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7 Employee Communications Lessons From a Month of COVID-19

April 02, 2020
Employee making a heart in her hands

Unpacking our top employee communications lessons from COVID-19.

In February, we were all nervously watching as what we then knew only as Coronavirus began spreading. Fear was fast outpacing the virus itself. Having worked before in crisis communications, I’m acutely aware of the need to find a balance between saying too much and stoking concern, and not saying enough and creating an information vacuum.

On Thursday, February 27, there were 84,000 coronavirus cases identified in a small but growing number of countries. It was also go time for us, because that was the day that a member of our team wrote this on Slack:

"I know there’s a ton of false information out there with regards to the Coronavirus, and I was wondering if we need some messaging to the company about it?"

From the moment the first question was asked, we were ready to dig into the conversation. Now, one month later, Tractionites have watched, read or listened to 25 updates, 9,500 written words, and 90 minutes of live town halls, and 104 minutes of recorded video.

Nothing that moves so quickly is ever perfect, but in this case, perfect is the enemy of done.

Here are a few things we learned along the way that worked (and keep working) for us:

1. Relentless honesty, total trust

We’ll always tell the truth to each other. Consider the Zoom-hosted Global Town Hall, where we assembled our entire leadership team and asked Tractionites to submit live questions and upvote their favourites using Sli.do with no moderation, no names and no editing the results.

Considering the current state of business, the big questions on everyone’s mind were about layoffs, cuts and salary reductions. This is big — not every company is comfortable with such glaring transparency and lack of control. There’s a lot of trust at work here. Trust in the company, trust in Tractionites, and trust in our business model - and that’s the only way these hard but open conversations can take place. Perhaps even more importantly, we showed that we trust in our values, and those values guided the whole discussion.

People are smart. Be honest about your plan. It’s the only way to keep the trust you work so hard to build.

2. Be human

We do things a little differently at Traction on Demand. That even extends to my job title: UnCorporate Communications Manager. People ask questions about this daily. And I like it when they do that, because it reminds me that we consider ourselves a community, not a company. It reminds me to put a human face to our communications. It reminds me to find the heart in what we do.

Communication at its core is a basic human function.

We’ve ensured that all information comes from a real person, not from an inanimate Slack account. We’ve interviewed one of our team members on video who was diagnosed with COVID-19, and encouraged our team to wave and make faces to kiddos who run into Zoom calls at all the right times.

Has there been any greater time in our lives when we’ve needed personal connections, the warmth of each other’s company or the kindness of the people around us? Let your humans’ humanity shine throughout your communications.

3. Rely on your hero channels

Every story has its heroes, so does your communications plan. Everyone knows the pain of not knowing where to find the information they’re looking for. It’s important to let your teams know where the latest news is being stored and where they can go for what they need to learn.

Even before COVID-19 started, we had three channels that did all the heavy lifting for Tractionite communications: Huddle (our Monday morning news broadcast), Ada (our intranet, especially the Latest News page), and our community-wide Slack channel. These channels have served us well to date so they’re also the channels we’ve leaned on during this crisis.

(“What about Email?” cried the corporate communications managers. Email is literally your granny’s technology. Avoid. Perhaps we can go into this another day.)

4. There’s a time for a constant drip

Our move to a full remote-delivery model meant we had to quicken the cadence of Tractionite communications. When everyone started working from home, we lost many of the daily connection points we rely on — at a time when people had more questions than ever.

Greg Malpass, our Founder and CEO, has provided daily CEO update videos about the state of our business with interviews from our Executive team or other Tractionites about their projects, their experience working from home, or how they’re harmonizing work and life under the same roof.

We post these daily video updates alongside other news of the day such as company updates, changes to travel policies, home office allowance or extended health benefits.

During the early stages, it’s important that communication teams work closely with decision-makers to ensure no one is left wondering what’s going on. Gaps in your communications result in people filling the space with... goodness knows what... so keep the information flowing or the water cooler will do it for you.

5. Different approaches for different phases

The drip approach was helpful during the most chaotic of weeks, but it’s not forever.

During week three of remote work, we released a seven-point plan for how we’re pivoting our business to adapt to the ‘normal’. It gave our team something to rally around and provided a clear action plan to move forward. Conversations that came out of the follow-up Town Hall showed us that we’re a pivot-ready team who are quickly finding our groove in the new world. This means that soon, we’ll be in a position to change our communications cadence as well. We’ll soon begin slowing down the daily updates, to allow our team more time and mental energy to focus on the work before them.

6. The audience rules

Too often, we’re so caught up with sharing information that we forget the other critical part of a great communications strategy: listening. At Traction on Demand we define the communications role using a wordy but helpful idiom: the voice of Traction on Demand to the Tractionite, and the voice of the Tractionite to Traction on Demand.

The audience rules, so keep listening!

Quantitative data is easy enough to collect. There’s more than enough articles online about employee communications metrics. And while they give us some clues and trends, it doesn’t tell us much.

Qualitative data is where the money is because it’s human data (see point #2). Also, for an extrovert like me, it’s the most fun. Qualitative data is less about number-crunching and more about watching people’s faces during a town hall for a wince or an eye roll. It’s reading through comment sections and Slack posts, and seeing trends and changes in individuals or subgroups. It’s running focus groups and drawing out people’s interpretations of your company’s authenticity and honesty. Use of this data together to make sure people are getting the information they need, and it’s coming across the way it’s intended.

When there’s so much coming your way, it’s easy to get so focussed on preparing and publishing assets. But the audience rules, so keep listening!

7. Use your ear and your voice at the executive table (they’re listening)

We’re in a lucky space here at Traction on Demand. We have a flat organizational structure, a fantastic Executive team and a great culture — all factors that ensure communications gets a seat at the table.

Communication is not an administrative function, it’s a leadership function.

Sadly, not every communicator gets the access they need to company decision-makers. But a crisis offers those with solutions a very unique position. Many of us will right now find ourselves at boardroom tables or on email threads far above our usual paygrade. You’ve been brought there for a reason. They’re turning to you because they can’t come up with definitive answers. Show them your plan, tell them why it will work, get their buy-in, and prove that good communications is essential to your organization’s success.

Communication is not an administrative function, it’s a leadership function. It’s a craft that helps your leaders guide your team members and rally around a cause. Good communication helps to engage hearts and minds and gives people a purpose. It’s an honour to be working in such a position at such an extraordinary time, and to generate such benefit for your organization and its people. Write on!

Uncertain times, not uncertain strategy.

Let’s talk it out – together we can create a solution. At this time of uncertainty, we’re doing everything we can to lean in and support you.

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