Maria Henze explains how her organisation ensures effective communication during COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic was an unimaginable crisis that took us all by surprise. What happened with the way my organisation communicated internally is worth sharing. When the pandemic suddenly hit us in the spring of 2020, our leaders were forced to rethink how they communicated with staff. As the pandemic evolved, so did the way our leaders connected with us, and how we connected with each other.
It is well known that to be an effective communicator in the workplace, you need to be clear about what you should be communicating and to whom, what form that communication should take and who it should come from. The timing of the communication is another important aspect: knowing when the time is right for a message to be delivered can be crucial for the right impact. After a message has been shared, it is important to follow up, to answer questions and to evaluate feedback. There are many ways to share information: postings on an intranet, sending emails, sharing links or documents, verbally in staff meetings, in smaller groups or between individuals.
This is nothing new; organisations continuously communicate with staff in some, or all, of these ways, and this is true in my organisation, too.
Setting the Stage
The day after the government decided on a lockdown, our Executive Director sent an email to all staff, telling them that the office would be closing and that a staff meeting would be held the same day to inform them further. Many members of staff, worried about their own safety, rushed to tidy up their offices and to collect notes and files they thought they would be needing working from home. No one guessed, at that moment, that weeks later we would come back to pick up things like screens, keyboards and even office chairs.
Initially, the whole organisation needed unambiguous and decisive communication regarding closing of the office building and what that meant in practical terms. The senior managers, together with the COVID-19 Incident Response Team, decided to create an intranet page dedicated to COVID-19, where all work-related information about the pandemic would be placed. Everyone needed the reassurance that those at the top had a clear vision and purpose for how we could simultaneously protect each other and continue with our important work.
During the first weeks, communication with staff took the form of daily intranet updates following the Incident Response Team’s morning meetings. It was felt that even “no news” should be reported, to avoid silence at a time when everyone needed reassurance from their leaders. In parallel with the official updates, senior managers made a point of meeting regularly online with the staff in their departments, not only for work-related matters, but to ensure a sense of community and purpose, a feeling of belonging and of being able to carry out our jobs. Home working does not bring the same challenges to each employee. Some battle loneliness. Others struggle for peace and quiet, perhaps having limited space and having to share the space with others working from home or having children to look after. Some need input from colleagues in order to work effectively. Some may even see coming to work as an escape from unpleasant domestic situations. Our managers, working closely with HR, approached these challenges with generous flexibility around working hours, special equipment and dispensations for various reasons.
Humanising the Message
A few days in, our Executive Director sent a personal email to all staff. This email was so well received that the emails became a weekly occurrence. In these emails, he informed us about work updates and practical information but, significantly, went a step further to share how he was personally dealing with some of his feelings of anxiety, sadness, despondency, anger, frustration or whatever it was he was feeling, which reflected perfectly what we were all feeling. As the weeks went on, the symbiosis between our leader and the rest of us became increasingly apparent. Sharing personal thoughts with his staff turned out to be a big win in terms of making people feel seen and included.
Weeks turned to months, and the formal intranet communications became somewhat more sporadic, triggered by announcements of situational changes and updates. The weekly emails from our Executive Director eventually became monthly emails, but they were always there, like a steadfast friend you looked forward to seeing on a regular basis. Those emails continue as the pandemic is still on-going, and there is so much appreciation and feedback expressed when he sends them. I think that this, in turn, is helpful to him. To me, this is exactly what it means to be a strong leader: someone competently guiding and directing others, but who is not afraid to show their human side.
Continuing the Conversation
As the pandemic went on, and now almost a year later without an apparent end date in sight, our internal communication turned to focus not only on the practicalities of working long-term in unusual circumstances, but on ways to boost morale and address everyone’s physical and mental well-being. Practical steps were taken to address problems and to help staff, and the communication style was a mix of formal and informal information and suggestions, coming at just the right intervals. Learning and development became a focus, with suggested webinars and training available at the click of a button. Two surveys were sent out to staff to gauge their well-being, with appropriate follow-up and help available when the results clearly showed what was needed.
Communicating with Colleagues
In addition to official communications, we changed the way we communicated with each other. How do you replace the informal chats you would normally have over a coffee or bumping into a colleague in the corridor or by the printer? The importance of these casual exchanges should not be underestimated. They are important to build relationships and to foster collaboration. They provide opportunities for impromptu brainstorming and to inform us what our colleagues are working on.
Colleagues responded with initiatives springing out of our desire to interact with each other, even when we could not see each other physically. The social committee organised online office parties, coffee meetings and chats were organized within departments and between individuals, formal team building days were offered by senior managers and the HR department organised staff events and opportunities for training. With encouragement from our managers, individuals also made sure to reach out to check on each other at regular intervals.
Fortunately, we live in times of advanced technology, making sharing of information rather easy. The foundations were already there when we were suddenly forced into a completely new way of working and communicating with each other. The trick was learning what channels were fit for what purpose and making sure everyone knew where to find the information they needed.
One of the reasons we have been successful is that a series of demonstration webinars have been held by IT staff, showing us how to use tools, where to find information, and giving us tips and tricks for making daily work easier. It is still somewhat of a work-in-progress, but compared to a year ago, we are in a completely different place and now mainly fine-tuning our communication methods.
What I have learned these past months living with the coronavirus pandemic is that crisis information needs to be communicated quickly and effectively, which is best done in person. Employees may be worried and confused, and looking to their leaders to explain the situation, to tell them what the course of action is going to be, and to reassure them.
Calling a general staff meeting as we did at the onset of the crisis is a good idea, to ensure that all staff receive the same information at the same time, and to allow for questions to be addressed, since many people will inevitably have the same, or similar, questions. In times of crisis, people want to see their leaders take charge and explain the situation in a calm and steady manner. Online staff meetings have been held monthly in our organisation since then. They are always recorded and easily accessible to everyone.
Formal information including situational updates and their impacts on staff, as well as rules and procedures, are best added to a common platform, where the information can be highlighted, updated, searchable and stored for future reference. Information that needs to be communicated quickly can be highlighted in a newsletter or an email, with links to the relevant pages or documents. It is important to include information regarding contact persons, so that staff know where they can turn to receive updated information or ask questions.
After the first announcement of a crisis, further information needs to be given at regular, frequent intervals. A balance will have to be struck regarding how often to communicate. People do not need to be inundated with information, but regular updates will feel reassuring. Obviously, any change as the crisis unfolds needs to be communicated immediately.
Organisations have a legal duty of care for their staff and, in my opinion, people also have a moral duty of care for each other. My organisation may not be perfect in every way, but as a collective, and guided by our leaders, we have certainly strived to perfect the way we communicate and look out for each other in times of crisis.