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Employee Communications and COVID-19: What You Need to Know.


 — March 21st, 2020

Employee Communications and COVID-19: What You Need to Know.
This blog includes best-in-class examples of crisis communication strategy, setting up cross-functional teams, and what to communicate to employees during the crisis.
It was first published on February 14 and updated on February 28 and March 12 and has since been complemented by a wide range of content on the special COVID-19 section of our website, mentioned above.

To help Internal Communication and HR professionals in these tough times we have put together this carefully curated resource: Employee communications and the COVID-19 crisis – Helpful advice from trusted sources).

We have also created a comprehensive and constantly updated bank of coronavirus-related content, including helpful guides, blogs, and webinars, which you can access on our dedicated COVID-19 resources page here.

March 12, 2020: In the space of a week, the coronavirus outbreak has become an all-consuming global crisis, with unprecedented societal and business upheaval as the pandemic fuels turmoil across the world.

For businesses, the twin exigencies are the welfare of their employees and how to work and survive through the crisis.

Employee communications and coronavirus – How to stay the course through a long crisis

This has brought remote working front and center, like never before, both for the safety of employees and business continuity.

Global tech giants Twitter, Google and Microsoft are either demanding or advising their employees to work remotely. This is being replicated by millions of large and small companies around the globe. CNN Business News described the full or partial lockdown in China and parts of Asia as the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment.

Having the right technology, systems and process in place has rapidly moved from being business-critical to being essential for business survival.

With the forced rush to remote working, Mark Henderson, Director of Communications at Wellcome, said businesses whose employees can work remotely should first test home-working technology and review and prepare policies.

“It pays to test home-working technology now before it’s needed,” he said, citing lessons Welcome learned during a trial. “Our trial picked up laptops without the right video conferencing software and dodgy microphones that we can fix this week but couldn’t if everyone was stuck at home.”

But whether people are working in their offices or remotely, what’s most critical is how and what employees communicate to their employees about their various policies, requirements, and expectations around the crisis.

A robust and frequently updated Employee Communications Plan is essential. But this has to be in tandem with these actions:

  • Set up a Covid-19 cross-functional team, or war room
  • Assess organizational and function vulnerabilities
  • Build strategic and tactical plans to mitigate against vulnerabilities
  • Identify unpreventable risk so measures can be put in place to minimize impact
  • Recalibrate HR plan plans for emergency employee support and amended remote working policies if necessary
  • In tandem with HR develop and implement a clear communication plan sharply focused on creating a distinct source of truth for employees in the crisis. It's critical that this is empathetic in tone and allows two-way discussion so worries and difficulties can be raised and addressed.
The global professional services company Aon is an example of best in class in the preparation of communication strategies to deal with the crisis. It stresses how critical it is for the organization to establish clear lines of communications with their employees, as well as clients and third-party entities.

We reproduce a checklist from its preparation strategy here as it could be helpful for other companies who might be struggling with their communications right now.

  • Create an internal communication plan – a process for reaching employees through combinations of emails, intranet postings, flyers/ posters, leader talking points, FAQs or a website situation room. The plan should identify simple, key messages, a reliable process and the vehicles for providing continual updates and collecting feedback from employees.
  • Create an external communication plan – a process for reaching external stakeholders, customers, media, shareholders, suppliers, local community, health care providers, analysts, retirees, union representatives, etc.

It also dealt in some detail with What To Say to Employees. The advice here was:

  • State the facts: Connect employees to timely, accurate information from CDC, WHO and your State and County Health Departments. Provide clear instructions about what to do if employees suspect they have been exposed to Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)
  • Demystify the fear and outline the steps the organization is taking on behalf of its employees: Communicate the facts from authoritative resources on how Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is spread and how to avoid infection. Clearly articulate and communicate preventive actions the organization is taking to avert or contain transmission of Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) at work (focus on technology and techniques for employee safety, hygiene, biohazard disposal)
  • Promote safety steps that employees can take at work: Use posters, memos, emails, intranet postings, supervisor talking points, FAQs, etc. to promote preventive actions employees can take (hygiene and avoidance) – see WHO and CDC recommendations. • Describe the impact on the organization: Describe the potential impact of an outbreak on your operations, services, travel, supply chain, business, revenues, etc., so employees can plan accordingly.
  • Summarize company policies/positions: Describe health plan coverage (preventive and treatment), attendance, paid time off, payroll continuation, travel, and group meetings. • Articulate work-from-home policies: One of the most effective strategies for limiting the spread of contagion among employees is to reduce human-to-human contact. If your organization supports telecommuting practices, clearly articulate procedures and expectations that employees should follow.
  • Promote safe travel policies: Consider the organization’s stance on employee travel and restrictions. Promote alternatives to travel, such as web conferencing and phone meetings. If employees must travel, offer clear guidance on safety protocols, augmenting with guidance from CDC and WHO.

