Every leader knows that communication during a crisis is critical. When leaders communicate with urgency, transparency, and empathy, it helps people adjust to the constantly changing conditions crises bring. A tone of urgency encourages people to make quick decisions to mitigate harm. Transparency builds trust in leaders and conveys respect for employees by implicitly recognizing them as capable of coping with what is being shared. And showing empathy and conveying a compelling message of hope can foster resilience in facing the challenges that lie ahead.
Yet beyond these basic recommendations, there is scant empirical research on what to communicate to employees amid a crisis. As a result, most executives probably cannot answer the following question: Now that we are several months into the crisis, how are your employees feeling about your organization’s response to the pandemic?
To help leaders fine-tune their communications practices, we created a 12-question assessment designed to measure employee satisfaction with the organization’s overall interactions with them during the Covid-19 crisis and reveal the factors that drive a positive reaction. We sent the assessment to employees in 10 for-profit, not-for-profit, and government organizations and received a total of 830 responses between March 24 and April 22.
There were five key takeaways for leaders, which we describe below in descending order of their importance in influencing employees’ satisfaction with how their employers are dealing with them during the pandemic.
1. Communicate frequently.
Most leaders need to communicate to staff far more often than they think is necessary. Frequent communication reduces fear and uncertainty and ensures that employees have heard the message. While leaders may experience fatigue from repeating core messages, they need to realize team members need to hear these messages multiple times. Different people may need to hear messages in different ways and through different channels.
At a time when so many people are experiencing bad news and negative consequences largely not of their own doing, leaders need to remember to find the bright spots and highlight them. They similarly can offset bad news by reminding people of times when they faced challenges in the past and the organization came out on top (e.g., during the dot.com bust in the early 2000s or the 2008 financial crisis).
How organizational leaders communicate can make or break employee commitment to their organizations. Despite the many challenges the pandemic has brought, one respondent reported, “[Our leader’s] calls with us and reassurances that the company has our back are inspiring. I even used it as a humble brag on social media to make sure people know we are still hiring and that this is the sort of company you want to work for when the going gets tough.”
2. Provide safe channels for giving feedback.
Consider the comment of a disappointed employee we received: “Most information at my company never stays safe. Information always gets out. I don’t know if that is an HR leak or people just don’t know how to stop gossiping, but private information is never safe.” Employees must be able to express their concerns to leaders without fear of retribution.
Organizational leaders must communicate the channels available to offer feedback and should emphasize how much they care about hearing from employees at all levels. For example, organizations might offer the following means for employees to communicate: reaching out to HR, talking to a senior leader, bringing issues to a regular one-on-on meeting with a manager, and having an anonymous suggestion channel.
Having a variety of options is important because individual employees may view the safety of a given channel differently based on such factors as their relationship with their managers, whether they view HR as supportive, and their views of the responsiveness of anonymous formal channels. Having choices about how to give feedback thus helps ensure that people will do so, which, in turn, increases their satisfaction with their company’s actions.
Finally, leaders must periodically report what they are hearing from this feedback. Sharing careful summaries of the questions, concerns, and follow-up actions will increase trust in the leadership at this critical time — trust that is likely to continue after the crisis subsides.
3. Help employees work at home effectively.
Employees who feel they have what they need to remain productive and successful while working remotely are more likely to be satisfied with their organization’s overall response to the pandemic.
If the organization wants to maintain productivity, it may be worth investing in work-from-home equipment. For many, having equipment that’s common in the office (e.g., headsets, second monitors, comfortable chairs and desks) can make a big difference, affecting their productivity. As one employee put it, “Since we were not able to bring all the equipment we usually use to do our jobs on a daily basis, it has been a challenge making the changes needed to continue to perform at the same level we did while on location.”
Similarly, many employees may need help adjusting meeting time expectations based on specific family and child care situations. And given the challenges associated with Zoom fatigue, managers may want to use telephone calls rather than video meetings when connecting for one-on-one or small group discussions with people who know each other already.
4. Address concerns about job security.
Understandably, people are worried about their jobs. Keeping this in mind, leaders should reassure team members that their employment is secure when this is indeed the case. When it is not, employees appreciate knowing all they can as soon as possible so they can plan accordingly. AirBnB’s May 5 announcement that it would have make deep layoffs is a good example of how to deliver such tough news in a timely and frank manner.
5. Provide a plan for the future.
This one is undoubtedly related to employees’ worries about their own jobs. Given the extraordinary crisis we’re now enduring, it’s hardly surprising that many people are anxious about their own organization’s future and look to leaders for cues. Therefore, when communicating, emphasize what is going well for the organization. Further, share as much as you can about your strategy and planning for the future. And be sure to recognize employees who have gone the extra mile to drive business results or help colleagues; it can have a positive ripple effect.
Given how quickly and drastically the pandemic has changed people’s personal and work lives and all the uncertainty that lies ahead, people are looking to their leaders more than ever for guidance and support. As a leader what you say and how you convey it will play a significant part in determining how your organizations perform during these difficult times and after.