On April 6, Brunswick Group hosted a live webinar, “Engaging Your Employees Through COVID-19,” featuring Brunswick partners Rebekah Metts-Childers (Head of U.S. Employee Engagement) and Nick Howard (Head of European Employee Engagement).
Rebekah and Nick discussed the challenges facing CEOs and business leaders in communicating to their employees during the COVID-19 crisis, including talking directly to employees about difficult subjects including staffing decisions, business continuity, and future recovery. When communicating with employees during this time, employers should bear in mind four pillars of communicating through crisis: compassion, intensity, transparency, and trust.
Below is a summary of the key themes discussed in the call. A full recording of the webinar is available here.
Foundational principles and considerations
Every company is working through its own set of challenges related to the COVID-19 crisis, exacerbated by how the virus is playing out across different geographies. However, there are a few questions that are common to all companies:
- Business continuity and resilience. How do we get through this and come out the other end with a business that can continue creating value and jobs?
- Workforce. What do we do with our employees if we’re not generating revenue? What about those who can work remotely and those who can’t?
- Operations. How does this affect what we do and how we do it? What about our supply chain and the other businesses that depend on us for their livelihoods?
- Societal contribution. Is there anything we can do to support the broader societal response to the coronavirus?
- The threat to security as criminals seek to exploit the situation for their own ends – and employees working remotely may be less equipped to fulfil their role as the first line of defense.
- Financial impact. The financial impact on the business which, in some cases, may be almost impossible to bear without outside intervention.
With these questions in mind, business leaders should keep in mind these key principles and best practices for communications and employee engagement in times of crisis:
- Any response must be quick, broad-reaching and inclusive of all stakeholders – more than ever before.
- Leaders can acknowledge the unknowns while showing where they’re taking guidance from – the national or regional health authority – and demonstrate that they’re looking to the future with a longer-term approach.
- How you respond to the crisis now will set new expectations for the business and its leaders when we come through the other side – it might be difficult to ‘row back’.
- In the longer-term, you’ll need to show that you’ve learned from the crisis and how it’s helping you become a better business – and how employees can play a part in that.
- What you’re experiencing now may lead to the acceleration of big societal issues – dissatisfaction of inequality of wealth and health, lack of trust in business, concerns about data and privacy, among others. Every business should be considering these long-term challenges – if not now, then soon.
During the COVID-19 crisis, there is a heightened sensitivity around every communication, internal and external. Each communication needs to convey three things:
- Prioritizing the safety of employees, clients, and other stakeholders,
- Ensuring that the business and community can survive and thrive, and
- Finding ways to better society, whether in direct communities or around the world.
Compassion should not be a new guiding principle to a company’s internal communications and employee engagement, but it has never been more important. The questions you should be asking to ensure you are leading with compassion are:
- What behaviors should we be role-modelling?
- In the future, how will our employees look back at how we communicated and acted toward them?
- What will we point to that we were most proud of in the way we are treating our employees today?
Companies and leaders are coming up with new ways to show compassion. Whether it is a daily Twitter livechat with the CEO answering employee and customer questions or daily check-in notes and calls from leaders to individual employees. Small gestures recognizing employees are making a difference – many leaders are proactively communicating their gratitude toward employees and validating their exceptional dedication. Communications can make space for frustrations by saying, “this is hard, but your effort matters and is appreciated.”
Employees can also offer insight into how companies can lead with compassion when communicating to external as well as internal audiences. Many companies are reaching out to their employees to ask for feedback on how the organization should respond to the crisis, better use their resources, and ensure they are leading with compassion in their communities.
- Your actions set a standard for your leaders and company. What you choose to do today should withstand the scrutiny that is sure to follow once the crisis is over.
- Employees need to know that you are looking out for them, even as circumstances change. Tell them that, repeat it, tell them again and in a new way. Show them through your choices and tell stories that illustrate that you care about their safety and security.
- Finding creative ways to show compassion to your different audiences – employees, partners, frontline workers – goes a long way.
Employees are constantly looking for information about COVID-19 and their companies’ response to it. They expect to hear from leadership frequently and need to know what is being done. Silence from leadership can be unnerving, so communicate often, even if there’s nothing particularly new to say, and ensure there is a “one source of truth” channel that employees can easily access to find up-to-date information. That can be a regular email newsletter, an intranet page, or any other medium your employees are used to going to for internal updates.
