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Communicate effectively to employees in tough times

01 Jun, 2020 Change communication, Internal communication, Issues and crises

When your organization is under financial pressure, it is even more important to communicate well with employees. The COVID-19 crisis has caused employees everywhere to be concerned about the security of their jobs. Employees worry about their retirement funds and even about the future of their organization. In their preoccupation with the problems they are prone to circulate rumors and lose productivity by speculating about the impact of the pandemic on them. So what can be done? Many of the uncertainties can be addressed when employers communicate effectively to employees in tough times.

Poor communication is usual

According to a Gallup article by Jennifer Robison in 2021, a hybrid workplace isn’t necessarily a problem for communication – “(or collaboration or enculturation, for that matter).” Many large organizations already communicate with employees at a distance, eg interstate and overseas staff as well as people in widely dispersed locations within a State. “They don’t need to see each other — or even hear each other – to communicate well. Employees can learn from and influence others at great distances. But…most don’t, on-site or not”:

  • Only 7% of U.S. workers strongly agree that communication is accurate, timely and open where they work.
  • Only 26% of employees strongly agree that their manager’s feedback helps them do better work.
  • Only 22% strongly agree that their leaders have a clear direction for the organization.
  • Four out of five start looking for a new job when they get negative feedback from a manager.

Robison notes that it’s not where employees are, but what they hear, that matters more. “Therefore, leaders of hybrid organizations don’t have to develop new forms of communication that vanquish distance or squish all of their employees’ interactions into on-site days.” The foundation for better communication is to provide accuracy, openness and timeliness of information and interaction.

Team input

If you want live feedback on material such as creative ideas and suggested team solutions, Elizabeth Grace Saunders in a 2020 Harvard Business Review article, recommends sharing a document through a file-sharing service like Google Docs, Teams or Slack. Set a deadline for feedback, turn on “Track Changes,” and be clear about what you want from participants. Instructions should be thorough so participants can work through the documents at any time while WFH so they aren’t left stranded when seeking clarification. This method ensures collaboration, transparency and accountability of participants.

Consistent communication with team members

Content and consistency are key, and managers who consistently communicate with their team members are very likely to improve engagement – employees are 2.8 times likelier to be engaged, for instance, when they regularly talk to their manager about their goals and successes. This involves quick connects and check-ins, with a minimum goal for managers of having one meaningful conversation with each team member per week. It also involves asking employees how any changes and uncertainties in their future working environment may affect aspects of their wellbeing and performance, is Gallup’s advice. It is even more important to communicate effectively to employees in tough times, and so team leaders should be conscientious about maintaining good contact with their direct reports.

Use strategic communication to address difficult workplace uncertainties

Here’s some helpful advice about the need to communicate effectively to employees in tough times:

Show leadership

Leadership is about communication and therefore it is vital to be candid with employees about what is known and also what is uncertain. Management should explain to staff about the organization’s response strategy to financial turmoil because staff want to see their leaders showing the way.

Build on strengths

Emphasize the values of employees that have enabled the organization to achieve its current position. Find some past stories about how the organization successfully coped with past economic pressures and tell how teamwork enabled the organization to ride through its problems and can be done again.

Be visible

Your organization’s leaders should make a point of ‘showing the flag’ – of making the effort to circulate around offices and work areas. In large firms they should visit other locations to show their visible presence and engage with workers. They should brief employees about the current position and prudent plans for the future. The problems created by the crisis should be discussed directly and employees should be encouraged to ask questions. If possible, employees should be asked for their views about how costs can be managed tightly in these times. When included in the process, employees show they can respond with thoughtful suggestions.

Communicate information early

Ensure you are even more open about organizational performance results than usual. Avoid being seen to hide or delay information that is better circulated.

Confront rumors early

When you communicate effectively to employees in tough times you play an important role in countering and minimizing workplace rumors as they arise. You should establish (if you haven’t already) a network of employees in a cross-section of work areas who are well informed. Those people should be asked to report the rumors and speculation that fly around during uncertain times. Look externally as well – monitor the press and social media for relevant industry rumors and specific rumors about your organization. Then get managers to address the rumors directly and quickly. However, don’t over-react to rumors – be aware of them and decide which ones need a response.

Use the management team

Use the management team to cascade core messages about the organization’s strategy for dealing with tough times and to repeat variations of the core messages in order to reinforce them. Use the various channels of communication to reinforce these messages as well, not just motherhood statements, but genuine information updates.

Align messages

During difficult times it is important to align internal and external messages. Particular care should be taken to do this because employees may have multiple roles as customers and shareholders. And employees should hear important news first because they are the most important stakeholder group for any organization. (In a public company, the key messages need to go simultaneously to employees and the stock exchange.)

Be helpful

Many employees and their families may be experiencing personal pain from the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis. Acknowledge their pain and ensure they know about available counseling resources such as an employee assistance plan. It is essential to show empathy to employees during their time of plight as a result of the pandemic, and internal communicators will continue to play a crucial role in this – directly through internal communication.

You should contribute indirectly through advising senior management on their role. For instance, in a 2021 Forbes article, author and sociologist Tracy Brower advises:

Leaders can demonstrate empathy in two ways. First, they can consider someone else’s thoughts through cognitive empathy (“If I were in his/her position, what would I be thinking right now?”). Leaders can also focus on a person’s feelings using emotional empathy (“Being in his/her position would make me feel ___”). But leaders will be most successful not just when they personally consider others, but when they express their concerns and inquire about challenges directly, and then listen to employees’ responses.

Leaders don’t have to be experts in mental health in order to demonstrate they care and are paying attention. It’s enough to check in, ask questions and take cues from the employee about how much they want to share. Leaders can also be educated about the company’s supports for mental health so they can provide information about resources to additional help.

Further reading

You can read more about this topic in my article, “Employers need to communicate more during stressful times“.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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