-to-day work.
Leveraging Training and Education
How can training and education be leveraged to meet the challenges the coronavirus offers? What topics should leaders be broaching with their employees? This is all about the employee experience. How are they doing?
Stacey Engle: There are two big areas of opportunity with training and education:
- Testing new modalities if working remotely or virtually. What can be created quickly and disseminated? How can new ways of training and providing education immediately be tested? What an amazing way to learn as an organization.
- What content is most relevant? What do the business and business leaders need to be successful in times of change or uncertainty? What are the most important goals?
- Training and education can be strategic partners during uncertain times like these. It is important to lean into that space.
Larry Clark: Virtual training capabilities can be a valuable asset in helping an organization inform its employees and equip them to navigate the coronavirus situation. With employees working remotely, virtual learning makes it easier for leaders in widely dispersed locations to connect with each other more frequently and react more quickly to changing global market conditions. It also gives employees greater flexibility when it comes to learning. Without office distractions, employees can fully immerse themselves in the experience, leading to greater retention.
Each organization has unique challenges to address based on how, where, and with whom it does work. That said, three key focus areas where we see benefit to most organizations are communications, remote work, and leadership through uncertainty. To support these, we just released three learning pathways in Harvard ManageMentor Spark that provide insights into these topics:
- Leading in the Face of Uncertainty: This pathway provides articles specific to leading in the time of the coronavirus, managing and decision-making when the future is unclear, and how to prepare for the potential impact of the virus at a global and an organizational scale. In times of uncertainty, it’s easy to take the safe road and wait before making decisions, but it’s important to listen and learn from what’s going on around you to try to keep moving forward and find opportunities to grow.
- Supporting Remote Teams: This includes articles and videos to help your company establish an effective emergency remote-work plan. The coronavirus is forcing many companies around the world to send employees home to work—and that represents a huge cultural shift in places that simply aren’t used to allowing remote work. Successful remote work, and managing dispersed teams, isn’t something that comes without good tips and practice, so all organizations need to prepare their leaders on how to keep employees engaged, connected, and productive.
- Communicating in Challenging Situations: This includes resources for effectively leading and managing in a high-stakes situation. Communication is paramount in times of crisis, so leaders need to think about how to communicate information not just clearly and effectively but also compassionately. And they need to understand how much is too much and how little is too little.
Identifying Vulnerabilities and Preparing to Overcome Them
How can HR identify its greatest vulnerabilities when it comes to a major outbreak? How does the department prepare its workers for that challenge?
Stacey Engle: We focus on the vulnerabilities from a culture perspective. Open the lines of communication, and again, ask key questions. If a larger outbreak does occur, what will the biggest challenge be for your organization? How can you proactively address this and prepare as much as possible now? What can you do to ease concerns about these challenges?
For example, many organizations are canceling travel or even asking their employees to work from home in some cases. Don’t overlook the importance of communicating how these challenges could impact the organization and individuals specifically.
At the end of the day, no matter what the specific challenge is for any given organization, something that is relevant to everyone is how the communication is rolled out. The conversations need to happen early, often, and effectively. If that occurs, any major vulnerability has a much greater chance of being mitigated.
Larry Clark: Because a major outbreak could constitute an organizational crisis, HR can prepare by putting a crisis plan in place. Start by forming a crisis management team of individuals who will make the necessary decisions.
Next, create a contingency plan that lays out what will happen in case of a crisis, including the stress points or factors that could accelerate or expand its impact. From there, the group can brainstorm ways to remove or minimize these stress points. Lastly, a crisis plan needs a resource strategy.
The crisis management team should identify and arrange for resource availability to handle the crisis, including money, medical help, legal assistance, temporary help, or government aid. Having this plan in place, along with a comprehensive communication strategy to support it, makes it easier for employees to respond and move quickly toward reaching a resolution.
How can leadership leverage cooperation among employees to help meet this challenge?
Gregg Thompson: Leaders should communicate impending changes in their business. At Bluepoint, we need to significantly increase our virtual workshop offerings and communicate this to our community and clients as a shift we are making to continue to serve both in these very difficult times.
Although they are not well versed in crisis response communication, my clients are encouraged to look at this challenge through the eyes of their team members. They likely have four predominate questions:
- What is the impact on me, my team, and my customers, both now and over the next few months?
- What are the contingency plans if things get real bad?
- How are you going to keep me advised (daily/weekly)?
- How can I get my personal concerns addressed and my suggestions heard?
Larry Clark: Leadership is about creating followership—rallying people to a common purpose that is larger than any one person. In the coronavirus situation, it’s critical that leaders remember what is most important to everyone: helping people stay safe and healthy and helping the organization stay strong—in that order. To that end, leaders can help people work together by encouraging them to act as a team.
Encourage employees to have regular check-ins, and find the equivalent of a website or chat-based platform to serve as a temporary “office” where employees can gather to discuss ideas, socialize, and get updates. Additionally, leaders should model the behaviors and attitudes they want others to demonstrate. As a global organization, we, too, feel the virus’s impact and are working to respond rapidly to protect our organization and our employees. We are all in this together in taking the steps mentioned above to prepare our workforce and plan for an uncertain future.