AON also has a helpful checklist on Business Continuity Management during the Covid-19 crisis. It focuses on:

  • Evaluating the business impact
  • Supply Chain and Logistics
  • Technology
  • Policies & Procedures
  • Education & Awareness
  • Surveillance & Communication.

Check it out here.

The global management consultancy McKinsey has identified seven actions that can help businesses of all kinds through the crisis.

Protect your employees. The COVID-19 crisis has been emotionally challenging for many people, changing day-to-day life in unprecedented ways. For companies, business-as-usual is not an option.

They can start by drawing up and executing a plan to support employees that is consistent with the most conservative guidelines that might apply and has trigger points for policy changes.

Employee communications and coronavirus – How to stay the course through a long crisis

Some companies are actively benchmarking their efforts against others to determine the right policies and levels of support for their people. Some of the more interesting models we have seen involve providing clear, simple language to local managers on how to deal with COVID-19 (consistent with WHO, CDC, and other health-agency guidelines) while providing autonomy to them so they feel empowered to deal with any quickly evolving situation.

This autonomy is combined with establishing two-way communications that provide a safe space for employees to express if they are feeling unsafe for any reason, as well as monitoring adherence to updated policies.

Set up a cross-functional COVID-19 response team. Companies should nominate a direct report of the CEO to lead the effort and should appoint members from every function and discipline to assist. (This is what we did at Poppulo and it will be the subject of a separate blog).

Further, in most cases, team members will need to step out of their day-to-day roles and dedicate most of their time to virus response.

A few workstreams will be common for most companies: a) employees’ health, welfare, and ability to perform their roles; b) financial stress-testing and development of a contingency plan; c) supply-chain monitoring, rapid response, and long-term resiliency (see below for more); d) marketing and sales responses to demand shocks; and e) coordination and communication with relevant constituencies.

These subteams should define specific goals for the next 48 hours, adjusted continually, as well as weekly goals, all based on the company’s agreed-on planning scenario. The response team should install a simple operating cadence and discipline that focuses on output and decisions, and does not tolerate meetings that achieve neither.

Ensure that liquidity is sufficient to weather the storm. Businesses need to define scenarios tailored to the company’s context. For the critical variables that will affect revenue and cost, they can define input numbers through analytics and expert input. Companies should model their financials (cash flow, P&L, balance sheet) in each scenario and identify triggers that might significantly impair liquidity. For each such trigger, companies should define moves to stabilize the organization in each scenario (optimizing accounts payable and receivable; cost reduction; divestments and M&A).

Stabilize the supply chain. Companies need to define the extent and likely duration of their supply-chain exposure to areas that are experiencing community transmission, including tier-1, -2, and -3 suppliers, and inventory levels. Most companies are primarily focused on immediate stabilization, given that most Chinese plants are currently in restart mode.

They also need to consider rationing critical parts, prebooking rail/air-freight capacity, using after-sales stock as a bridge until production restarts, gaining higher priority from their suppliers, and, of course, supporting supplier restarts. Companies should start planning how to manage supply for products that may, as supply comes back on-line, see unusual spikes in demand due to hoarding.

In some cases, medium or longer-term stabilization may be warranted, which calls for updates to demand planning, further network optimization, and searching for and accelerating the qualification of new suppliers. Some of this may be advisable anyway, absent the current crisis, to ensure resilience in their supply chain—an ongoing challenge that the COVID-19 situation has clearly highlighted.

Stay close to your customers. Companies that navigate disruptions better often succeed because they invest in their core customer segments and anticipate their behaviors. In China, for example, while consumer demand is down, it has not disappeared—people have dramatically shifted toward online shopping for all types of goods, including food and produce delivery.

Companies should invest in online as part of their push for omnichannel distribution; this includes ensuring the quality of goods sold online. Customers’ changing preferences are not likely to go back to pre-outbreak norms.

Practice the plan. Many top teams do not invest time in understanding what it takes to plan for disruptions until they are in one. This is where roundtables or simulations are invaluable. Companies can use tabletop simulations to define and verify their activation protocols for different phases of response (contingency planning only, full-scale response, other).

