Covid-19: ethical communications with employees

Following the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, there have been many references to ‘the new normal’. There has also been a lot of speculation on how this will influence how businesses will think, what they will do and how they will treat their employees and customers in the future.

Organisations are re-writing their approaches to managing office and retail space, supporting employees who are working from home and responding to customer needs. It’s hardly a revelation to say that these issues have caused major challenges to be handled swiftly, leaving those in charge of communications with the task of getting the messages right to all stakeholders.

One thing that has become clear from the efforts of governments around the world is that their fundamental approach to communications, including how information is gathered, is vital. Transferring this principle to businesses, ethics will need to be a cornerstone of their behaviour and communications during this transition process.

Giving people a voice

When people are unsure, worried or afraid, they want to be informed and reassured. They also want to be heard.

The Health and Safety Executive has issued guidance on a safe return to work within businesses, including talking with employees about safe ways of working. However, the media has reported that workers have raised a wide range of concerns – such as using public transport, accessing communal areas and social distancing for customers – in relation to getting back to work.

In its guidance to businesses, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has emphasised the importance of reaching agreement with anyone who will be affected by a transition back to operating more normally. This includes having an open dialogue with employees, suppliers and other stakeholders and, more importantly, engaging in active listening. The ethical organisation doesn’t just talk to its employees and customers; it also gives them a voice.

Employee voice is not a new concept but it is certainly gaining traction alongside models of ethical and inclusive leadership. In its submission Work That Works For All to an independent review of modern employment practices, the Confederation of British Industry stated that businesses with higher productivity levels also had high levels of employee voice and engagement.

Employee voice covers a broad range of activities but its heart lies within a genuine commitment to engage with the workforce. The message essentially is: ‘We are going to be supportive and honest in the way we talk to you, but we’re also going to take on board properly what you have to say and act on it where we can.’

Naturally, a crisis makes us feel differently precisely because things are different. Being forced to stay indoors for most of each day and losing close contact with the people we love makes us reflect on our values, our lives and the meaning of the work that we do. Employees are asking how a company’s culture links to something that is meaningful.

This is what ties the business argument of ‘engagement and voice lead to higher productivity’ with the ethical concepts of wellbeing, empowerment and respect.

The role of technology

The irony is that technology, which has been rapidly adapted to support new ways of working, is simultaneously viewed as something which detracts from and encourages two-way communication. Getting its implementation right is an important element of encouraging employees to have their say.

Any communications strategy that is adopted needs to account for the fact that the pandemic has also made people feel anxious as well as reflective. According to The Office for National Statistics, 61% of those surveyed in the middle of May 2020 reported feelings of stress and anxiety and 65% said that they were worried about what the future held.

It can be argued that, in many situations, not knowing is worse than knowing. While business leaders are by no means experts in public health crises, they are being looked to by their employees to at least show them a possible path back to a working normality.

This is where technology can help. While face to face conversations with managers are important, they are currently difficult to manage and risk diluting the message if it is passed on to managers to disseminate. They may be prone to interpreting the information in different ways, which can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

There are a range of tools that are available to businesses that want to open up meaningful conversations with their employees – and that includes creating a culture whereby workers feel able to report serious issues such as bullying, harassment and discrimination. Employee engagement platforms, communications apps, video channels, pulse surveys and discussion boards are just some of the ways that organisations are reaching out to their workforces to provide innovative messaging and safe spaces for people to air their worries.

In its December 2019 guide called Ethics At Work: An employer’s guide, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development states that an ethical business climate is good for business and employees as it focuses on what is the right behaviour. It also recommends the embedding of two-way communication within internal systems to encourage high ethical standards. During this time of uncertainty, there has never been a stronger need for businesses to do just that.

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