As more and more governments begin to initiate cautious steps to ease lockdown restrictions, organisations across the globe face an extraordinary task: preparing their business and staff for a return to their workplace while the COVID-19 pandemic has not been fully beaten.
This is not just a practical task for business leaders to ensure social distancing in their offices or factories. There are many more aspects to consider, which is why internal communications is critical to ensure employees fully understand and support the plans but also feel their perspectives are appropriately reflected. Employee needs can be grouped into six areas:
• Physical well-being: The most important priority for employees is that their health and safety is guaranteed. Internal communications needs to be able to outline clearly what actions the business has implemented to prevent infections at the workplace and reassure employees that their well-being is prioritised over the need to kick-start production again.
• Mental well-being: The pandemic has affected many people’s mental health. Employees may have lost loved ones or may deal with anxiety stemming from the inability to predict the pandemic’s outcome. When asking people to come back to the office, organisations need to be mindful of their experience and communicate in a sensitive, thoughtful way and use the right tone, channels and formats.
• Logistical needs: Not all sectors will be able to return at the same time and pace. As a consequence, your employees may struggle to find appropriate childcare or they may need to look after elderly family members. Reduced transport capacity will likely result in limited options to travel to and from the workplace. Businesses need to find go-around solutions and communications needs to demonstrate sympathy for the individual logistical challenges people are facing.
• Job security: Despite the global desire to go back to normal, many businesses are heavily impacted by the recession resulting from COVID-19. While no organisation will be able to guarantee job security at the moment, in uncertain times employees always look for subtle hints. As such, internal communications needs to find a way to express and instill confidence in the organisation’s future business outlook. The same applies to external communications – not just because external stakeholders want to be reassured too, but also because employees often learn more about their company via external channels than from internal ones.
• Silo dissipation: Virtual working environments has resulted in a silo-less reality. People are ignoring silos and reaching out to colleagues across the enterprise. Coming back to a physical situation reinforcing this behaviour is essential, as employees will want to keep up the connections they’ve built.
• Cultural flexibility: Much has been written about how the lockdown has facilitated different ways of working. Organisations and individuals alike have identified appropriate strategies to work from home, ensure productivity and connect with team members. As we go back to our usual workplace, many employees will want to keep the good things, for example flexible working hours or the ability to cut down on commute time at least a few days of the month. Organisations need to be ready to address these employee expectations. They don’t have to say yes to everything but need to be clear and convincing when communicating why some changes from the lockdown period won’t be here to stay.
As these employee needs are very complex and intricate, organisations have to be extra prudent and vigilant when developing their ‘back to work’ plans. Communications plays a critical role in this process to ensure employee buy-in and support.