Simulations should clarify decision owners, ensure that roles for each top-team member are clear, call out the “elephants in the room” that may slow down the response, and ensure that, in the event, the actions needed to carry out the plan are fully understood and the required investment readily available.

Demonstrate purpose. Businesses are only as strong as the communities of which they are a part. Companies need to figure out how to support response efforts—such as by providing money, equipment, or expertise. For example, a few companies have shifted production to create medical masks and clothing.

McKinsey points out that these are only guidelines; "they are by no means exhaustive or detailed enough to substitute for a thorough analysis of a company’s particular situation".

Once you have your cross-functional COVID-19 response team up and running and your communication plan in place, it’s imperative that you establish a clear source of truth for your employees, whether it’s your intranet, specific channels, line managers etc. This is especially important with fake news about the Covid-19 crisis on the rise, as the BBC reported in relation to Italy.

When you have established your source of truth point for employees it’s critical to keep it updated regularly, that it’s two-way, and that all your communications are based on the four pillars of honesty, transparency, accountability, and consistency.

Here's a good example of best-practice communication from Intel, which sets out policy and significant updates.

Given the rate at which the crisis is developing and circumstances changing, the ability to be agile and adapt quickly. This involves cutting through bureaucracy to get things done speedily.

Writing in Harvard Business Review Martin Reeves, Nikolaus Lang and Philipp Carlsson-Szlezak stressed the importance of assembling a small trusted team and giving them enough leeway to make rapid tactical decisions is critical.

“Controversial, sensitive, or high-profile issues will typically attract review by senior management, corporate affairs, legal, risk management, and a host of other functions. Each will have suggestions on how to best craft communications, leading to an overly generalized or conservative perspective and a slow, cumbersome process.

Overly managing communications can be damaging when each day brings significant new information to light. Use the clock speed of external events as a guideline for pacing the internal process, rather than starting with the latter as a given.

“A living digital document can enhance speed by avoiding the rigamarole of issuing and approving multiple documents, and also reduces risk, since it can easily be updated or withdrawn as necessary. Furthermore, distinguishing clearly between facts, hypotheses, and speculations can help in communicating a fuller and more nuanced picture.”

And as companies grapple to cope with the evolving situation and how to cope with their total workforce working remotely, it's worth highlighting Coinbase, a cryptocurrency company based in San Francisco, that recently open-sourced their Coronavirus response plan. It breaks down levels of impact—from light to severe—and the accompanying actions they will trigger, including allowing working from home, increasing office cleanings, and curbing travel.

Of course, very many companies will be less well equipped for remote working and will have to take other measures, as in the case of Amazon. who this week announced it was relaxing its employee attendance policies as a result of the crisis.

Working from home for weeks, or possibly months will place unprecedented strain on companies and employees apart from the small minority who are successful as 100% remote-structured such as, ZapierBuffer, GitLab and Automattic, the company behind WordPress and Tumblr with over 850 employees in more than 60 countries.

The following was published on February 14.

The rapid spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus, has left organizations around the world scrambling to protect their businesses and the welfare of their workers.

Central to how they achieve this is communication – around work and personal travel protocols, remote working, supplier and customer interactions, etc. – and this blog looks at best practice advice, as well as the measures companies have taken to date.

With over 80,000 cases now detected in over 50 countries, and the death toll rising to almost 3,000, the outbreak has begun to cause serious and widespread disruption outside China too, from the cancellation of large sporting events in Europe and religious events in the Middle East, to causing upheaval to normal business activity and international travel.

In the past week alone, the outbreak has moved well beyond being 'a China issue', with 11 Italian towns in lock-down, Germany warning of an epidemic, detections of the virus in the US and Brazil, international stock markets tumbling, mounting economic as well as human cost, and likely world trade turmoil.

In the UK, oil giant Chevron told its 300 workers at its London HQ in Canary Warf to work from home, as did two other companies in the same building.

As this disruption is likely to last for many months, companies are either grappling to deal with the practical fallout of the outbreak or are planning for how to cope if they are impacted.

And organizations that are not actively considering the latter are adopting a head-in-the-sand approach they could regret.

Communication is key to how businesses deal with the outbreak, whether or not they are currently impacted. Waiting to respond until something has happened is not an option.

Even in countries where no infections have been reported, businesses are taking precautionary action and relying on Internal Communications and HR playing a key role.

