What a difference a month makes. Back in early March, the concept of the modern workplace was still in its infancy. A number of trailblazers had adopted it, but the trend hadn’t quite reached the mainstream. Now, as a result of COVID-19, remote working is our new reality. Governments asked employers to make working from home possible, and this has accelerated change in many organizations.
The Modern Workplace in times of COVID-19
But many organizations were not at all prepared for the recent shift to the modern workplace. They were thrust into remote working overnight, with few policies and processes to fall back on. As the people running the New York City Subway tweeted:
“If you’re able to figure out how to work remotely, please do, even if you don’t have the processes in place. We’d never done this before either, but we hope we’re setting the right example.”
The modern workplace defines the ability to work anytime from anywhere. We think about remote as working from cafés or, let’s be honest, in our pajamas. But in times of COVID-19 we have to focus much more on how we communicate internally with colleagues too. Plain language becomes even more important.
Edelman moved fast to produce some new research on Trust and the Coronavirus. The results show that employees are eager for clear communication during this period of uncertainty.
- 74% of people are fearful of fake news.
- Most employees see their employer better prepared than their country for the crisis.
- Globally, 63% of employees want to hear from employers every day. This breaks down into 43% at least once a day, 20% several times a day.
So employers hold an essential role in communicating with employees through these difficult times. But how should an organization new to the modern workplace actually do this?
Time to focus on technology & clarity
For remote working to function well, communication and collaboration are absolute non-negotiables. There are a number of tools to help with this – just as examples:
- Zoom, whose shares are now up 112% on the year
- Microsoft Teams
- Google Docs
- Slack, who are reporting a spike in user growth and share price as a result of the situation
You need to establish how your business will use each platform. Remember that anyone new to working from home might feel especially uncertain using new tools. That’s why it’s important to check in regularly as the Edelman research found.
Most technology concentrates on facilitating communication and collaboration channels. It is not concerned with how we communicate, what language is used. It is not checking whether employees are put at ease. Whether they fully understand the directions their employer is taking during this crisis.
The Harvard Business Review points out: “Many companies focus too much on technology and not enough on process.” Clear communications are key.
Communicating during a crisis
So before you think about what tool to use to transmit your communication, you need robust processes around your internal communications. Keep these key principles in mind:
1. Plan ahead
Set out your internal communications strategy in advance (even if that’s just a week ahead of time). Define when you will communicate which messages, and time the frequency of your communications carefully. Planning enables you to reflect on your approach, making sure you get across the right message at the right time. Keeping in mind that 63% of employees want to hear from employers every day, this approach also allows you to space out your messages effectively.
2. One email, one message
Cognitive load theory says that our brains have limited working memory to process information. The more we have to think about, the less is our capacity for taking in new messages. These are uncertain times. Employees’ cognitive loads will already be high as they worry about their health, loved ones, and finances. Focusing on one message within each communication allows staff to absorb the key piece of information you need to get across.
And remember that most employees want to hear from you at least once per day. So there will be plenty of time to convey all your messages throughout the span of the crisis.
3. Make your communication channels two-way
Don’t just broadcast. Make sure you’re also listening, and allow staff to give you feedback. Survey employees about their preferred channel and what they expect from you.
4. Make it personal
Many employees will not be used to working from home and might feel uncomfortable. Check-in with each team member personally, and take time to reassure them.
5. Write in plain language
It’s time to embrace plain language if you haven’t already. Clear communications will ensure there’s no room for misunderstanding and will build employees’ trust.
Ditch the jargon
Complex and unfamiliar words will alienate your employees. It’s important to simplify your language, especially when talking about emotive and complex subjects such as COVID-19. Define or explain any specific COVID terms, and make sure you use everyday language.
Use short sentences
Long sentences make content harder to digest, and add to customers’ mental load. It’s difficult to keep track when there are lots of sub-clauses and commas. You need to retain the writer’s thought from the beginning to the end of the sentence. This is especially tricky if you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter. And, perhaps, the vocabulary or jargon used. This is certainly the case with the Covid-19 outbreak – it’s unfamiliar territory for most of us. Stick to one thought for each sentence, and you’ll make sure employees don’t miss important messages.
Write at a lower grade level than usual
The average American reads at 8th-grade level. But during times of crisis, we need to lower this. It’s a highly emotional time. People are anxious about their health and the health of their loved ones, and they might also have economic concerns. Your language needs to be clearer than usual so the reader can focus properly on the message. See more here on why grade level matters.
Use active voice
In times of uncertainty, you need to know who is taking action. Use the active voice to do that. As an example, compare these two statements:
Changes have been made to the workplace policies in response to the COVID-19 situation. More updates will be sent shortly.
Due to COVID-19, the Leadership Team changed our workplace policies. We will send more updates this week.
Version one uses the passive voice. I’ve underlined the uses.
The statements sound vague, “corporate-speak” and dispassionate. Possibly even untrustworthy. By contrast, the active voice in version two comes across as decisive and credible. When you’re specific about who takes action, employees receiving the communication feel more reassured. If you can also be specific about any timelines (e.g. this afternoon) then that goes further towards putting employees at ease.
Readability-wise, version one scores at grade 7.2, while the second version is 6. Remember, the lower your grade level, the clearer the writing. Finally, version one is 20 words, version two slims down to 17.
Post COVID-19 – Is the future of workplaces modern?
It is a stressful time for everyone. Organizations are under immense pressure, as are their employees. Edelman’s research shows that employees trust information from their employers. Through using clear communication, you can reassure staff and foster a positive remote working environment. Businesses have a huge opportunity, and obligation even, to continue to ensure that employees feel part of the team.
It may be too early to think about life beyond COVID-19. But, who knows, perhaps you’ll find that this new way of working offers you many benefits. And that there just might be a place for it in life beyond the crisis.
Plain Language Resources
We’ve put together a list of free VisibleThread resources.
We hope these help your clear communications to employees.