Picture this: It’s several months from now. Somewhere in the UK* the doors to a laboratory swing open, and a scientist strides forth like the goddess Athena, victorious in battle, holding aloft a verified vaccine. Five minutes later, the image is on Twitter feeds, WhatsApp groups, and iPad news pages within joyful homes worldwide.
Weeks later, sunbeams wash over children playing tag in school playgrounds; while friends and neighbours embrace over drained teapots and lemon cake crumbs.
Meanwhile, in office kitchens worldwide, workers shake hands and slap backs.
“To work!” they cry as one. “Let us unite once again in a collaborative, mission-focused frenzy of productivity in the physical work environment!”
Then a lone voice calls out amid the cheers: “Hold up; where’s Vicky?”
“Vicky?” replies another. “She went to that big company round the corner.”
“What about Mo?” asks another. “I need his help with these overdue invoices.”
“Ah, Mo got used to the working from home thing. Set up his own ouzo-importing business.”
“TAJINDER’S OFFICE IS EMPTY WHAT THE DEUCE IS OCCURRING?!”
“Yeah – I heard he just got fed up with vague and unhelpful corporate communication, so now he’s leading the Sales team for our primary competitor.”
Solemnity descends. Workers disperse. The office becomes abuzz with the clicking of keys.
Over in California, a Google analyst notices a web traffic spike for the words “jobs near me”.
The truth, as we all know, is that returning to work is going to be a struggle for many. Workers across the nation will have much to think about from childcare, to prioritising their workload, to figuring out where their company now sits in a dramatically altered landscape.
And it’s going to be much harder if businesses find that so much of the knowledgeable talent that they need – and may even be relying on – to help get a company back on its feet quickly and efficiently, has gone elsewhere.
Why might staff leave your company after COVID-19?
Many businesses can – to an extent – be fairly certain of their employees’ loyalty right now. The reasons for this aren’t exactly ideal: employment is hard to find, and job security is gold-dust. The employee-employer relationship may be more of a mutually-beneficial deal at the moment, rather than being based on trust and engagement.
It’s not that employees don’t value their place of work, or that they don’t appreciate the challenges that coronavirus presents to businesses. But there is a real risk that if companies don’t keep staff engaged and informed now, they might lose them when the lockdown is completely lifted.
Communications must work harder
Many of the intangible benefits of being in an office are irreplaceable: the all-staff Town Halls; the coffee meetings; the chance corridor chats with colleagues in different teams. These conversations and grapevines help to break down silos, improve knowledge-sharing, and help colleagues to feel connected and part of a community.
However , at present, businesses are finding out the hard way just how effective their official communications channels – such as email updates and newsletters – actually are. In most cases, sharing strategic updates over one-way communications channels will not keep staff engaged.
Because telling employees only what they need to hear is not enough. Companies must also have a good understanding of what their employees want to hear, especially in light of coronavirus.
Staff are scared, frustrated, and worried about the future. Even if they know they have a job to go back to, they have no idea what situation they or their company will be in one month, six months or one year from now.
Unfortunately, CEOs and managers can’t necessarily answer that right now either. But there are things they can cover in their communications to help:
· Give feedback: About a quarter of employees feel that being undervalued is the highest barrier to engagement. Constructive and positive feedback from managers can help staff know that their hard work has been truly recognised, and also encourages them to understand how to improve their work – aiding professional and personal development
· Address mental health: Sure, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week – but the conversation cannot end on Sunday. Companies must offer resources and help for staff who might be struggling with mental health in the other 51 weeks of the year. The aftershocks of the pandemic will not be short-lived.
· Advise on benefits and assistance: People are organising their lives and juggling tasks in ways they never dreamt they’d need to before 2020. Many of us need help – with financial planning; with flexible working arrangements. Are you making it clear what you can offer your employees, and what they are eligible to receive – whether from the company, or the government?
· Consider working arrangements: Just because an office reopens, it doesn’t mean that workers are going to be ready to cheerfully skip back through the doors – no matter how much some CEOs and economy-focused Governmental leaders might hope they are. People will still be nervous about being physically near other people, using public transport, and so on. Could you update working from home policies and arrangements to allow for more flexible transitions?
· Be mindful of legal considerations: There’s also a possibility that employees might take legal action if they don’t feel that their employer has gone far enough to protect them. It’s really important to be clear on what steps you are taking to reassure workers that their health and safety is a key priority for you.
Nobody knows what the future will bring. But as long as companies communicate authentically, empathetically, and transparently, they will give themselves the best chance of holding onto staff when the dust clears and the office doors reopen.
If you’d like some help with crafting employee communications, get in touch!
*Or the rest of the world. It’s not a competition. But being Oxford-based I have particular hopes for the University of Oxford research!