Employee communication strategies need to be in place and should be multifaceted using all available channels, with the ability to target specific communications for specific audiences and measure impact and outcomes.

As Gartner’s Group Vice President, Brian Kropp stressed, being prepared and ready to act is critical.

“HR leaders can’t wait for a crisis to develop to start responding. You need answers now to questions you’ll face.” — Brian Kropp, Gartner

A case in point is Ireland, where the recruitment company Indeed is located. Ireland's capital, Dublin, might be over 9,000km from the virus epicenter in Wuhan, but two weeks ago, before any detected case of the virus was found in the country, Indeed ordered its employees to work from home, after a colleague in Singapore reported that relatives may have been exposed.

Indeed also closed its offices in Sydney and Singapore as a precaution. But excellent crisis planning and communications, coupled with the ability of its 1,000 employees to work remotely, meant Indeed was able to report that its business continued uninterrupted across the globe.

But would your company be similarly equipped if a colleague returning from business or holiday travel abroad fell ill and was suspected of having the coronavirus? Or worse, if it was confirmed they had it? How would you deal with it and what would be your response to other colleagues?

What are your crisis management and business continuity plans? Are they up-to-date and are the right people properly familiar with them?

Are HR and Internal Comms adequately prepared to deal with the myriad issues that an outbreak would produce? Are there preventative measures in place?

As has been pointed out, it’s important to keep things in perspective and not panic, but given the infectious nature of the virus, experts advise it’s wise for organizations to be prepared in case they have to deal with the fallout of an infection.

Gartner says the top priority for HR is to put people first, and lessons should be learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003. “When SARS spread to four continents, executives at several companies told us that managing employees’ concerns and questions was one of the most time-consuming associated activities,” said Gartner's Brian Kropp.

“Employees worry about more than their physical safety, they worry about the potential disruptions to their work, and wonder how the organization plans to manage its operations,” he said.

Employee communications and coronavirus – How to stay the course through a long crisis

Earlier this month, the technology giant Intel issued a stakeholder communication relating to the coronavirus that could be used as a template for how it should be done.

Beginning with: ‘We want you to know that we are doing everything we can to both protect workers and visitors and minimize the risk of disruption to our business”, it went on to outline how Intel had set up an internal cross-organizational group called the Pandemic Leadership Team (PLT), meeting daily and closely monitoring the rapidly evolving situation.

The statement outlined the measures it was taking to protect employees, and what it expected of suppliers and subcontractors. You can read the full statement here.

Gartner advises that “to ensure employees, shareholders and other stakeholders believe an organization is prepared to handle a crisis: companies should be able to answer these 10 questions:

  1. Can our company operate at 25% or greater absenteeism?
  2. If illness causes high absenteeism, are employees cross-trained and able to perform multiple duties?
  3. Can our employees work remotely?
  4. What infrastructure support is needed to support a shift to an at-home workforce
  5. Will our company monitor, or even restrict, travel to high-risk regions?
  6. What procedures do we have in place to decontaminate the facility and its heating, ventilation, air-conditioning systems, electronic equipment, and soft materials?
  7. What assurances do we need to provide to the facility staff members so they feel safe at work?
  8. How will traveling employees be brought home, particularly if they are sick?
  9. Are there escalation procedures to get additional resources?
  10. Is there a trained and representative crisis-management team that includes on-call staff, and do those team members know what is expected?
This is a time when the value of effective employee communication and the technology that enables it, such as Poppulo, comes into its own. Not only must Internal Comms and HR ensure they collaborate closely to keep employees fully informed and answer their questions, they also need to be capable of dealing with misinformation and rumor-mongering of internet trolls.

Viruses have always led to the spread of rumors, sparking needless panic, but this is now routinely turbo-charged by social media. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there and some of it can be quite dangerous,” said the World Health Organization’s Maria Van Kerkhove, referring to the coronavirus outbreak.

This is a view echoed by Timothy Caulfield, a health law professor at the University of Alberta. “Social media is a polarization machine where the loudest voices win. In an outbreak, where you want accurate, measured discourse, that’s kind of a worst-case scenario,” he said.

Kate Ledwidge of Personnel Today cautioned against fear-driven behavior as well as the need to communicate a clear message to the workforce.

“Behind the scenes, it is sensible to take practical steps such as ensuring there is a good remote working system in place, just in case, giving managers extra training and guidance, and centrally monitoring absence levels to pick up on unusual patterns,” she said.

The clear messages that she said need to be communicated to employees include:

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