Employees also need – and expect – more direct contact from their line managers, their mentors, and other direct leaders. For those working remotely, that may mean picking up the phone regularly to check how people are doing. While it may be a challenge to keep furloughed employees engaged, companies are coming up with creative ideas to ensure that these employees are still passionate about the company and their work when they are able to return to it.
- Regular check-ins will help the company understand what parts of its approach are working and what parts are not.
- Increased communication intensity now will set expectations going forward, and employees may want this increased engagement to continue in some form when things normalize.
- Don’t overdo it. While increasing communication intensity now is needed, it may mean cutting back on other forms of employee communication and engagement that are ongoing during normal times.
Trust and credibility are precious assets. People are making sacrifices in their daily lives for the greater good of public health – which means that the legitimacy of corporate decision-making requires a renewed commitment to transparency. Communication drives the ability to be transparent, and as everyone moves quickly to respond, to protect employees’ health, and to safeguard their businesses, you need to prioritize your employees’ ability to participate in and access information about the various decisions being made. With the amount of questions being raised at rapid pace, you may struggle to respond quickly. Establishing a default for transparency and the infrastructure to support it is important.
- How are our leaders talking about the known and unknown challenges?
- What has the company shared with employees – and with the public – and how can you do that more often and continue into the future?
- How are leaders setting expectations and listening with more focus than before?
Companies have been communicating more often and more openly about decisions that are being made, sometimes using channels that are publicly accessible (public-facing social media, videos, open letters, blogs, podcasts). While decisions about executive pay, layoffs, furloughs, and other big decisions are crucial to communicate, it’s also important to acknowledge when there are challenges that don’t have a clear answer or where decisions haven’t yet been made.
- Be explicit as often as you can. If you don’t yet know a decision, share details about when decisions will be discussed, processes that will be put in place, and timing for communications.
- Provide autonomy. Let employees control what they can and know they can make choices about their life and working situation.
- Try new things. Tell employees where you’re loosening up as a company, working to fulfil their needs, and trying new approaches.
In the future, employees – as well as other stakeholders – will look back on the decisions and actions their companies take today and judge accordingly. Did you continue to pay dividends while laying off employees? Did you put your lowest-paid employees on furlough while your highest-paid continued to receive their full salaries? Did you ignore the efforts of front-line workers who are keeping the business, the economy, and society going? These are all actions employees are looking at as you make decisions on how to handle this time of crisis.
- Be very clear about the way decisions are being made. Show trust in the teams taking the lead on decision-making and response, and ensure you are taking guidance from the most relevant, trustworthy sources.
- Do not use the COVID-19 outbreak as an excuse to make or announce tough decisions. The knock-on effects of the outbreak, such as economic slowdown, a drop in sales and revenue, etc. are what matter. You must be able to present and stand behind a valid business rationale for all decisions made, otherwise employees will feel like the crisis is being used as an excuse to make decisions that would have been made anyway.
- There is no contradiction between talking about business resilience and continuity and showing compassion and empathy to employees. The key is to explain why the business must endure and come out the other end of this crisis in a strong position. It is also important that the business endure to be able to keep or re-hire employees.
Rebekah specializes in providing counsel to companies during times of change – connecting communications strategy and business strategy to drive results.
Drawing on her 18 years of experience in corporate communications, Rebekah has a strong focus on strategy, M&A and employee communications. She has worked in the US and London, with global experience across Europe and Asia. Before joining Brunswick in 2018, Rebekah was a member of the leadership team at Gagen MacDonald, a strategy execution firm focused on transformation communications, leadership development, employee engagement and culture initiatives for Fortune 500 companies. Rebekah also spent nine years at Takeda Pharmaceuticals in a number of global senior positions, and worked with top PR firms doing corporate, technology, crisis and financial communications.
Nick leads Brunswick’s employee engagement offer in Europe. He advises clients on the people implications of transactions, transformational changes, and other significant business challenges and opportunities.
He helps organizations create an employee experience that attracts and retains great people, creating the conditions for them deliver the best work of their lives. He also advises on new ways of communicating with employees, connecting them with each other and customers; and how to create world-class communications functions.
Nick joined Brunswick from Edelman where he led the European employee engagement business and organization design offer. Before Edelman he was retail communication director for Lloyds Banking Group where he led communication for the successful integration of Lloyds TSB and HBOS. Before that he led the EMEA workforce engagement and change business of Mercer HR Consulting where he specialized in helping clients drive people performance during significant change. Nick’s background is in financial services and management consulting.