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Employers need to communicate more during stressful times

01 Jun, 2020 Internal communication

Many employees say their leaders need to communicate more during the coronavirus pandemic and its variants aftermath. Hays recruitment conducted a nationwide UK survey of 16,000 workers in June 2020, and found 43% of workers said leaders needed to improve communication, well ahead of areas such as strategy and planning (23%) and remote staff management (13%). The conclusion to draw from these results and from other surveys is that employers need to communicate more during stressful times.

A third of employees said they have contact with their manager less than once a week and just 29% said they contact with their manager on a daily basis. This decreased over time, according to over a third (34%) who said the amount of contact they had with their manager reduced after lockdown.

Despite employee criticism, 40% of respondents reported that communication was the aspect of their organization which went through the most change since the coronavirus outbreak, ahead of people (24%) and processes (22%).

On the other hand, half (51%) of the respondents rated their leaders’ response to the coronavirus outbreak so far as excellent or good, while 49% said their leadership’s response has been OK to poor.

Yvonne Smyth, director of Hays Human Resources, said that although the current circumstances are unusual, leaders should know how to adapt their strategy. She said: “A leader used to being in an office setting should also be perfectly capable to lead well remotely. The clear differences are the need for leaders to be more visible to their teams, which will rely on clear, transparent and authentic communication, and making sure people know when to expect to hear from you.”

Leading well, Smyth added, is also a question of trust. She added: “If you’ve previously only led a team who you can see and talk to each day in an office setting, transitioning to having everyone working remotely can initially be unsettling if you can’t physically talk to/see everyone.

“Leaders must learn to shake off any mistrust and assumptions if you and your team are to succeed in the new era of work, whereby remote work will no doubt be much more common.”

Apply crisis communication in response to COVID-19 and its ongoing variants

McKinsey consultants recommend planning and implementing a crisis communication strategy as a central part of dealing with the impact of COVID-19 and its variants in the workplace.

Above image: From “A leader’s guide: Communicating with teams, stakeholders, and communities during COVID-19.

McKinsey consultants recommend following these actions in the communication strategy responding to the impact of COVID-19:

  1. Give people what they need, when they need it. People’s information needs evolve in a crisis. So should a good communicator’s messaging. Different forms of information can help employees to stay safe, cope mentally, and connect to a deeper sense of purpose and stability.
  2. Communicate clearly, simply, frequently. A crisis limits people’s capacity to absorb information in the early days. Focus on keeping employees safe and healthy. Then repeat, repeat, repeat that supports the mantra that employers need to communicate more during stressful times.
  3. Choose candor over charisma. Trust is never more important than in a crisis. Be honest about where things stand, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability, and maintain transparency to build loyalty and lead more effectively.
  4. Revitalize resilience. As the health crisis metastasizes into an economic crisis, accentuate the positive and strengthen communal bonds to restore confidence.
  5. Distill meaning from chaos. The crisis will end. Help people make sense of all that has happened. Establish a clear vision, or mantra, for how the organization and its people will emerge.

Employers need to communicate more frequently during stressful times

A US survey also found most leaders need to communicate to staff far more often than they think is necessary. Frequent communication reduces fear and uncertainty, and ensures employees have heard the message, according to the findings of the survey of 830 organizations in March-April 2020, reported in the Harvard Business Review in July 2020. Although leaders may experience fatigue from repeating core messages, it is important for them to realize team members need to hear these messages multiple times – in different ways and through different channels.

Leaders need to find positive angles and highlight them at this time when so many people are experiencing bad news and difficult times. They can likewise offset bad news by reminding people of times in which the organization came out on top when facing previous challenges such as during the dot.com bust in the early 2000s or the 2007-9 Great Recession.

How organizational leaders communicate can make or break the commitment of their employees. Despite the many challenges the pandemic has brought, one respondent said, “[Our leader’s] calls with us and reassurances that the company has our back are inspiring. I even used it as a humble brag on social media to make sure people know we are still hiring and that this is the sort of company you want to work for when the going gets tough.”

Use frontline managers more to communicate key messages

Above image: McKinsey – “The boss factor: Making the world a better place through workplace relationships” 2021.

As widely known from Gallup research, managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement, which is even more important during difficult times. Therefore, senior leaders need to deliver messages to employees via their frontline managers as well as by their own direct channels. Communicating through frontline managers is not a simple route. As McKinsey reported: “… in a recent survey [2018], 75% of survey participants said that the most stressful aspect of their job was their immediate boss.” This finding reinforces the conclusion that employers need to communicate more during stressful times. You can read more about improving manager communication in my article, “How to fix chronically poor manager communication.”

Communicate to address employee needs

In their 2020 compendium, Getting back to work, McKinsey consultants note:

Clarity, simplicity, and framing all matter – research from earlier epidemics shows that positive messages focused on best practices were more effective than negative messages designed to address misinformation. Frequency counts as well, as audiences need to
hear a message repeatedly before fully absorbing it. And that implies consistent content, reflecting a single source of truth at the corporate center.

They also point out that the best communication is two-way, with managers answering questions and engaging in an open dialogue with employees at all levels. An example is given of an equipment manufacturer where supervisors are asked to collect queries and concerns from frontline team members every morning. The company’s HR department then publishes an updated daily list of questions and answers, which are displayed on monitors around the factory. After the introduction of the new policy, absenteeism among shop-floor staff dropped significantly, and productivity returned to pre-crisis levels. As an additional, unintended benefit, the approach uncovered a number of frontline concerns unrelated to the pandemic, allowing managers to take additional steps to boost productivity and improve workforce satisfaction.

Finally…strengthen employee trust

Referring to McKinsey yet again, the illustration below, the article, “COVID-19 and the employee experience: How leaders can seize the moment,” shows how organizations can continue to build on the trust they have developed with their employees from the COVID experience. Much of this involves good communication between leaders and employees.

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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