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Communicating during COVID: What industry employees want to hear from their leaders

September 3, 2020   by David Gambrill

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Okay, so it appears the pandemic crisis will be with us for a long time, with P&C organization employees already feeling uneasy, worn down, and uncertain about many things — their health, job security, sending kids back to school safely, and an unknown timeline for a return to the office, to name a few.

To whom do they turn for coronavirus information they can trust?

They are turning to leaders in their own organizations for clarity during times of chaos.

“Leaders may be inclined to defer to governments and media outlets for clear and simple safety instructions. Don’t,” McKinsey & Company advises in its recent report, A leader’s guide: Communicating with teams, stakeholders, and communities during COVID-19.

“Employers often underestimate how much their employees depend on them as trusted sources. When public-relations firm [Daniel J. Edelman Holdings] asked workers in 10 countries what they considered the most credible source of information about the coronavirus, 63% of respondents said that they would believe information about the virus from their employer, versus 58% that trusted government websites, or 51% that trusted the traditional media.”

So, if P&C employees are turning to their leaders for guidance on how to wade through the morass that is COVID-19, what should the leaders communicate to them?

Not much empirical research is available on what to communicate to employees amid an ongoing crisis such as this, authors Brooks Holtom, Amy C. Edmondson, and David NiuProvide observe in a blog for Harvard Business Review. “As a result, most executives probably cannot answer the following question: Now that we are several months into the crisis, how are your employees feeling about your organization’s response to the pandemic?”

To help answer that question, the authors sent out a questionnaire to employees at various organizations, asking them for guidance on effective communications practices throughout the pandemic. In their responses, employees appreciated the following:

  • frequent communication
  • (multiple) channels for giving feedback
  • helping employees to work from home effectively (i.e. investing in work-from-home equipment)
  • addressing concerns about job security.

During the early stages of the pandemic, leaders tended to focus on imparting basic health and safety information to employees clearly, simply and frequently, as McKinsey & Company notes. But now that the health crisis has morphed into a parallel economic crisis (one that will likely take years to resolve), a leader’s communications should now focus on resilience and trying to distil meaning from all the chaos.

“Revitalize resilience,” McKinsey & Company urges. “As the health crisis metastasizes into an economic crisis, accentuate the positive and strengthen communal bonds to restore confidence….Distill meaning from chaos. The crisis will end. Help people make sense of all that has happened. Establish a clear vision, or mantra, for how the organization and its people will emerge.”

Similarly, in their blog for Harvard Business Review, Holtom, Edmonson and NiuProvide encourage leaders to provide their employees with a plan for the future.

“Given the extraordinary crisis we’re now enduring, it’s hardly surprising that many people are anxious about their own organization’s future and look to leaders for cues,” the authors state in 5 Tips for Communicating with Employees During a Crisis. “Therefore, when communicating, emphasize what is going well for the organization. Further, share as much as you can about your strategy and planning for the future. And be sure to recognize employees who have gone the extra mile to drive business results or help colleagues; it can have a positive ripple effect.”

Trust, vulnerability and transparency are all connected — and all encouraged.

“Choose candor over charisma,” McKinsey & Company advises leaders. “Trust is never more important than in a crisis. Be honest about where things stand, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability, and maintain transparency to build loyalty and lead more effectively.”


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