Coronavirus Internal Communications: How Companies Should Respond in Times of Crisis

With 80,000 cases of infection spread across as many as 50 countries globally and a death toll of 3,000 to match, the recent outbreak of this newest coronavirus (SARS-COV-2) has had a strong and lasting impact on the world as a whole. Many are starting to see it as a powerful game-changer when it comes to the how the workplace operates. Now, companies are reacting to it in a variety of ways. Some, like those in China, have shut down operations completely. Others have implemented widespread remote working across their organisations.

Different companies, different reactions. Which one is best for your company, your teams and your operations? The first and most crucial priority of companies during this crisis should be strong coronavirus internal communications. Now, more than ever, it is on communication teams to provide accurate details, promote effective practices, and clearly explain your company’s policies and efforts to deal with the SARS-COV-2 outbreak.

Coronavirus internal communications will thrive if your have the right mindset.
ACOSS Resilience

Coronavirus Internal Communications: Five Critical Dimensions of Crisis Response

At the most basic, there are five dimensions that you need to balance out to ensure that your response to the SARS-COV-2 crisis is effective for both your company and your employees.

Communications

A lot of information can change hands pretty rapidly among co-workers—and not all of this will be entirely accurate. Businesses should take charge and ensure that policies, their company’s stance, and other key information is delivered in a clear and timely manner. Always have context for coronavirus internal communications—particularly changes in the way things are done to ensure that there is a clear understanding of what’s going on.

Employee Needs

The rapidly evolving situation around the virus spreading and any changes you have to your workplace practices will have a strong disruptive effect on the lives of employees. For example all non-essential employee travel may be banned, supplier visits may be canceled and town halls may be postponed. Companies need to not only have a clear set of procedures in place to account for these changes and they need to communicate these clearly to their employees.

Remote Work

In areas where SARS-COV-2 affects the population IBM has begun to allow workers to work remotely. The key to implementing this at a widespread level is being absolutely clear about the policies – specifically how to move from physical to virtual meetings, working hours, staying in touch with line managers and other key affected functions. Your coronavirus internal communications plans need to take these things into account.

Business Reporting

Any change in how a business is run or operates can cause stakeholder tension. This is why it is very critical that you pay special attention to stakeholder communication. Be more mindful and focused on key details that will put stakeholders at ease. Developing a cycle of rapid reporting will also allow you to identify key problem points that might arise down the line.

Cooperation

More than ever, your internal and external comms teams need to practice cooperation, especially with human resources to ensure that your company’s response is unified and decisive—while still being very conscious of the needs of your employees. On top of that, you need to cooperate and coordinate with efforts by your county or region’s responsible governmental body through whatever initiatives they implement to stem the spread of the virus.

Coronavirus internal communications should focus on reliable information from reliable sources.
World Health Organization

Verify the Facts Before Releasing it via Your Coronavirus Internal Communications

While many companies will naturally provide updates on SARS-COV-2 to their employees, an issue that is key to consider is the source of the information they provide. In times of crisis, our connected world tends to be flooded with information. Whether it’s a result of panic or over-zealousness, there are a lot who—intentionally or not—propagate false information. When we ourselves are in a state of confusion, worry, or fear, it becomes easier to jump on the next compelling headline.

The SARS-COV-2 has thrown up its fair share of false news and false information. On social media, for example, there seem to be a thousand ‘cures’ and ‘prevention measures’ that have proven to be false. Companies—and their coronavirus internal communications efforts specifically—can’t afford to be careless. While a lot of this fake information is as harmless as it is useless, it doesn’t contribute anything meaningful either. At worst, communicating something that is untrue harms your credibility with your employees and could – ultimately – harm the colleagues themselves.

Rely on a primary source

The World Health Organization (WHO) is your best source for information on SARS-COV-2—including the best response measures that people can take. Apart from tips and even statistics regarding the spread of the virus, they provide comprehensive and very informative reports on their responses globally. You can even take short courses on SARS-COV-2 response practices for further information. Equally reliable are your governments’ disease response departments provided they also source their information from WHO.

Verify secondary sources

News outlets also make for great sources of regional information. The BBC, CNN, Washington Post, the New York Times, and others are very useful for companies that need information that is most relevant to them. Many of these even have sections dedicated to rolling updates on a regional and global level. It’s still however good practice for communication teams to verify the information before passing it on to your employees.

Carefully craft content

On a more practical note, it’s important when creating your content—be it an infographic, a blog post, or even a brief message—to be very accurate. Sources like the World Health Organization make all their content available under Creative Commons, meaning organizations are allowed to freely use the content. In fact this is encouraged to reduce the risk of misinformation. For other sources, it’s important to stay as close to the info you’re sharing and to have proper citations. This will allow your employees to fact check themselves if they want.

Preparedness & Planning in Coronavirus Internal Communications

Given how much the virus affects their workplace, this crisis goes beyond just informing employees, companies and their employees need to also be effectively-prepared. Employment search engine Indeed is a great example of preparedness. Though the Ireland office was based in a country with few cases so far, they preemptively ordered their employees to work from home. All of this after an employee in Singapore reported a potential third-degree exposure. In spite of all this, the company still reports effective continuance of its business without significant interruption.

