Lessons Learned: HR, Employee Communications and COVID-19

Jeff Myhre | | Change Management

employee communications are important while working from homeWell, things are certainly different, aren't they? The plans everyone had a few months ago have gone right out the window. What do we do about it? For those of us in HR and employee communications, these are the times we've been training for all our careers. The stakes are never going to be higher (I hope not anyway), and we're uniquely positioned to act. Our professionalism is being tested in life-and-death ways. It may not feel like it as many of us sit in varying degrees of lockdown, but we've gone through an incredible learning process and we're rising to the occasion.

An Uncertain Future Means Quick and Lasting Decisions

The main byproduct of the pandemic is uncertainty. There's still a lot that remains unknown and almost as much “known” stuff that's turning out to be wrong. People are rightly confused. But we're in the business of providing accurate and actionable information. Right now, the unknown falls into three categories: unknown things about our careers, unknown things about benefits and compensation, and unknowns about the big picture that's just shifted on all of us.

Seeing sudden demand for certain goods and services vanish and unemployment soar created new and difficult situations for the C-suite. With the old business strategy out the window, some basic adjustments followed. Morale and future operations hinge on the new strategic vision spreading beyond the top tier of the org chart.

Let's take the simple example of a Mom-and-Pop restaurant with a small staff of cooks, waitstaff, busboys and bartenders. The minute that the lockdown went into effect, the old business died. People couldn't come in, sit down and eat. So, Mom and Pop have to find a way to make it on take-out orders (and maybe they've never offered a pickup option before). Depending on their experience, they might do 40 or 50% of their previous revenue. Laying off some staff and letting others stay is one option. Letting everyone go and closing down altogether is another. Keeping everyone on reduced hours and wages is yet a third. They haven't had much time to weigh those options and make a decision that affects the lives of everyone in their business.

Transparency and Sharing Go a Long Way

With the threat of a global pandemic looming, people can accept any of these decisions. They'll still be more comfortable if, when you tell them what the decision is, you also explain why it's the best option and provide a timeline for any changes. And tell them as soon as possible. Bad news doesn't improve with age.

There's a 7-Eleven near where I live. One of the staff tested positive for COVID-19, and, since I live in New York City, it shouldn't surprise you to learn the owner immediately closed for two weeks. Workers got a call saying that, for two weeks, nobody was to come to work and they all should self-isolate. After that two weeks, they reopened. They're open fewer hours, but everyone has work. And the important thing was people were put first, customers as well as employees. How do I know? The managers made sure every store around them knew what was happening along with putting a sign in the window. As a customer, I feel more comfortable knowing the details than I would if they'd simply closed and reopened without an explanation.

we're learning lessons about work life balanceWe're working differently than just three months ago. A lot of us in the information industry are working from home. There have been bumps along the way. We've had to explain the new arrangements and help workers solve both technical and semi-personal issues (like methods for keeping the child in the background of the online meeting occupied). But employee communications is where our profession excels. Moreover, because ours is the only part of the organization that communicates with all the other pieces, we're uniquely placed to share solutions across the organization. If legal discovers a workaround, marketing could benefit from it, and we're the ones positioned to pass it along.

Employees Need Benefits Education and Guidance

Now, we come to the issue of pay and benefits. When a company's revenue falls through the floor, employees (rightly) worry about their next paycheck and how much that health insurance they get through the company matters. While testing for COVID-19 may be free, two weeks on a ventilator in an ICU bed and post-hospital therapy adds up. I'd be surprised if, two months ago, anyone knew off the top of their head what insurance covered when it comes to the disease that has us sheltering in place.

We're the keepers of the secrets here. We know the policy, we know the rules for dependents, and we know how to manage the system. We're the Chief People Officers. For furloughed workers, we know how to claim unemployment insurance, pay COBRA, how to borrow against 401(k)s. In this, we're not just HR people. We've become something like spiritual advisers. Yes, you're being furloughed, but we've made sure you keep your health insurance. For many, not being able to put food on the table is a fear more real than COVID-19. If there are plans to bring them back, we're the ones keeping them informed of developments. Sending an email to check in is a point of contact with their pre-disaster reality. If there's news, all the better.

Employee Communications Battle Misinformation and Provide Reliable Updates

There's a lot of nonsense out there about the disease – how it spreads, what it does, how to keep from catching it. As an HR leader, you should already have the trust of your staff. Keeping them informed and making sure they get their benefits should further boost that. You're precisely positioned to provide them with the best medical knowledge and resources. They'll listen to you. Don't neglect things like mental health and substance abuse concerns. More of your workers will contend with those concerns in the next few months than will get COVID-19.

Reopening is the next big issue. When and how do we do it? Every state, every county, maybe even every town, is going to handle things differently. Add to that different standards based on industry and that means a lot of confusion. You're positioned to address those concerns and explain not only how the reopening will work, but also how your specific organization is dealing with it. What are the new policies, schedules, processes that workers need to know about before they head back? Many of those employee communications and trainings are going to pass through HR at some point.

Video and Other Digital Solutions Will Linger

remote training will help employee engagement and boost retentionThis brings us back to how. How do you take all of this information and get it to those who need it? If the last few months have taught us anything, it's how to use video teleconferencing. My 6-year-old granddaughter attends New York City Public School via Zoom these days. I just got off a conference call using MS Meetings, and my day job has a town-hall meeting every week using the same system. Skype has been around forever and I've streamed video from Britain's National Theatre.

Even as the economy reopens, there will still be restrictions and limitations on in-person interactions. That means the demand for video teleconferencing and other digital employee communications solutions isn't going to vanish as suddenly as it arose. Meetings, training sessions, seminars, conferences – all are going to require digital workarounds for a while longer. Even when there's a vaccine and larger gatherings don't pose as much risk, there'll be many instances where we won't go back to how things were done pre-pandemic.

The COVID crisis will pass but the lessons we've learned from it will remain.

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