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Employee Communication During Coronavirus: Feeling Together Whilst Being Apart.

It was a regular Executive Leadership Team (ELT) meeting but there was nothing regular about it. Every team member had Zoomed in via their new home office. Far more entertaining than the agenda was checking out everyone’s new digs. Who could have guessed the Marketing Director collected action figurines. And was that picture hanging on the wall behind the CFO really him? There was no way of confirming because shortly after the call started his dog, an enormous Mastiff graced the screen. The team melted, it was a welcome distraction that engaged everyone. Sensing this moment of ‘lightness’ the Operations Manager threw out a suggestion “Let’s send all our 160 employees a gift – a luxury gift hamper”. The team loved the idea until the CEO argued ”Whilst the concept has merit, are we communicating the right message by sending such an expensive gift. We’ve temporarily stood down half our workforce and many others are very worried about job security”. Someone suggested an Uber Eats gift card, instead . Sensing general agreement, the CEO was about to approve the action, when he noticed the HR director had a virtual hands up (you can do that in Zoom 😉) she’d been wanting to give her thoughts since the conversation began but wasn’t given the chance.  She said to the ELT, “I can tell you after many conversations with staff, many of whom are feeling very isolated and disconnected they’d much prefer a call than a gift right now”. The silence was deafening as the team absorbed the feedback. 

With so much uncertainty – will I lose my job? And conflicting advice – I need to get my kids back to school but is it safe? There’s never been a better time to over-communicate to your employees.

And to help…I’ve designed a recipe for you… hopefully a perfect recipe to reach out to your employees. Not just during the coronavirus crisis but well beyond. Reframing this disruption not as a war, focussed on beating the enemy, but rather as an opportunity to adapt and build our communication capability for good.

Hungry? Let’s start cooking.

  1. The Right Tools.

Firstly what communication tools do we need to connect with our virtual employees. Importantly we need to choose the best communication technology to transmit the broad types of messages we want to convey.

Most importantly, communication tools need to be fit for purpose, see the table below to match technology to task. Right now, email, a communication tool we’re most familiar with isn’t dead but is on life support. 

Email being text based is impersonal and easily misinterpreted. Seeing a face on a video call or a voice over the phone will build engagement and a greater chance the job will get done

Whilst messaging apps are text based they are still preferable to email as they encourage brevity and the use of emojis go a long way to convey sentiment. Messaging apps also allow for persistent, ongoing conversations, which isn’t a strong suit of email.

Team ActivityAppropriate Communication ToolWhy it Works
Building relationships (informal check ins to formal meetings)Videoconference or phone (in that order of preference)
 (eg Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts)
Schedule regular conversations not only with direct reports, but their direct reports.Sharing “virtual lunches” and adding “catch-up” social time to agendas builds rapport. 
Water cooler chats and socialisingOnline chat, Instant MessengerCreate a ‘fun room’ in online chat. Encourage everyone to begin the day with “Morning” and end the day with “Signing Off”. Share weekend plans, pet photos, GIFs, memes. Encourage use of emojis to create positive intent.
Presenting information verballyVideo conference or video 
(eg Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts)
When interaction is the goal, keep “monologues” to a minimum and use a video conference for real-time discussion. If there is more information to present (use the 3-minute rule), it should be a video.  Creating a video bank also helps with knowledge management, and bringing new team members up to speed quickly. 
 Sharing information and updates
(text based)
Social network, instant messaging
(e.g. Skype, MS Teams, Slack, WhatsApp) 
Instead of email, use social networks to share updates and provide an opportunity for employees to discuss the content. 
Appropriate Use of Communications Technology

2. The Right Ingredients in the Right Amounts

Now is not the time to wing it, drop an ingredient or change the amount – otherwise it’s likely to be a flop.

Establishing expectations and accountabilities for communication is critical. It impacts the structure employees are craving – purpose and engagement, essential ingredients for productivity.

