‘Crisis? What crisis?’ were the apparent words of Prime Minister James Callaghan as he stepped off a plane in 1979 to the news of industrial chaos in Britain.
The ‘quote’ has passed into political history, summing up a leadership badly out of touch as the situation accelerates towards disaster.
Obviously, it’s not a position any of us want to emulate in light of the current Coronavirus situation.
But it can be surprisingly difficult to communicate effectively with employees when meeting face-to-face isn’t an option. There is little substitute for interacting in person, allowing all parties to watch for those clues that humans display about how they feel in any given situation.
However, neither the continued use of ‘social distancing’ to contain the spread of the infection in our workforces or any potential further isolation measures should necessarily reduce an organisation’s ability to communicate with staff effectively.
There are plenty of ways to communicate with employees whether through conference call facilities, e-mail, video, group chat apps, collaboration platforms and even through push notifications; there are a wide array of apps and platforms that allow relatively seamless communications with anyone, anywhere and at any time.
The reality is that any good communications strategy probably already makes use of a variety of channels and mediums to reach people. The current crisis in some ways merely shifts the emphasis from one medium (face-to-face) to a mixture of the others.
Regardless of the medium though, the same principles apply to all good communications:
Whether talking about the strategic goals of the organisation or seeking input into a product idea, it’s vitally important that everyone who receives any communication understands what its purpose is and where they fit in. Endless messages about things that don’t apply to the recipients will be counterproductive. Technology can again be your friend here – using groups to determine who gets what can be very helpful.
Leaders need to make sure they remain visible and accessible. This could be through one-to-one catch ups with staff members at all levels, video broadcasts or daily email updates. It’s often said that you need to communicate something at least four times before people hear it. The best leaders communicate their updates in a variety of ways. They encourage conversation and engagement to ensure messages are heard and understood.
Choose your medium
As outlined above, the choice of medium is very much a ‘horses for courses’ situation. Not everyone has a work email address, but most people do have a mobile device. Organisations should explore ways to push important notifications through a mobile app. This can also be a great home for resources such as top tips for working from home, updates to health insurance policies and staff rotas for when key workers need to be at work.
Don’t be exclusive
Make sure to include as wide an audience as is relevant but remembering what was said above about clarity and purpose: don’t be afraid to focus particular communications on the most relevant target groups. The key thing is to make sure everyone understands that lines of communication are always open - make sure you canvass input as often as necessary without overloading people with too many bulletins, updates or requests. This is especially important if staff are not used to working remotely are now required to do so.
Don’t use alarmist terminology
One last thing specifically in relation to the current situation; try not to make your communications always sound super urgent. Sometimes, of course, there will be a natural importance to a piece of communication, but the last thing people need in a crisis – especially those that may already be worried about the situation – is yet more urgency. This is particularly true if they are not used to being remote from the workplace and can’t use the normal opportunity to chat with colleagues in the kitchen/coffee area.
And of course, remember one of the golden rules of communication – listen, listen and listen some more. Effective communication is a two-way process, so the more you can make communication feel like a conversation, where each party has an equal part to play, the more natural, engaging and effective it will be.
Yes, these are unprecedented times in the workplace and yes, we are all having to adapt almost on a daily basis to the changing advice about how and where people work.
But with some planning and forethought about what and when we communicate with our employees, and by using the very wide range of mediums and tools at our disposal, we can maintain a high level of engagement and performance without fostering a sense of panic.