How to Communicate With Employees in Uncertain Times
Updated: Jul 28
As stay-at-home orders lift and employees return to their offices, clear and frequent communication from companies’ leaders is going to be crucial.
Employees are fearful for their health and the health of their family members and colleagues. They are looking to their employers for thorough information on how they're minimizing their teams’ exposure to the coronavirus at work.
Along with health and safety concerns, employees are worried about their job security and their company's financial stability.
On top of coronavirus worries, heated political discourse and racial injustices are weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of employees and leaders.
As the owner of a debt collection agency, I’ve been involved in some of the most difficult conversations on the planet. I’ve also seen firsthand how the right words can give people a sigh-of-relief and help them feel unburdened.
For business leaders who are trying to navigate employee communications during this time, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Practice deep listening – In times of challenge and uncertainty, one of the more important things you can do as a leader is to listen to your team members and let them know they have been heard. Even if you can't relate directly to what an employee is going through, it's important to show that team member you're considering his or her experience. When the people you’re communicating with feel heard and understood, they feel cared for and supported, and a level of trust begins to form. They also become more receptive to a solution from you.
Right now, some team members might be reluctant to voice their feelings or concerns. One way you can open up the conversation, build connection, and gather information is to ask your employees feeling questions like...
How are you feeling about coming back to work?
How do you feel about coming back into the office?
You might worry that once you go down the road of talking openly about feelings the conversation will get stuck there or you will waste valuable time. The truth is that asking a team member how he feels and validating him saves time because it helps him feel heard and emotionally ready to move on in the conversation.
Be proactive – It’s important to try to anticipate your team members’ needs and questions and get ahead of their concerns. By providing answers and solutions ahead of time, you build respect and help your employees feel cared for and valued. Getting ahead of anticipated problems also saves you time and alleviates team members’ stress.
Examples of how employers can be proactive in their communications include clearly and thoroughly explaining their office policies around sick leave and other benefits, employee travel, office cleaning measures, and expectations for employees who feel ill or have to care for a sick family member. Employers should regularly update their team members on any changes to these policies as well.
So as not to overwhelm your team, consider creating targeted communications for different groups of employees, such as full-time vs. part-time employees. Some policies are not going to be relevant to all team members. Focus on what is important to the group of employees you’re communicating with.
Talk in terms of solutions – As a leader, talking in terms of solutions is one of the best things you can do to show your team members you value them and have their best interests in mind.
How do you feel when you reach out to someone for help and all that person does is point out why he or she can’t help you? It feels like a punch in the gut, right? Saying what you can’t do is the number one mistake I hear people make. Even if the solution is not the exact one the person is looking for, there is always something you can do, and demonstrating your willingness to find an alternative solution can help you create a positive connection with that person. Saying what you can do builds respect and loyalty; it makes the other person feel valued.
The pandemic has created a great amount of uncertainty, and there might be some things you don’t have immediate answers to. If that’s the case, let your team members know what you are doing to look into the issue. Share what you do know and acknowledge what you don’t know and are exploring.
Be transparent – It’s not enough to explain how your company is handling things. Employees want to know how you reached those decisions too. Share your sources of information. Transparency from company leaders creates a level of trust with employees.
Also, it’s important to recognize that communication breakdowns are going to happen. Everyone communicates things a little bit differently, and everyone understands things a little bit differently. If incorrect information has been provided or a communication has been misunderstood, it’s important that leaders acknowledge those mistakes and clear up the miscommunication as soon as possible.
This is a vulnerable moment for your team members. As business leaders, how you communicate and respond during this time will determine the level of trust and loyalty built.
Sometimes knowing what not to say in a crisis is just as important as knowing what to say. To learn the five phrases bosses should never use in a crisis, check out my feature in Forbes here.