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5 tips for HR: Employee communications during coronavirus outbreak

As the future of work changes by the minute, CHROs and their teams serve important roles in managing responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Here are five ways they can take charge of communication.

The new coronavirus pandemic is a historical event likely to reshape the future of work in both subtle and overt ways. HR leaders have a critical role in creating empathetic, open communication to address employee experience and prevent a drop in morale.

Here are five tips for HR on employee communications during the coronavirus outbreak.

1. Proactively manage the move to remote work. 

For many workers, telework is new territory and that means HR needs to guide the transition and pay special attention to how the move is communicated.

"HR needs to own the practice of remote work," said Daniel W. Rasmus, founder and principal analyst at Serious Insights, an industry analyst firm. "They need to facilitate the discussion about how people work, how measurements change, and lead collaboratively with IT to put the right toolset in place."

Employee communications and change management will also play a significant role not only in the first wave of setting up legions of new home workers, but also in refining processes and technology options as the situation dictates over time.  

"It starts with raising the issues and then facilitating a strategic conversation toward convergence on organizational agreements that end up being both policy and practice," Rasmus said.

But HR leaders shouldn't end  efforts there and leave newbie home workers floundering with a variety of technical issues. Establish a technical support group or division aimed specifically at remedying technical issues that will diverge widely from issues that product support desks are experienced in addressing. Make sure IT is fully engaged in helping with worker migration and related internal issues too.

"Work with IT to determine if there are requirements to update systems of record or systems of engagement," Loomis said.

2. Address workers' fears and concerns.

Business and HR leaders should not leave employees in the dark about what the company is doing to help them and itself, what changes are afoot in terms of compensation and benefits, and what is expected of employees. Leaders need to be especially mindful of fear in employee communications during the coronavirus outbreak.

"Collaborate on communication in your company to establish and open a channel for [questions and answers] on an ongoing basis," said Amy Loomis, research director of Future of Work at IDC. "Preemptively put out [a coronavirus] FAQ and other materials addressing key HR concerns such as insurance, paid family leave, extended leave and pay."

HR leaders must emphasize that humans take priority over money.

"HR should clearly communicate that the health and safety of their employees is their top priority and follow up with what they are doing to ensure it," said David Johnson, principal analyst in Employee Experience at Forrester. "Next, if at all possible, they should communicate what the company will do to help employees feel financially safe as well."

Microsoft is a good example to follow, Johnson said.

"Microsoft announced that they will continue to pay the wages of employees and employees of contractors who would otherwise not be needed as much as more employees shift to working from home, such as the people who maintain the offices," he said.

3. Be honest about coronavirus repercussions -- with sensitivity

The reality is that many businesses will feel the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If a company is financially harmed by this crisis and cannot offer such generous support for employees, the company should say that upfront too, Johnson said. Business and HR leaders should not try to mask problems as that will likely send an unintended message and create further uncertainty and worry in employees. It may even incite anger.

In some cases, leaders may choose to ask for employees' help.

"If the company needs help from employees to stay financially solvent through the crisis, they should ask for it," Johnson said.

During a previous crisis, Southwest Airlines asked employees to voluntarily accept less pay until the crisis passed, in order to continue operating and avoid laying people off, Johnson said.

4. Help leaders boost emotional intelligence

Company leaders often come across as cold and uncaring when they only cite facts. HR should remind leadership to talk to their employees with sensitivity and empathy in order to retain trust. Don't forget that talent will be critical in ensuring business continuity throughout the pandemic and its fallout.

"People don't remember facts very well under stress," said Courtney Harrison, chief HR officer at OneLogin, a cloud-based identity and access management provider. "That's why helping them manage their stress first will help them be logical and rational about the facts that we want them to understand and embrace -- which then gets them back to being productive."

There are a number of ways both business and HR leaders can help workers through this tough time, even using it as a way to boost the employee experience and morale.

For example, HR can consider create multiple channels of communication that share aligned information, Harrison said. HR can also establish regular town halls, and both HR teams and other business leaders can use these to ask employees how they are doing and what they need.

However, it's important for leaders to deliver on those needs. Establishing groups where employees can express how they are feeling, share best practices and provide support to each other can also boost morale.

For example, helping to connect working parents who all have kids at home due to school closures while they are also still trying to do their day job is a great idea, she said. 

"It would give them time and focus to reduce stress, realize they are not alone in what they are feeling, and they can ask the group for advice or ideas and give some to the group too," Harrison said. "It might seem counterintuitive in that it appears to take precious time away from productivity, but it actually does the exact opposite; it switches the brain from its emotional mode to its problem-solving and thinking mode."

5. Explain how current news affects the organization

Employees are getting a lot of information from social media and news outlets. Not all of it is reliable or accurate, however. Misinformation can be a problem for employers and employees alike and can lead to a significant drop in productivity and other problems. Communication is key to keeping employees safe and maintaining productivity.

"While employees have access to the CDC and WHO, HR should be tailoring this message to their employees to know how it directly affects them and their livelihood -- both health and wealth," said Heather Deyrieux, HR Florida State Council, Inc. president.

"If remote work is a possibility and an employee is scared, has symptoms or is being self-quarantined, this is a great time to test your policy and procedures," she said. "[But] it's important to review expectations for daily and weekly check-ins and reporting on the work that is being done."

For organizations without remote capabilities, she said, it is critical to put the necessary safety precautions in place.

"Ensure the workplace is cleaned to or above CDC or WHO standards, employees are washing or sanitizing their hands thoroughly and frequently, and if anyone is feeling ill for any reason, that they are sent home immediately," Deyrieux said.

In the end, business and HR leaders should understand that taking care of employees is taking care of the business.

"Natural disasters, pandemics or other negative events are the time for an organization to step up and show how they take care of their employees, so that when the employee is able, they will again take care of the organization," Deyrieux said.

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