How to Talk to Your Team During a Pandemic

It’s time for steady decision-making and lots of repetition

An African American businesswoman looking pensive while at home, in front of her laptop.
Photo: DMEPhotography/iStock/Getty Images Plus

TThe coronavirus pandemic — and its economic impact — is already proving to be an intense stress test for businesses of all sizes and types. Many leaders are under tremendous pressure, navigating uncharted territory with no clear end in sight. While executive teams are busy reexamining their financial models and forecasts, they still must juggle the day-to-day, which now includes staying in close communication with anxious employees and offering them a steady stream of empathy, candor, and motivation.

During times of uncertainty, defaulting to over-communication with your employees is important. How do you make sure you strike the right tone when communicating?

Building trust and security

Employees have a lot of faith in their leaders. In its global 2020 Trust Barometer survey, the PR firm Edelman reported that employees view their own companies as the institution they trust the most — well ahead of business at large, government, or media. That means what founders, leaders, and managers do during an emergency calls for a lot more than simply “messaging.” It requires erring on the side of over-communicating with all your constituents. But rising to the occasion during an unnerving and unprecedented time is less about what you say and more what you do — in those initial moments and every moment beyond it.

Triage communications

As you are planning, remember that your people need to hear from you with specifics about what you’re putting into place at your company, and how it affects them. They need relevant and factual information, including where to go with specific questions. They also need to know that you won’t disappear — that they’ll hear from you again and again as the situation unfolds. (As I’ve written before, a robust internal communications function is key to managing tough situations.)

At the end of the day, your employees are all human beings who seek security even before fulfillment.

Especially in an all-encompassing crisis like this one, we’re drowning in a gusher of news updates, data visualizations, and projections. Certainly factual data is much needed. In the coming days, we need ever-better data and timely analysis, but as humans, we tend to over-consume real-time reports and neglect our emotional state until we’re at a breaking point.

Many of your employees are feeling vulnerable right now. As Aric Wood, the CEO of design consultancy Xplane writes, “Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the end of the day, your employees are all human beings who seek security even before fulfillment. In times of change, don’t forget to speak to their concerns for their jobs, their roles, how changes might impact them, and where they fit in the new future.”

Your employees are looking for leadership, reassurance, and guidance from you on how you’re going to handle sick leave, working from home, childcare — and even whether they will still have jobs next week.

Striking the right tone

This pandemic affects all of us, and you may feel worried, too. Depending on your business and your personal style, your messages might include some vulnerability, a desire to help, some degree of optimism, or a sober cautionary note. It’s okay to acknowledge you don’t have all the answers and to be honest in how you’re processing through the uncertainty. Just remember to keep the messages coming as the situation continues to affect your business. This is going to be a marathon for all of us.

With that in mind, make sure your internal channels are open and actively encourage managers and leaders to check in with everyone across the company to see how they’re doing emotionally as well as physically.

If you don’t already have one, now is the time to put into place ways to quickly reach your whole team — a text message protocol, a new channel on your internal platform, a dedicated landing page. Emphasize to employees that this channel is the way you’ll get important new information to them so they form a habit of checking. These all-hands messages can be broadcast-only, but every message should include a way for people to get more information or ask questions.

Communicating with your customers

As you determine your moves on all of this, let your customers know what you’re doing to serve them as well. If your inbox is anything like mine, you’ve already gotten enough corporate messages about Covid-19 to fill a cruise ship. Despite the volume, as a customer, I do appreciate these notes offering updates on their services: hours, availability, cleaning practices, and often where else to get reliable info. (For example, here’s an informative customer support message from Google Fiber.)

The best of these customer-centric messages also explains how companies are treating their own employees. Outdoor gear retailer Patagonia, for example, announced it was closing all stores plus online orders for two weeks. The CEO Rose Marcario’s note included this: “All Patagonia employees will receive their regular pay during the closure.” As a customer, that mention makes me less impatient about the shutdown — and more likely to support them in the future. As you communicate with customers, it’s also a good idea to remind them that your decisions may have to change in the coming days, about everything from product availability to open hours to your supply chain and support response.

Crises do tend to reveal shortcomings in systems, and, despite your best efforts, there may be some ill-conceived decisions and messages. As the days unfold, though, leaders have the opportunity to model some of our best traits: resilience, creativity, and service.

Connector, word wrangler, reality checker; communications advisor, author (“Taking the Work Out of Networking”), Marker columnist (https://marker.medium.com)/.

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