Only 20% of business leaders have done detailed ‘back-to-work’ planning to emerge from shelter-in-place, according to new research from the Institute for Public Relations and Peppercomm. Every company that fails to do this work is running a major risk that can be mitigated using well-established communications principles and planning rules.
While COVID-19 poses new challenges, getting companies back to the workplace after a crisis is something that has been done many times and significant lessons have been learned. There are three key principles that successful leaders have followed, and some valuable processes to help embed them.
In this article, we will outline these three principles and how you can use them. As one of the report’s authors, Courtney Ellul, Senior Vice President, and Partner at Peppercomm notes, “One thing’s for sure; if business leaders expect employees to just show up and know how to behave at this time while feeling uniformly positive about the future, they’ve badly misjudged the situation. This is the time for leaders to lead.”
“One thing’s for sure; if business leaders expect employees to just show up and know how to behave at this time, while feeling uniformly positive about the future, they’ve badly misjudged the situation. This is the time for leaders to lead.” – Courtney Ellul, SVP & Partner, Peppercomm.
Principle One: Communicate safety and well-being. When humans are threatened they fight or flee. This instinct will overcome anything else the company needs them to do. That’s why the first most and important job of any leader is to do whatever is necessary to bring as much physical and psychological safety as is necessary for their teams to perform well. Holistic well-being is a crucial thing to focus on. We know that the pandemic is causing a historic rise in the volume and severity of mental health problems – according to YouGov, nine times as many Americans are reporting ‘Severe depression’ and 50% more are reporting ‘moderate’ depression.
Leaders and communications professionals need to make sure there are ample information and support services available for employees – and employees need to feel they have the permission to speak up – and be heard – and to take time for personal well-being. When individuals thrive, the organization thrives.
Principle Two: Be visibly human. This two-way principle includes both allowing yourself to be visibly humble and engaging people as individuals. When a leader speaks with people – human to human, it gives permission for others to do the same.
During the COVID lockdown, some people (a minority) have had something like an enforced vacation, while others may have suffered major physical, emotional, or financial trauma. Being human is a crucial part of enabling people with this range of experiences to connect to each other, rebuild trust, and move forwards together.
Being human also empowers people to speak up when they see things that aren’t right – and when they do it is your responsibility as a leader to acknowledge this and make sure your antennae are switched on and working. Your company will need this openness and candour to understand its new reality and adapt to its changing conditions.
Principle Three: Build a new future together. Put in place the mechanisms to make sure teams understand what will happen when they get into the physical workspace, what’s going to be expected of them when they get there and identify what steps will enable you to rebuild the company in the new reality as a team.
A step-by-step guide to launching your reboarding communications process
Sticking to these principles is hard in the face of the tough decisions this changing situation will create. We have used the following broad planning steps to help our clients stick to core principles in times of great change. Of course, they’re all broad-brush and each company will need to adapt them for their specific circumstances, but our experience would suggest these five things are important to consider.
Step 1. Lay the groundwork: Who should you put in the planning team to make sure you are addressing the divergent experiences that your employees are having right now? People have different needs if they are managing specific health conditions, caring for relatives, handling different commutes, and a hundred other scenarios. To enable the workforce to come back to workplace safety and positively you need to be able to think through the challenges facing all the different groups that you have.
At the same time, it’s good practice to get a full understanding of the channels you’ve got available to communicate with, and whether you also need alternate modes such as a messaging service that reaches everyone, or a video platform. It’s time to revisit what communication channels and protocols you’ve got in place because they all might be useful as different scenarios emerge at different times in the future
Step 2: Understand your employees: Do you already have the tools in place to quickly sense how employees are? Up to date information about engagement, sentiment, motivation and commitment are useful to understand, especially within the context of COVID segmented audiences. In addition to groupings you may have used previously, such as teams under a specific manager or department, you need to be able to understand how your policies and approaches are affecting the different groupings within your company, for example, are parents, commuters, carers or sick people in need of a new approach? Only by knowing the landscape can you adapt communications and policies quickly to emerging stressors.
Step 3: Build for flexibility. Understand that the plan you have today might have to change tomorrow. People, units and even regions may have to go back into lockdown at a moment’s notice. Clients may go bust or expand. It is important to ensure that you have the tools and set the right cultural context to let people know that changes might happen in the wider world and that together you can rise to those challenges.
Part of this is empowering managers to engage with employees at their unit level. People throughout the company need to be able to communicate directly with somebody that they know and trust – to ask straight forward questions and get straight forward answers where they exist. Where needed, these questions need to be quickly escalated, answered and embedded into policy as appropriate.
Step 4: Plan: To manage this overall communications stream you’ll need both a high-level plan that incorporates the three broad principles – and a much more detailed tactical plan which incorporates what message you’re sending to which person through what channel at what time.
A useful exercise is to get some of your smartest and most divergent thinkers to imagine new scenarios that might emerge, and then test your communications plan against those scenarios and think through how you will respond. This is a helpful mental exercise to help you respond in the face of changing situations – and prepare your senior leadership team to be responsive and open to change.
Step 5: Measure and rebuild: Steps 1-4 will help you learn a lot about your team and this new business context. The shape of a new plan for the business will be forming, and this gives you the perfect opportunity to work together as a coherent unit and map out a brave new future for your company.
The COVID crisis is new, but businesses have managed to emerge from many crises before, and have done so more strongly, by sticking to the sound principles of safe physical and psychological environment, being human and building a plan for the future together.