How to communicate effectively in the workplace during COVID-19

Even before the pandemic, it was becoming increasingly clear that we are living in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. The acronym was first used in 1987 to describe the conditions created by the Cold War, but it is just as applicable to today’s business environment. Our Chief Insights and Research Officer, Dr. Peggie Rothe, has discussed how VUCA is shaping the employee experience here. She argues that technology—a key instigator of VUCA—has made decision-making disorientating and robbed employees of hitherto certainties, such as nine-to-five days and fixed work desks.

Employees are likely to feel anxious about their health, the wellbeing of their loved ones, job security, simultaneous changes to their home and working environments and the support of their colleagues and managers. How leadership communicates during this time is essential to easing employees’ fears and guiding them through this unprecedented period.

Here’s our short guide to communicating effectively with staff during times of crisis:

Clarity of communication is key
News and guidance on COVID-19, including social distancing measures and limits to public gatherings, change quickly, so it is crucial that you keep your colleagues up to date with accurate information. As Dr. Rothe explains in her article, technology has created a paradox of choice. The sheer volume of digital channels and images has led to decision fatigue – people now struggle to make well-informed or accurate choices.

The growing fake news crisis is a symptom of this paradox, and fake news about COVID-19 is rife. Your organisation has a responsibility to cut through the noise. To tackle this, you can provide staff with the latest guidelines from trusted sources. Keep communication short, simple and to the point. You know you’ve got it right when there’s no room for interpretation.

There’s no such thing as too much communication
Without an office, colleagues can’t visit one another’s desks, grab a coffee or organise impromptu meetings, which means nuances are lost and people can misinterpret expectations or directions. Data from our ongoing study into employees’ home working experience has found that 56% of home workers feel their environment supports informal social interaction, compared with 75% of office workers. Without these informal chats, many workers are left at the mercy of whatever their manager remembers to tell them in the morning meeting. Being intentional about how, when and why you communicate will make a huge difference to employees hungry for answers.

Invest in good technology
Video conferencing software and messaging apps are effective ways to keep colleagues talking, everyone on the same page and spirits high. Our home working research shows that 79% of employees feel their environment enables to share knowledge among colleagues. This could be explained by the finding that 90% of employees from the same dataset have access to the software programs they need to work from home. Clearly, employers that are not providing the right technology risk alienating employees and damaging their connection to the organisation.

Make sure people have the right furniture
The same goes for employees’ physical space in the home. Our research shows that only 41% of employees have a dedicated work room or office at home, while 31% have a dedicated work area and 28% work from a non-specific home location, like a dining table. The average employee experience score of the third group is 12 points lower than the first. These findings should push your organisation to find out what your employees’ physical spaces look like and what kind of furniture they use. Armed with this knowledge, you can either provide tips to work in an ergonomic way or—better yet—provide employees with the right setup if the calls to work from home continue.

Learn about your employees’ home working experience
The first rule of communication is to know your audience, and with employees working from home it’s more difficult than ever to do that. To communicate effectively you need a full picture of your workforce: their age, the specifics and range of their work activities, and the physical and service features that support them while working from home.

Our data shows that the fewer activities an employee does as a part of their role (i.e. meetings, individual work, presenting, collaborative work etc) the better their home working experience is likely to be. Without knowing how many activities each of your employees is undertaking, it’s impossible to know how you can support them.

Remind employees to switch off
A crucial element of VUCA is the way people work today—always switched on and always connected. Phones, laptops and messaging apps have resulted in 11pm emails, working on the weekends, and even the emergence of workcations. As a result, the barriers between work and life seem irrevocably broken.

Throughout this period employees need to work hours that suit their lifestyle and circumstances, such as childcare duties, noisy housemates or simply preference. Employers need to give people the freedom and choice to manage their own time but remind them to take breaks and switch off whenever they can. If the employees want to do focused work in the evenings, for example, you need to ensure that colleagues understand that they may not be available in the morning. Home working teams will only be effective if the rules are unambiguous and there is direction from the top that champions distributed working. This means implementing processes that insist employees create barriers between work life and home life.

Create a feedback loop
This period of home working has no clear end, which means that people’s attitudes and feelings towards the practice may change. What worked for six months might not work for an entire year. Some people may have viewed the autumn as the return to the office and are now deflated. Regardless of timeframes, organisations need to understand that their employees’ attitudes and expectations will change, so it’s essential to regularly check in and evaluate where people are at. It’s no longer enough to evaluate workplace experience annually, remote working means it needs to be far more frequent than that.

You don’t have all the answers, so don’t pretend to
It’s okay to say that you don’t know – nobody does. And with events and guidance changing so quickly, the advice you give today may be out of date tomorrow. What matters is that you keep employees updated regularly, act when you can and be proactive about finding out how their home working experience is really going.

Covid communication checklist:

  • Keep communication short, simple and to the point
  • Communicate frequently, using various mediums
  • Invest in technology that enhances communication
  • Carry out a comprehensive audit to find out how employees are coping with working from home
  • Instill clear policies around ending the work day and switching off
  • Get feedback loops in place
  • Admit you don’t have all of the answers

Data based on 144,581 home working respondents as of 30.09.2020

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