Workplace Culture

During COVID-19 outbreak, utilize internal communications in your company crisis plan

By Andie Burjek, Sarah Kimmel

Mar. 18, 2020

Internal communication is a vital part of crisis management, whether it is a pandemic like COVID-19, a natural disaster or a workplace shooting. 

As the people and organizations worldwide deal with the implications of the coronavirus, it is vital for people to communicate accurate information about the virus, check what they’re retweeting and make sure not to spread disinformation. Businesses have a similar responsibility, but on top of that, their communication must be strategic. It should be part of any crisis management plan

Employees will be getting information about the coronavirus from somewhere, and coworkers will realistically discuss the company’s response to the pandemic among one another, whether their response is appreciative or critical. 

Whatever standard message a business publicly announces during a crisis, if employees have issues with how the crisis is being handled, it doesn’t matter if the media paints the company in a good light. There still may be low employee morale and high levels of frustration internally. 

Despite the immediate importance of communication, many organizations have yet to create a strategy.  According to a report from Gallagher’s Benefits and HR Consulting Division, 61 percent of organizations have developed a communication strategy related to COVID-19, with 82 percent of health care having a strategy compared to 49 percent of non-health care organizations.

In another survey of 300 communications senior leaders, the Institute for Public Relations found that 44 of respondents said their crisis communications plan did not specifically address an infectious disease outbreak. Ten percent of respondents did not have crisis communication plans at all.

There are some basics that employees should understand about coronavirus symptoms and the course of the illness, which should be an integral part of a communication campaign. 

First, COVID-19 is not airborne. It’s passed by droplets. That means when someone who is infected coughs into their hands and touches a surface, someone else can catch it by touching that surface and then touching their face. As strange as it may seem, that’s good news. It means that if people wash their hands frequently with regular soap — especially after you may have touched surfaces that a lot of other people touch, like doorknobs, the keypad for clocking into work or shaking hands — they’re much less likely to be infected.  

Second, some people have compared COVID-19 symptoms to the flu, but that’s not completely accurate. The two most common symptoms are fever and a dry cough. People with COVID-19 rarely have a sniffle. They also aren’t likely to be nauseous. What they are likely to have is bad upper respiratory problems. They tend to develop a severe cough that makes it hard for them to breathe, which is what is making COVID-19 dangerous.  

Finally, it’s also true that for most younger workers, the symptoms are milder and people who have it may only think they have a cold. However, older employees or anyone with a compromised immune system are much more likely to have serious symptoms that require medical assistance. The medical assistance that is often required is intubation and the use of a ventilator. 

The reason why COVID-19 is such a big deal right now is because the number of people who require medical assistance is overwhelming the medical system in the places where the number of cases has grown, like Italy. The medical system has been overwhelmed even in places that have a consistent ratio of doctors and hospital beds to people (Italy’s is better than the United States’, for example). There are only so many beds in the hospitals and only so many ventilators. 

That’s why there has been a push to slow down transmission through actions like social distancing and remote working, because if it is slowed enough, it won’t overwhelm the health care system. The mission is to flatten the curve and buy time for the health care system to adequately care for those who fall ill.

If someone has been exposed, they are likely to have symptoms within five days of exposure and can also be a carrier for up to 14 days, even if they’re asymptomatic. This is why quarantine periods are generally 14 days long. 

According to recent guidance from consultancy Deloitte, the most important players in your communications plan are front-line managers. Employees expect accurate, authoritative and transparent information. “Trying to conceal risk can potentially create more,” the report stated. Leaders should outline communication plans and make sure that managers know what to expect and understand and define their role. 

Further, companies need to prepare plans for site disruption and reactivation. “In the event an entity has to close its doors for non-critical workers for a period, determine a communications plan about how you’ll communicate with all workers, including contractors and vendor partners,” according to the Deloitte guidance. “Have a clear playbook for how to initiate a closure and how to reroute operations and employees to other locations within your network. Moreover, finalize a checklist to determine when employees can return to work once the all clear is given.”

Employees are bound to talk about the coronavirus outbreak on social media, and there are certain steps a business can take to temper this, according to Deloitte. One solution is to provide employees an internal communications channel through which they can express their issues about what they’re seeing within the organization. It’s a smart business move to “ensure direct communication as much as possible as an alternative to social media,” the report stated.

For Workforce.com users there are features on our platform available to keep communication lines open during this difficult time. Chat with your staff, schedule according to operational changes, manage leave, clock in and out remotely, and communicate changes through custom events, among other things.

COVID-19 is rapidly changing how businesses operate. We recognize that organizations need an extra helping hand right now. So we’re offering our platform for free to new sign-ups over the coming months. Sign up today and our Workforce Success team will gladly provide a personal, online walkthrough of our platform to help you get started.

 

Andie Burjek is an associate editor at Workforce.com.

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