Whether or not your company is doing similar and offering work from home opportunities or you have your own custom response plan, the role of communications is to ensure that people understand exactly what they have to do and where they can go for support. Remember that you need to be as detailed as possible with your coronavirus internal communications—covering key information like how leaders will issue communication updates, how to keep in touch with colleagues, and even how things like meetings will work. Processes and procedures clear up the chaos.

Evaluate your channels

In times of crisis like this, communication is more important than ever. And one thing that you need to look more closely at is the channel mix you need to use. This is especially true if you opt for measures that take your employees away from the office for a longer period of time. Employee collaboration tools like Workplace from Facebook and Microsoft Teams are particularly useful given the amount of media that you can post as well as the expedience by which information can be delivered.

Julien Codorniou, VP Workplace from Facebook, recommends creating an open and default group to provide a single source for daily updates and safety recommendations and then ensure these high-signal updates reach everyone effectively by marking them as important on the platform. You should also ensure that chat and conferencing channels are being leveraged also. Rachel Miller of AllThingsIC has created a useful guide covering a variety of options including Teams, Yammer and Microsoft Stream.

Messaging apps like Skype and Slack are good options for quick notifications should you need to get information out quickly in your coronavirus internal communications. Ultimately, your channel mix will depend on what has worked for you in the past. Just make sure to constantly check if your setup is effective for the situation.

Consider timing and gravity

Timing is critical when you’re talking about updates regarding the SARS-COV-2 situation. While you want to be up to date as constantly as possible, you also want to avoid spreading panic. Consider the timing of updates – perhaps once or twice a week depending on how things are developing on a local and regional level. What should be more constant are communicating tips from organisations like the World Health Organization regarding best measures to take to deal with the crisis.

Coordinate with authorities

It’s especially helpful if you also coordinate with your local authorities to find out what measures they have in place for the crisis. Particularly important are the contact tracking efforts that are being conducted globally. These are efforts to identify people who potentially had contact with anyone who has been diagnosed with SARS-COV-2 to stem the spread of the virus. This will provide employees with comfort and reassurance amidst the very real fear of not knowing who is infected.

Compassion Above All is Key to Coronavirus Internal Communications

In times of crisis, what employees look for is genuine care and concern for their safety. It’s something that you can’t really fake—and genuineness will go far. Cisco Systems struggled badly to reach out and care for its employees during the 2011 tsunami in Japan. There wasn’t a plan in place and so tracking their employees’ whereabouts was extremely difficult. They did care a lot for their people, however, and did much to incorporate this into their planning. So, their response to the Brussels bombings in 2016 was swift and compassionate— with their employees quickly accounted for.

As the global spread of SARS-CoV-2 spreads and brings out more and more instances of the disease (COVID-19), it becomes increasingly important for companies to place compassion at the centre of their thinking. People are afraid and the propagation of inflammatory headlines on social media and some media outlets isn’t helping. Because they play a prominent role in their employees’ daily lives, companies who make compassion central to their crisis response have a unique opportunity to make a positive impact in this challenging situation.

Listen

When people are stressed, they like to talk things out. In a crisis like the one being brought about by SARS-CoV-2, employees will have a lot to fear and be stressed out about. The most common people they’ll turn to at work are fellow colleagues, whether it’s at a one-to-one level or on employee collaboration tools. There they will likely share their worries, apprehensions, and fears. Many are likely to even open up about potential exposure. This kind of information is critical and will benefit a company and its efforts against the pandemic.

It’s important that you set up a dedicated feedback channel early on an establish it as something that is open. You’ll want to build up trust in this channel by actively listening and responding in a meaningful way. This will ensure that you’ll be the recipient of any key information that you will need to act decisively and respond quickly on during the course of the crisis. Active listening of this kind is ultimately beneficial to both employers and employees.

Respond

As far as coronavirus internal communications go, effective leadership communication is critical during a crisis. They can be a bastion of strength and certainty given the ever-shifting nature of the global situation. It’s important to take advantage of many different mediums and channels available. Video over your company’s social media can be a powerful tool—especially when you can complement this with online town halls via Microsoft Teams, Workplace from Facebook or any other video conferencing software used within your organisation.

While it is especially important for your leaders to be prompt in their response, there needs to be caution to avoid being inflammatory and contributing to the panic and chaos. Your leaders should, if possible, make a point of explaining any policy and practical changes that your company needs to undertake to manage through the crisis. This is especially true for more extreme shifts like remote working that can change the landscape of your company for the short, medium and even long term.

Prepare for the Future

If there’s one thing that’s certain when it comes to the coronavirus crisis, it’s that it’s going to be an unpredictable run. Now, rather than hope that things are going to blow over soon, it’s better to be prepared for any potential long-term situations. Google exemplifies this perfectly. What they’ve done is to use the coronavirus situation to test the company’s ability to have staff work remotely in the long term—in preparation, of course, for potential escalation of the virus.

You don’t necessarily have to mirror this move yourself if your particular line of business can’t really thrive by completely doing remote work. It’s food for thought, however, and is an opportunity to explore your options down the line. Perhaps you could try out a semi-remote work model with some days in-office. Or maybe you can even re-evaluate distribution of tasks. It really all specifically depends on your unique needs as a company.

Whatever you decide, however, you need to take to heart the key communication measures discussed here. As with all changes that can occur in a company, the key to successful implementation really lies in properly planned and timely coronavirus internal communications with your employees. Remember that in times of crisis like these, it falls upon communications teams to be the voice of truth, clarity, certainty, and even compassion.

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