The Infection Phase of the coronavirus crisis seems to have come to an end. We’re not back to normal yet, but we’re close to returning to offices and workplaces. With a large number of employees still working remotely, now is the time for organizations to look ahead and prepare offices and workplaces for their employees’ return and for the ‘new normal’. Preparing for the ‘new normal’ presents challenges for communication professionals. Because, now more than ever, employees crave reliable information.
The First Phase of the Coronavirus crisis was intense: we collectively started working from home from one day to the next. Shops and schools closed, the hospitality industry had to close down, contact-based roles had to stop performing their jobs … The world came to a stop. Questions that were asked most frequently: when will our lives go back to normal? And how normal will our lives be after this ‘lockdown’? Nobody knows, but in all scenarios that were circulating, one thing was foreseeable: sooner or later, there would be a Management Phase that includes a cautious mitigation of measures. Employees will return to their workplaces, and discontinued industries will reboot. We’re slowly approaching this Phase, which is predicted to last until a vaccine has been developed.
Craving for reliable information
Preparing for this new Phase will be a challenge for all of us. However, for communication professionals, it also offers a great opportunity to keep colleagues informed and safe. In times of crisis, employees crave information that is reliable and up to date. And that doesn’t apply to just a small number of employees.
In a study conducted by Edelman, no less than sixty-three percent of respondents indicated that they expected their employer to update them daily, twenty percent even wanting communications several times a day. The same study also shows that people identify ‘my employer’ as the most trusted institution. Sixty-three percent said that they would believe information from that channel after one or two exposures, versus 58 percent for a government website and 51 percent for traditional media. In short: we want a lot of updates, preferably from our employer.
Preparing for the ‘new normal’: five tips
Several countries in Asia have recently reopened offices, factories, and other buildings and facilities after a lockdown of several months. We can learn from these countries, because the threat of a new virus outbreak remains realistic in these countries. Therefore, these governments and organizations had to search for ways to start things back up while simultaneously taking all kinds of measures into account.
When the ‘new normal’ arrives, will differ per country, region, and industry. However, one thing is certain, and according to an analysis by Gartner in Asia, we can already see it in Asia: the need for reliable corporate communication will continue to exist in the ‘new normal’.
To be able to meet this need even then, organizations must pay sufficient attention to what is changing for them. They can then adjust their communication strategy accordingly. Reactive communication should transform into anticipatory internal crisis communication, in which organizations look at the long term. The following five tips can help you with that:
1. Acquire a realistic view of your starting position
What does your business communication strategy look like at the moment? If your organization has already developed a comprehensive communication strategy, it’s easier to adapt that to current circumstances than to start from scratch. This strategy is linked to factors such as your financial situation, your ongoing projects, your internal communication tools, various target groups such as non-desk workers, various departments, and the status of your employees. However, due to the corona crisis, things will have changed. In order to reconnect this strategy to all these factors, you must develop a system recovery to your situation before the crisis – that is essential, according to consultancy firm McKinsey.
This ‘system restore’ can form an anchor to examine what has changed systematically and will change in the future. Consider all the factors just mentioned. Sort them into three categories: those that still seem right, those that are wrong or have become sensitive, and those that are still uncertain. The latter category will mainly include factors whose long-term impact is still unclear, which, in turn will cause uncertainties. Employees must be informed about all these matters, so use this classification to map out your communication strategy for the coming period. Dividing them into these categories, will help you make a distinction in priority.
2. Check the need for information
By now, we have made it clear that there is a need for reliable information. But what exactly is it employees want to know? Make a comprehensive assessment of what information and measures are vital for the proper functioning of your staff. Also review the things that stay the same. In doing so, provide answers to (among others) the following questions:
- What are the most important messages for all employees?
- What are specific messages for specific departments or employee groups?
- Which channels do you use to best address these employees?
- To be able to function properly, which employees need what information at what time?
- Which measures and plans require specific attention?
- What is the purpose of your communication (e.g., create trust, provide clarity, suppress fake news, reassure employees, or create a sense of unity)?
