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Communicating effectively with employees, clients & partners during COVID-19

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has had a monumental impact on every business in the UK.

In the space of just a few days, entire companies went from working in one location, to having hundreds and in some cases thousands of employees working remotely, testing the viability of their business resilience strategies.

It has been a challenging period, and while we all continue to get to grips with the “new normal”, there are some important lessons that have been learned around communicating effectively with employees, clients and partners.

Understanding the threat and developing a plan

During the initial phase of the COVID-19 lockdown, it was important that businesses understood the threat and developed a plan.  According to Gareth Williams, Non-Executive Director at WNS, there are three stages that business leaders should focus on: being crisis ready, stabilising operations for the current environment – “making the new normal work” – and re-launching the business, applying the lessons learned through the crisis. Moreover, leaders need to be at the forefront of any crisis and should, Williams says, “inspire an organisation.”

The challenge for many organisations, however, is the need to balance staff wellbeing with the commercial challenges and client demands posed by a crisis. While tactics will of course differ, organisations should, from the outset of a crisis like COVID-19 engage, energise, and motivate employees while being honest and realistic about financial performance.

Organisations should wherever possible communicate an “authentic and genuine story”, but they need to do it regularly to ensure employees are apprised with up to date information. This of course has not been easy, as COVID-19 meant that businesses had to make decisions very quickly, often without understanding the true impact that a mass lockdown would have on the business.

Communicating effectively with all internal and external stakeholders

For many businesses, working from home was an entirely new concept altogether, and those that did have remote working policies had never tested its resilience among large numbers of employees. Have the policies and learning tools stood up to the challenge or have improvements been required? Is a more standardised approach needed to manage the use of the software and remote devices to mitigate risk? This, according to Jeff Allen, Senior Vice President at Brainlabs, is one of the most important aspects of communicating effectively with employees.

Businesses should also agree communication channels for their staff, clients and partners but remain flexible and listen to them about what works best and update their plans accordingly. According to P.B. Jacobse, CEO of Rhubarb, swift and clear communications around critical markers, such as the introduction of various phases to ease out of lockdown, are vital to engaging effectively with key stakeholders, especially employees.

It is also vital that organisations are open with people about the challenges they face. As Williams says, “authenticity and honesty build trust with people.” What this means in practice, says Jacobse, is involving teams from the beginning, to get their initial buy in and keeping them updated and actively involved throughout the crisis.

Cath Bailey, an experienced HR Executive, highlights that communications with employees should not just be top down. According to Bailey, it needs to be two-way, with businesses utilising different channels to engage with their staff. For example, using social media such Facebook to build team spirit and ensuring that line managers engage with direct reports via Skype or Microsoft Teams to check on progress and brainstorm ideas. For official updates, businesses should use email.

Businesses, according to Bailey, could also use pulse surveys to get employee feedback so that management can learn lessons during and after the crisis.

Preparing for life after the crisis – adapting to the new normal

As lockdown measures across the UK ease, businesses will need to start the important task of preparing for life after the crisis.  While this will not be easy – COVID-19 will be with us for many more months to come and its legacy could last years – it is nevertheless important to agree and executive a realistic plan that provides a clear direction of travel but is sufficiently adaptable to flex with changing circumstances.

As part of re-launching operations, especially for those that have effectively been shut down for the duration of the lockdown, it is critical that businesses review their communications programme which, according to Williams, should look to answer two salient questions:

  • What are the key lessons we learned during the crisis?
  • How could we have done things better?

Businesses, according to Scott Behrens, Chief Executive of Superbikes, should also prepare for the risk that we see a re-surgency of the virus, focusing on scenario planning to anticipate and mitigate the impact this would have on all stakeholder groups, notably clients, employees and partners.

For some business, Behrens notes, this might involve creating new opportunities to capitalise on a distressed marketplace. In other words, how can we develop new existing products and services or adapt existing ones that will be meet customers’ changed needs in the new world? In addition, could businesses, for example, bolster its supply of inventory from those companies that have gone into liquidation?

COVID-19 is a once in a generation global event and may leave a permanently changed legacy affecting businesses around the world. For those that can adapt quickly to the altered landscape, this could be an opportunity to enter a new phase of growth. But whatever happens, it will be vital that every business leader reviews and learns from their response to dealing with COVID-19, and a key priority is understanding the effectiveness of their employee, customer and partner communications.