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Ettore Toppi December 1, 2020 6 min read

Why Your Communications Strategy May Need a COVID-Related Upgrade

To say that we are living in a unique time is an understatement. 

Whether your employees are working from home, returning to the workplace under new safety rules, taking time off, or a combination of these, it’s likely they’re stressed, anxious, and confused. This year has been a crucible for even the hardiest of souls.

One of the greatest challenges for employees adapting to the new normal is that this was not an evolutionary change. Instead, like the flip of a switch, your employees’ lives turned upside down in a moment. 

What can your organization do to help employees cope? The answer is surprisingly simple: Communicate.

Use recent data to guide your communications strategy

We’re in a very specific moment, both as business professionals and as part of the culture at large. Much of our current situation is being captured through data that reflect what people are feeling and how they’re reacting to new challenges. This is a great opportunity for organizations to learn from that data and take action.

A few select facts and figures from recent surveys, studies, and reports offer tremendous insight into the current state of our world at work. You may find them helpful in guiding your employee communications strategy now—during the pandemic—and well into the future. 

  1. Work from home (WFH) is here to stay. According to research conducted this year, nearly 90% of employers reported that before the pandemic less than one-quarter of their workforce worked remotely. Currently, more than 50% of employers reported that 75% or more of their workforce is working remotely. Going forward, 41% of employers anticipate that nearly half of their workforce will work remotely after this public health crisis ends.

    Although favored by many employees, WFH presents its share of challenges. Building and maintaining cohesive teams are far more challenging when folks can’t meet face to face. Productivity can suffer because of domestic distractions. And the lack of shared spaces contributes to the sense of social isolation people may be feeling. There’s a reason the proverbial water cooler was such a popular gathering spot.

  2. The pandemic is even harder on parents and caregivers. Fifty-two percent of working parents say that juggling child care and work responsibilities has been harder during the COVID-19 crisis. This increases to 57% for those with a child under 4 years old. And working women are shouldering more of the burden, with 57% saying that they’ve taken on most or all of the extra child care responsibilities during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, two-thirds of working parents say that balancing work and child care responsibilities has caused their performance to suffer.

    Unfortunately, when we spend all that time caring for others, we tend to neglect ourselves. The Torchlight Report of Working Caregiver Concerns found that employees who are caring for children, elderly family members, or both reported that they are struggling with their own self-care. Employee caregivers showed a nearly 32% increase in concern about their own well-being. This kind of stress and fatigue can lead to burnout, which is not only bad for employees but also has adverse economic consequences for employers.

  3. Money is the No. 1 stressor. According to PwC’s 9th Annual Employee Financial Wellness Survey, 54% of employees say financial or money matters cause them the most stress. The recent Financial Resiliency Survey by retirement fund TIAA found that, as a result of the pandemic, 20% of American workers had to tap into an emergency fund, while 25% took on more debt.

    Even worse, current research indicates people are hindering their own retirement saving efforts. An Edelman Financial Engines survey in August found that half of U.S. employees took actions detrimental to their long-term financial security due to the pandemic. Yet, at the same time, 90% say that saving for retirement is a current financial goal. As money woes grow for employees who have been furloughed or taken pay cuts, PwC’s report found that more than half of Generation X and Millennial employees said it was likely they would use retirement-plan money for something other than retirement. Raiding retirement accounts can put a strain on future financial security that’s nearly impossible to overcome in later years.

  4. Employers (and benefit plans) are getting a bum rap. According to The Hartford’s Future of Benefits Study, many employees still view their benefits positively, but the perceived value of their benefits and their trust in their employers to make the best benefits decisions have declined during the pandemic. When asked in June to rate their organization’s overall benefits package compared with what other employers are offering in their marketplace, only 44% of employees rated their benefits as above average, compared to 56% before the start of the pandemic. In that same survey, 55% of employees said they trust their company to make the best decisions about their benefits, compared to 61% pre-pandemic.
  5. Expectations are high for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The Millennial and Gen Z generations are the most diverse in history: Only 56% of Millennials are white, compared to 72% of Baby Boomers. As the workforce changes—and public awareness grows about the damage caused by systemic bias—DEI initiatives become increasingly vital. According to Gallup polls, 45% of U.S. workers experienced some form of discrimination or harassment in the past 12 months. But things are looking up, as 55% of employees say their organizations have policies to promote DEI. However, fostering inclusive workplaces isn’t just a feel-good notion: The benefits for both employees and organizations are tangible and wide ranging. One study found that companies with higher than average diversity had 19% higher innovation revenues.

    Employees—as well as shareholders and customers—will be watching to see if organizations follow through on their DEI commitments. Long-lasting cultural change requires consistent, mindful effort from all parts of your organization.

It’s time to take action!

Let your people know you’re there for them and how your organization can facilitate their performances. Working together, you and your employees can thrive—even in the face of a pandemic. There has never been a greater need for your people to feel supported. Here’s what you should do:

  • Promote benefits in many ways. Communicate all the time in every way you can. Take opportunities not only to reinforce your benefits and the value they represent, but also how your policies and programs offer concrete help during these difficult times.
  • Train and use managers as a critical communications channel. As a trusted source for benefits and policy information, managers are your communications secret weapon. Frequent manager check-ins, formalized coaching, showing appreciation for employees, and stressing DEI initiatives are all essential tools in that arsenal. 
  • Find ways to get feedback. Successful HR communications require a two-way street. Ask your people about what they need both professionally and personally, listen to their concerns, and find out how best to reach them. 

Trying to increase your communications budget and get leaders on board? 

Research proves that effective communication increases engagement and improves the relationship between an organization and its people. Through frequent, transparent communications from your leadership, your organization can differentiate itself by inspiring and supporting your employees during this uniquely stressful time. 

Communications is a critical investment that pays dividends. Perhaps the most striking illustration of this comes from employee-experience software company Limeaid in its Organizational Communication white paper. They found that when employees feel as though information flows freely throughout their organization, they are more likely to feel included, valued, and connected to their organization. The report also found that when employees feel they have received adequate information, they are less likely to feel burned out and more likely to feel engaged in their work.

HR pros: It’s your time to shine!

In less than a year, our lives have changed dramatically—and likely permanently. With those changes comes a tremendous opportunity for you to influence your organization’s culture, support your colleagues, and emphasize your role as a business partner. According to Harvard Business Review, workers are turning to their managers—and HR leaders, in particular—for guidance to understand this new normal and navigate future workplace changes. 

Ettore Toppi

Ettore Toppi, Senior Communications Consultant, creates engaging communications campaigns that ensure employees are informed and connected with their benefits.