When it comes to communications establish exactly, 

  • The number and length of each employee 1:1 checkins 
  • Same for team meetings – do you require a daily virtual 30 minute huddle each day?
  • What time of day will they be held? What core hours can everyone be available for each other?
  • Online chat – what employee involvement will you be encouraging?

3. Inclusive Communication Methodology

That brings us to our method. The keys steps to make the most of each interaction we have with teams and individuals.

Managers play a critical role to ensure everyone’s individual contributions, perspectives and life circumstance are valued. 

  • Does everyone get the chance to talk for roughly equal time during video conferencing?
  • Is challenging work or your most important clients being shared equally?
  • Are the quiet voices being heard loudly? Perhaps they prefer instant messaging during calls or throughout the day to engage with the rest of the  team rather than being put in the spotlight in front of a cast of many

Right now we are all facing different circumstances. Some of us are at home alone with no one, others have a full house, partner and kids schooling at home. Your standard morning meeting times may no longer work if team members are having to juggle kids at home and get them started on home schooling

Some of us are introverts and loving the isolation others are extroverts struggling with the lack of contact. Some of us have different working habits – preferring early mornings or late nights.

Managers also have a duty to role model the appropriate use of technology. If it’s okay for the boss to repeatedly cancel meetings and turn up late to meetings, employees will too.

Here’s a few tips,

  • Book meetings and stick to the schedule…resist any better offers
  • Ensure meetings start and finish on time and don’t make them too long
  • Respect when others are talking and do not talk over others
  • Don’t assume silence means acceptance. We need to be intentional about understanding others opinions.

Seek feedback – this is new for everyone, ask employees what works and change what doesn’t.

3. Build Relationships

Next, how much ‘care’ will you put into this recipe? To make it really special.

Work isn’t just about work it’s also about socialising. We need to try to simulate the water-cooler chats, virtually. 

  1. Get to know your team – schedule regular, weekly at a minimum informal check ins  ‘how you doing’. Understand their working styles. Get to know the person not just a worker.
  2. Build trust – respond promptly to requests and communications from team members. Regularly update team members – share a “good morning’ via Instant Messaging at the start of your day. If you’re taking a break or are unavailable for some reason – share this.
  3. Encourage socialising – at team meetings schedule coffee breaks, use icebreakers at meetings eg show us your coffee cup, what shoes are you wearing? Set up a ‘fun room’ in online chat, encourage everyone to share weekend plans, pet photo’s , GIFS, memes, keep it light and frivolous, set aside meeting agendas with 10 mins at beginning and end for socialising
  4. Be a role model – establish video conferencing as a team norm – don’t unmute distractions, show your face – looking awful is no excuse, foster a culture of open communications, be vulnerable and listen.
  5. Keep a positive tone – intentionally seek opportunities to build others up. Now more than ever, even a basic task requires extraordinary effort. For example give thanks for getting a report to you on time, acknowledge that employees are juggling lots of deadlines at the moment including school assignments.

Finally now you’ve perfected your communications recipe it’s time to write it down and share it with all team members and ensure everyone sticks to it.

Ensure to include these headings below and get feedback from each employee to develop a charter that everyone can comfortably adopt.

  • What core hours will work for everyone?
  • Communication etiquette expected from everyone
  • Ways we agree to make our meetings inclusive
  • Ways we commit to building relationships and socialising virtually

I hope this recipe will not only help today but continue to serve you well into the future. Long after the coronavirus crisis has settled.

I’ll leave you with this final thought,

people don’t remember what you say but they remember how you made them feel.

Given the difficult situation everyone is going through, you can be sure that people will continue remembering how you treat them now.

How do you want to be remembered by your employees?

Yvonne Bowyer

Yvonne Bowyer is CEO and Co-Founder of the Start Up RemiPeople, Recruiting and Diversity software to fix recruitment. Now in her third career, first as a Dietitian, then in various Executive Leadership positions and now launching her first Start Up. Passionate about driving business performance through diversity and trying ever so hard to balance career and motherhood.

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