Injecting communications with kindness and confidence during the coronavirus crisis

In this pandemic year, with workers suddenly physically distant and deeply stressed, employers have been forced to make swift changes to how they manage employee engagement and communications.

For Nikki Booth, communications manager at the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan, the first order of business was to help staff sift through the onslaught of information about the coronavirus. “In our first week alone, we created 29 communication pieces.”

With so much uncertainty, especially in the initial stages, it was crucial to ensure workers were on the same page, she adds. “Things were changing so quickly that we wanted to be a source of truth for everybody that needed us.”

Read: 70% of employees satisfied with employer communications around coronavirus: survey

The organization, which manages benefits for Alberta’s public education sector, selected the most relevant news stories for staff to ensure they had a source for clear, accurate information without overwhelming them with too much doom and gloom. “As we’ve gone back to school, we’re filling our staff in on what news is out there . . . because a lot of people did turn off the news or stopped looking at Facebook.”

Booth says this strategy of regular updates naturally evolved into a centralized database of information on the company’s intranet, where employees could look back and review the many updates to regulations and restrictions. And, as things continue to change, she notes it’s integral to listen to feedback from employees and remain nimble in tweaking systems.

From the top

Adding to that guidance and support, Kelli Littlechilds, the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan’s chief executive officer, has been creating bi-weekly video messages for employees. And at TMX Group Ltd., its CEO John McKenzie has been pushing out communications, which quickly became the most watched and liked pieces of content on the intranet.

Sharing the burden

Canadians are struggling as the coronavirus pandemic continues, but in some cases, it’s bringing employees and employers closer together. An April 2020 survey by Argyle Public Relations found:

  • 72% of employees said they’re satisfied with their employer;
  • 49% said their relationship with their employer has improved during the pandemic, while 29% said the relationship has deteriorated;
  • 52% cited improved relationships with co-workers, while 25% said they’ve deteriorated.

The financial services company created a bi-weekly people manager meeting so those in leadership positions could come forward with questions and absorb key messaging to spread to their staff. “We recognized, in an environment like this, team strength is really important,” says Karin Adams, the company’s interim senior vice-president and group head of human resources.

Read: Award finalists talk managing employee stress, wellness and productivity amid pandemic

As well, TMX Group leveraged long-established moments of engagement, such as its quarterly meetings, to create opportunities for dialogue. “Usually, it’s a forum for us to communicate out, but we really shortened the amount of time in those sessions of us talking and made it more of a town hall, Q&A-style forum,” she says.

Since the pandemic swept away many of the simple joys of Canadians’ work lives — including that most proverbial of office moments, meeting by the water cooler — TMX Group also sought to replace some of those opportunities for connection in a digital environment.

It established a virtual water cooler, essentially an online forum on its intranet, which changed how the medium was used as a tool of outward communication into a two-way street. “It’s intended to encourage anecdotal dialogue,” says Adams, noting conversations in the forum have ranged from serious issues to sharing silly videos that mimic the pre-coronavirus, in-office experience.

While all of these engagement and communications exercises are proving essential to current employees, furloughed and even laid-off employees also require these moments of connection, says Betsy Woods Brooks, a principal in the U.S. engagement practice at Buck.

Read: Majority of employers expecting to bring back furloughed workers by Q1 2021, finds survey

Helping workers jump through the hoops of applying for unemployment benefits or other government subsidies is one way organizations can maintain goodwill with these workers, she says, noting it helps maintain a strong talent pool and good relationships so people can be brought back should the pandemic situation change.

Woods Brooks says she’s worked with many employers this year that have aimed to carry through these difficult processes kindly. “They want to do it in a very caring and compassionate way.”

Martha Porado is a former associate editor at Benefits Canada.