Communications in a crisis

Gethin Nadin, Director, Employee Wellbeing, Benefex

Recently, I caught up with Sian Myers – Culture Transformation Director at property developer, Countryside – to talk about how to handle communications in a crisis like the Coronavirus pandemic. Throughout our discussion, Sian honestly and sensitively shared her experiences of guiding her employees through this difficult time – from making the tough decision to furlough 70% of their workforce, to communicating with those still working hard from home, to keeping people engaged and reassured throughout the whole pandemic. Here, she shares her thoughts on how best to handle comms in a crisis.

Sian, Coronavirus has been in the country for a couple of months now, with lockdown happening just about a month ago – what’s the affect been on Countryside and how have you responded to this so far?

Construction has been significantly impacted by Coronavirus for obvious reasons. We made the decision a few weeks ago to close our sites, and as we have a large population who can’t work from home, we had to put these employees on furlough leave. There might be a positive impact from all of this, though. Before the pandemic, we’d been working to bring the people agenda up to a point that it was equal with other business strategies. In my role as Culture Transformation Director, we’d been working hard to implement key cultural changes like increased flexibility, which was something we’d not had prior to this pandemic. But the situation has forced us into this, so going forward it could be a positive for flexibility.

Employees are looking to employers for a sense of hope, reassurance and control over their own lives to help stem the natural anxiety that comes with not working, or working differently. You’ve been producing communications that are – on the surface quite simple – but hugely effective in acknowledging those emotions and providing support; what’s been your strategy?

When all of this started, our communications strategy has been very much people-first; we were dedicated to wellbeing and connectivity. Because we’d put a high number of people on furlough leave, we very quickly produced a pack which was sent to home addresses with an intro from our CEO. We’re lucky that he’s very hands-on and culturally minded, and his comms are really from the heart and always put people first. We gave our people a detailed guide to what it meant to be furloughed, plus an FAQ document and pointers towards our EAP. We included things like How to download our intranet to your mobile app, access to mental health first aiders – all sorts of things to keep people at ease while on furlough.

Would you say that you’ve taken a consistent approach that’s encouraged positivity?

It’s not easy keeping people positive, but I think we have been quite good at doing this. For example, we’ve never mentioned the word ‘redundancy’ as that’s absolutely not our intention! Before the pandemic, we’d started the whole theme of communications being about people. During coronavirus, we’ve been fortunate that our CEO’s comms are authentic and personal. And even when it came to furloughing our staff, we made sure our comms and meetings were planned out beforehand and that conversations took place personally.

In terms of ongoing comms, we’re emphasising engagement. Our intranet has been well-stocked with content, from mental health pages, to wellbeing and engagement pages. Plus, we’re hosting activities and competitions like group quizzes. April is normally our enrolment window for benefits, and while that’s still going on, we’re hosting virtual roadshows to keep engagement up. In addition, we’re looking to implement Benefex’s recognition platform in the next month as well to maintain engagement and keep the focus on the positives at the moment.

But most important is that we remain very open and transparent in our communications to maintain our employees’ trust. And, during this period where we’ve had to make tough decisions like furloughing people, we’ve made the time to explain to them why we’re doing it and why it’s the best decision for them in the long-term, which means it’s actually been received quite positively.

As the crisis has unfolded, and employers’ actions have been scrutinised through social media, has that affected the way you’ve reacted to the pandemic?

Naturally, we looked at what other housebuilders were doing and used that to inform our decisions, and think about best practice. But all of the actions we’ve taken have been inherently people-first, and the wellbeing of our people has influenced our decision-making more than the perception of the company. On the flip side – a few of our employees were asking us why we weren’t making more of what we were doing. At the start of the crisis, it was a conscious decision because we didn’t feel it was appropriate to be talking about how great we were on social – we were doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because it makes us look better.

And how have you maintained a consistent message and ensured managers have adhered to that, so that, from the top-down, promises to employees about staying in touch have been kept?

It has been difficult to be consistent, but I think we have reached a good level. A lot of this has been led from the top in that our CEO communicates regularly with the business. The tone of his emails has driven the tone of other leaders’ communications around the business. We have a comms meeting every morning, and this frequency and continual communication planning is helping to maintain that trust and consistency. Then we have the people team as the conduit of the messaging. They encourage leaders who are maybe not as comfortable with things like Zoom, and help them to engage in a different way.

The important thing is to keep your comms going and don’t let them drop. With the other priorities we have on our plates, it can be difficult to maintain that frequency, but you have to stick with it.

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As a result of these people-first communications, Countryside have been widely praised by their own people. Their HR team has been active on social media and have been very open to be contacted by employees. New employees have been vocal in their thanks to HR and IT for getting them set up and settled into working from home. They’re a great example of an employer who is doing everything they can to put their people first during this crisis.

If you’d like to pick up some more tips and research from Gethin and Sian, you can listen to the full interview here.