Let’s face it: the global health crisis brought about by COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon. Here in California, we are almost 6 months into “shelter-in-place,” with no signs of any major changes coming. For most companies, the earlier steps taken in response to the crisis were, understandably, tied mainly to operations and logistics (e.g., how to adapt to virtual work, how to restructure effectively, etc.). Upon answering those questions, many leaders turned their attention towards employee interactions in the new virtual setting (e.g., how to be an effective remote manager, how to terminate an employee compassionately, etc.).
While these are all key questions to explore amidst a complete upheaval of work as we know it, a recent HBR article points out that other, equally important questions are taking a backseat. Specifically, write authors Brooks Holtom, Amy Edmondson, and David Niu, we are asking mostly “how” questions and not enough “what” questions. Asking “how” to communicate with your employees during a crisis, they explain, is not the same as asking “what” to communicate to your employees.
The authors asked over 800 employees from 10 different organizations several questions about their respective organizations’ responses to the pandemic. They came up with 5 key takeaways and a resounding theme: both the “hows” and the “whats” of communicating with your employees will shape their satisfaction with your organization, in terms of its response to the crisis and beyond.
Be Repetitive and Positive
During a time characterized by so much bad news, your employees want to hear what’s working well. In addition, this crisis also means that a lot of information is being transmitted rapidly over many forms of media. Holtom, Edmondson, and Niu urge leaders to “highlight the bright spots” of their teams’ work products, and to do so frequently. Even if you feel like you’re repeating yourself, your employees need to hear the same messages multiple times. If possible, communicating these messages “in different ways and through different channels” will ensure that employees of all learning styles will hear and retain the information you’re communicating.
Offer Safe Spaces for Feedback
If you expect honest feedback from your employees, you must assure them that you will keep their opinions in confidence, to the extent possible. Many employees don’t speak up because “information always gets out.” Tell your employees exactly where, how, and when they can express feedback, and how their comments will be safeguarded. If and when their suggestions lead to follow-up action, explain this to your team in a way that preserves the anonymity of the suggestion. Mastering this balance of, on one hand, safekeeping your employees’ opinions and, on the other, demonstrating that those opinions were not expressed in vain is tricky, but it is key to building trust amongst your team in you as a leader and in the organization as a whole.
Smooth the WFH Transition
Ask your employees what they need to ensure productivity in a work-from-home (WFH) setting that is at or above on-site productivity levels. Then, tell them which of their requests you can deliver on, as well as when and how they can expect fulfillment of their requests. If the organization has set a WFH expectation, then it is the responsibility of the organization to set their employees up for WFH success, from providing new pieces of equipment to offering more flexible working hours to accommodate employees’ family schedules.
Talk Openly About Job Security
Whether or not your employees have anything to worry about in terms of keeping their jobs, do everything you can to communicate this information to them in a clear, honest manner. For many employees, their position at your organization isn’t just a “job;” it’s a career. They will appreciate knowing, as early as possible, where they stand so that they can plan accordingly.
Look Ahead to the Future
Related to job security, employees are curious—and, in many cases, anxious—about what the future holds for their organizations. There are stories left and right about businesses that will not survive this pandemic. In this regard, employees pay attention to cues from their leaders to deduce their company’s state of affairs. Holtom, Edmondson, and Niu urge leaders to have open and honest conversations with their employees about how their organizations are planning for the future and, in doing so, to “emphasize what is going well for the organization.”
The pervasive uncertainty about this pandemic is prompting employees to “look to their leaders more than ever for guidance and support.” By demonstrating that your organization has a plan for the future, and by taking the time to convey that to your employees—while paying close attention to the “how” and the “what” of the messages you deliver—you will instill confidence and trust in your team that is sure to outlast COVID-19.