Communication Lessons from a Pandemic


For more than three months, communication professionals have navigated the crisis brought on by COVID-19. It’s been stressful and exhausting, and it has impacted all areas of our lives. It’s also presented a unique opportunity for our global community to support one another.

At the end of April, my firm facilitated a free workshop for more than 80 communication professionals from around the world. It all began with a simple question on IABC’s online member community The Hub about returning to the office post COVID-19.

A catalyst for change

The participants shared how they supported organizations as they shifted business strategies, shifted to remote work, changed protocols for essential workers and made difficult financial and staffing decisions. Through it all, global communication colleagues have capitalized on new technology, implemented new tactics and focused on high-value work.

For many, it was also a catalyst to get buy-in on ideas that were not previously embraced, such as:

  • Executives being on video (some more enthusiastically than others).
  • Bi-weekly updates to primary external stakeholders.
  • People-focused internal storytelling to both manage the change, create pride and recognize community contributions (rather than a marketing approach to “sell” a corporate position)
  • Implementing collaboration technology such as Yammer, Slack and Teams.

New levels of trust

Another trend was the shift in communication tone and a subsequent increase in organizational trust. The participants’ experience reflected the Edelman Trust Barometer Coronavirus Special Report that stated 63% of employees say they trust their employer more than the media. That trust was driven by leaders displaying vulnerability, bringing their authentic selves to work and communicating with compassion and empathy.

There’s a strong business case for leaders continuing these trust-building activities. Studies by Great Place to Work show that high-trust cultures have stock market returns two to three times greater than the market average. The following trust building activities need to continue:

  • Encouraging your workforce (by leader example) to bring their authentic selves to work while displaying empathy and compassion. Senior leader selfie videos to create visibility in a socially distant world and provide insight into how/what decisions are being made.
  • Increased frequency of virtual town halls by senior leaders.
  • Increased frequency of virtual team meetings and one-on-one meetings by leaders.
  • Leaders celebrate successes, display gratitude, stand next to tragedy and show confidence while being willing to say we don’t have all the answers yet.

5 tips for the next phase

When the workshop was held, everyone was in crisis mode. Since then, we’ve learned that the crisis sprint is shifting to a pandemic marathon and that some assumptions about what would happen were incorrect.

During the workshop, there was a general assumption that everyone would return to the workplace over the next few months, using a phased approach. Now, companies expect it could be up to a year or more before all employees can safely return. Recently, technology companies Shopify and Twitter announced a permanent work-from-home policy for those who don’t need to be physically present in the office. These types of unexpected turns will continue throughout the marathon. Here are five tips to make it easier:

  1. Be open and transparent

The challenge with planning the return to the workplace is the speed at which information changes. Yet employees still have questions they want answered. The best approach is to be honest with what is known and not known, what discussions are occurring and how decisions are being made. Recognizing the uncertainty and giving insight (within reason) to the inner workings will help employees understand the fluidity and give comfort that their questions will be addressed, even if they don’t get an answer right now.

  1. Deploy pulse check surveys

Now, more than ever before, our personal lives are intersecting with our work lives. Homeschooling, elder care, personal health considerations, safety of public transit and like/dislike of working from home have become return to workplace considerations for employees. For that reason, ongoing pulse check surveys are becoming essential. They will help you understand how your employees are doing, what concerns they have and the tone you should take at each stage.

  1. Use visuals to manage change

Even though people may be anxious to get back to the workplace, it won’t be a return to what a normal workday used to be. New protocols for health assessments, physical distancing and cleaning are necessary. It can be startling for an employee to walk in and experience these changes all at once. One workshop participant had great success managing that change through images and videos that walked returning employees through all the required behavior changes and how the workplace looked. When the employees returned, they knew exactly what to expect and do.

  1. Be aware of “the grass is greener” effect

In nearly every organization, there are two distinct employee groups: essential employees who remained on site and those who worked from home. Essential employees may think that remote employees have it much easier with no commute or no one physically watching over their shoulder. Remote employees may wish they had the normalcy of going to the office, interacting with others or not being surrounded by family 24/7.

Events, stories and celebrations that recognize the contributions and challenges of each employee group will go a long way to mitigate the risk of employee division.

  1. Keep your long-term communication goals front and center

The ever-evolving pandemic can keep us in reaction mode—busy checking tasks off our never-ending list. Through the crisis, we made significant gains in leaders’ understanding the value of communication and the positive impact of having communication professionals at the table. Our tactics also had greater impact because only had time to focus on what mattered most. We need to consciously make communication recommendations and decisions that allow us to keep the gains we made and move us toward our long-term goals.

Last, but not least, never underestimate the value of connecting with and learning from communication colleagues around the world. The essentials of pandemic response—health and safety updates, new technology rollouts, pulse surveys—are insights that are being shared through many forums.

Shelly Nowroski

Shelly Nowroski, MBA, is the principal consultant and owner of Illuminate Consulting Group Inc. She uses her creative and process mindset to create clarity and results from what seems like chaos. Throughout her career, she’s stepped into roles and projects that hadn’t been done before or had gone sideways, always taking on complex projects that build new capability and/or shift how a business delivers results. Her unique ability to create clarity comes from technology, marketing and over 15 years’ strategic communication experience in large public and private companies across a wide range of industries. Illuminate Consulting Group Inc.’s success is measured by the positive impact on their clients’ business, the relationship they build together and how much they enjoy the experience. Read the group's 40-page Insights and Ideas report on the brainstorming session.

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