Crisis Management in Action: Employee Communications and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Lauryn Nosek | | Change Management

employee communications are a vital part of crisis managementEvery time you change the channel or open your phone, there's another breaking-news update about the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be difficult to distinguish misinformation and hyperbole from what actually applies to individuals' situations. One of the biggest concerns employees have is something the news can't tell them: what does this outbreak mean for how, where, and when they're expected to work and/or get paid. We've written before about change and crisis management but this situation takes the cake for scope and breadth of impact. You and your team are probably scrambling to make decisions and get employee communications out. Right now, your workers likely have more questions than you have answers. As the larger situation unfolds, here are some aspects to keep in mind while developing new policies, revising existing ones and communicating those changes to your workforce.

Social Distancing and Work-from-Home Policies

One of the biggest recommendations for slowing the spread of the disease (and keep healthcare facilities from being overwhelmed) is 'social distancing.' It's why almost all of the major sports leagues have suspended their seasons, why museums, theme parks and other attractions are shutting their doors and why parades and other celebrations are being canceled or postponed. Some states are even insisting restaurants close or only provide take-out options. Restricting the number of people in one place limits the risk of exposure for everyone in that given place.

crisis management during the covid-19 pandemic means employee communicationsFor a lot of people, though, the place they encounter others most frequently is the workplace (or the commute to work, especially for those who rely on public transportation). As a precautionary measure, many companies are thinking about (or are already) encouraging/requiring employees to work from home. These policies are proving key to crisis management during this COVID-19 pandemic.

But just telling employees to work from home isn't enough. Even at companies where it's easy for most people to do that, it isn't an option for all positions. Make sure you're not leaving anyone out of your planning and employee communications on the matter. Try going team by team or department by department looking at the different roles and what aspects can't be done from home easily.

If your industry requires a skeleton crew to appear on site, what new processes do you need to establish to protect those workers while they're on site? If someone would ordinarily be on that kind of skeleton crew but they raise situational concerns (like the childcare issues we'll examine later or if they have family members they live with in some of the higher-risk categories), can you provide alternate assignments for them that can be done from home or have a lower risk for exposure?

Childcare Challenge

Schools around the country are closing, some for an extended period of time, and it's more than the usual burden on working parents. As opposed to holiday breaks that people have time to prepare for, these closings are appearing with little notice. They also won't include many of the back-up options of school-organized camps and extracurriculars to help keep children busy. Private daycare might not be an option either and the higher cost is only one consideration. Daycare centers often have capacity limits or waitlists. Then there's the possibility that daycare centers themselves might close to help limit the risk of spreading COVID-19. Germs are one thing children have an easy time sharing.

childcare poses unique challenges at this timeIf you're implementing a work-from-home policy, your workers may be working from home alongside their children. If you aren't or can't implement a work-from-home policy, many workers are still going to need to figure out what to do with their children. Flexibility with schedules and expected productivity will go a long way with stressed working parents right now. Beyond keeping children occupied during an extended school closure, parents are grappling with how to discuss the outbreak with their children and addressing anxieties their children may have about what's happening. It's a confusing time for all, but children have less control than others and will need more attention and care during this difficult period. You probably can't help your workers with those aspects of parenting, but you can be understanding of their situation.

Provide Resources If You Can't Provide Answers

With federal, state and local governments issuing policies and restrictions left and right, the situation remains in flux. This means you won't have answers to every question your employees might have. The answer also might change an hour later. Creating and maintaining the accuracy of employee communications will be difficult. But you can help point workers in the right direction and fight back against some of the misinformation that's been circulating.

provide resources if you don't have direct answersProvide workers with access to sources with the most reliable information — the WHO, CDC and relevant local resources. The CDC's state-level chapters have more specific information about confirmed cases and the spread. Most state governments have also developed dedicated pages for COVID-19 updates on their official websites.

Some workers will have questions about what's covered by the healthcare plans they chose during open enrollment. Check with your plan providers to see if they've developed specific resources related to COVID-19. They may have an FAQ sheet or dedicated page on their website that you can pass along to your employees. Trusted media outlets, like Employee Benefit Advisor, are also curating breaking news on this subject. These are valuable resources you can easily work into your employee communications as part of your crisis management approach.

Keep Calm and Work On

This situation is going to get worse before it gets better, but the only way through it is together. Keeping everyone reliably informed in the coming days and weeks will help calm fears and settle business into a new routine. Hopefully the most drastic measures will prove temporary but till then, we need to find new ways to work.

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