3. Set up a concept for the distribution of information
If you know what information employees need, you can set up a concept to communicate this crucial information as effectively as possible. Again, we can learn from other countries, Gartner’s analysis shows. Organizations in Asia use all available regular top-down communication channels they have, such as digital town hall meetings, digital signage screens, intranets, corporate apps, emails, or company screensavers. Communicate frequently and anticipatory through these channels about your plans regarding the return to the workplace and the reasoning behind these plans. However, these various communication channels aren’t interchangeable. Take into account the various types of employees that work for your organization; preferred communication channels may differ for each employee, as some channels are, more than others, convenient to a certain group of employees. Also, consider how you can reach your non-desk employees (employees without a dedicated workspace or access to a PC or email) and employees who still work remotely.
In addition, be receptive to different communication channels. Don’t just use top-down communication. Listen to your employees. Present opportunities for them to give feedback, express their concerns, and make suggestions for improvements. If necessary, use informal communication channels that are popular with employees, such as WhatsApp and Facebook. This way, it’s easier for them to ask questions and express concerns about their return to the workplace and their own safety. Gather these questions and use them to put together an FAQ. Publish the answers in real-time via corporate communication channels, so frequently asked questions can be answered in real-time. You’ll take away your employees’ worries and questions before they even arise. Moreover, it contributes to increasing trust in your organization’s approach: you show that you have thought of everything, and you stay in control of communications.
4. Match content and timing to channel
When you determine timing and content, it’s important to look at the most suitable channel for each type of message you’re going to publish. Some communication channels are better suited for specific content than others. For example, a CEO video can be distributed easily via a corporate app, which allows employees to watch that video at their own convenience. It’s best to post a longer article or an FAQ on your intranet. And small chunks of information, such as (renewed) security measures that employees must remember, can better be shown repeatedly via digital signage screens or screensavers. By displaying the information through the right channel, you can make sure your message will genuinely reach your employees.
When creating your messaging, think of all the things that have changed in your organization. These changes probably raise questions among your employees. Make a checklist for your organization that clearly indicates which (un)changed matters must be communicated immediately, such as:
- Changed safety rules – focus on your employees’ health and safety.
- Physical distancing measures, e.g., no longer using elevators.
- (New) hygiene measures, e.g., using mouth coverings or gloves if necessary or recommended.
- Lunch rules, e.g. lunch in smaller groups spread over a more extended period, to prevent too many people from being in the same room at the same time.
- Rules regarding meetings and customer visits, e.g., a maximum number of people in one meeting room or meeting rooms reserved explicitly for customer visits.
- New protocols and work instructions e.g., changed working methods to ensure an appropriate distance from colleagues.
- New floor layouts, e.g., temporarily disallow ‘hot desking’.
- (New) working hours and work schedules, e.g., splitting shifts, so fewer people are at their work location at the same time.
Moreover, some information will not be equally important or relevant to all your employees. To make sure you don’t distract and confuse your employees with irrelevant information, you will have to identify various audience or target groups. After identifying target groups, you will have to target the information to these different audience groups via your various communication channels.
5. Put work atmosphere and culture first
The coronavirus outbreak has undoubtedly had an impact on your organization’s culture, including your mission, vision, and, above all, core values. ‘Real-life’ interaction will be different due to all health and safety measures and the requirement to practice social distancing. However, the work atmosphere and culture are important for your employees. It will have largely determined why your employees chose to work for your organization in the first place. Focus on the new social and cultural standards that arise in your organization as a result of the Coronavirus crisis. Determine your tone of voice based on your communication goals and the content of your messages.
Keep in mind you’re communicating with human beings, and that these are uncertain and unnerving times. Some employees will find it difficult to return to work. Some may even be too afraid to return. Show your employees that you’re very serious in following governmental guidelines and advice. Specify that you base new measures on information provided by government agencies. However, also show your employees your corporate culture doesn’t have to suffer as a result of all these changes: practice physical distancing, but stay socially connected.
We’re probably not collectively returning to work yet for a while. However, one thing is certain: ‘work’ will not be the same. To offer support and clarity to its employees, every organization should put in their best efforts to prepare for the ‘new normal’. Communicating effectively and transparently with your employees is crucial in this preparation. If there are fewer questions and uncertainties, the ‘new normal’ will feel like ‘normal’ again just a little sooner.
Could you use some help with the preparation of your organization preparing your organization? Download our checklist ‘Back to (the new) normal’ to help get your colleagues started quickly and safely upon their returning. Or contact us, we’re happy to help!