Maintaining Culture and Purpose During a Crisis
85 percent of employees trust their employer as a source of information about COVID-19 (more than they trust governments and social media). How is your organization’s internal communications program rebuilding culture and maintaining communication during and after the COVID pandemic?
A Primer for Business Leaders

Tim Streeb, June 2020

Employees can be a company’s largest and loudest source of advocacy or criticism — a fact that rings true especially during times of crisis.

Forrester data indicates that 85 percent of employees trust their employer as a source of information about COVID-19 (more than they trust governments and social media). As such, your organization’s internal communications program and the specific messages you deliver to employees are among the most important topics leaders must consider as they seek to rebuild culture and maintain a visible commitment to their organizational purpose.

There is likely considerable anxiety and trepidation among your employees at all levels. By treating team members as your top priority and providing consistent, transparent communications for the duration of any crisis, you not only improve employee engagement but also strengthen your brand reputation organically, as employees share company developments with their peers, customer contacts and other stakeholders.

To best position your company for success, and before you make any specific commitments to change, ask yourself the following:

  • How do I want to be remembered when this crisis has ended? How do I want my company to be remembered?
  • What’s the one thing I want employees to hear/know? How can I adjust that message for different audiences?
  • How do I want my employees to approach the challenges that lie ahead (e.g., optimism, determination, decisiveness, resilience)?
  • What do employees really need from me at this time so that they can approach these challenges?
  • What’s the most effective way to preserve/rebuild our culture? How does our organizational culture need to evolve?

With a high-level vision of the narrative you want to deliver, it’s important to consider how you will share information with employees. Best practices for doing so include the following:

Communicate from the Top and Cascade Down:

In most organizations, two groups of employees hold the most weight and influence: the CEO and direct supervisors. (PR research going back to the 70s shows employees’ preference for receiving information from their direct supervisor.)

As you continue to address COVID-19, your CEO’s messaging should outline the company’s recovery vision, including specific actions that will be taken and how those actions are aligned with your purpose.

But don’t stop there. Key supervisors and managers also need to be kept informed, and should receive information on any future changes in advance, along with guidance on how and when to communicate that information to their reports. That way, supervisors can reinforce messages delivered by the CEO and also be empowered to engage one-on-one with their reports, who will invariably come to them with questions and concerns.

Because crisis recovery takes time, your employees will want and need a steady flow of information. Remember that people under stress don’t always process information well, so if the information is critical, deliver it multiple times across channels.

Clarity is King:

Make sure your internal communications are clear and factual. Ambiguity leaves employees anxious and more vulnerable to rumors and fake news.  

If there are significant changes to your business as a result of COVID-19, it will be critical for employees to know what they are, and who they should contact for specific needs. Make it simple for employees to find resources on topics such as:

  • Medical coverage, including COVID-19 testing coverage
  • Employee assistance programs and/or other wellness programs
  • New/updated personal safety/sanitation procedures
  • Updated work-from-home policies
  • Changes to your current travel policy
  • New/improved technology resources including alternatives to in-person meetings (video conferences, etc.)
Remain Visible and Facilitate Dialogue:

In times of dramatic change, there’s no substitute for senior leadership visibility in minimizing negative speculation and fostering positive attitudes. If continued social distancing or travel limitations prevent leadership from being in person physically, increase your use of digital tools to do so virtually.

To quell employee rumors and ongoing uncertainty, two-way dialogue is critical. Every leader has blind spots — it’s impossible to know every aspect of every role at your company — and active listening can help you mitigate any potential incremental impact.

Remember that employees are not a monolithic group — they will respond and react in different ways, and have different concerns and motivations. Actively solicit feedback across business units and staff levels, and deploy your HR team as a resource for team members. Determine what your stakeholders think about your recovery plan and identify and address their top questions and concerns.

Celebrate the Good Stuff:

Despite more uncertainty ahead, you should recognize and celebrate your team’s accomplishments, however small. Celebrating work achievements is an important part of culture and, for most organizations, an integral component of their purpose. Without taking a moment to celebrate victories both large and small, negative news and other “noise” can overshadow the progress your organization is making.

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated fear and uncertainty and attacked many of the pillars of basic existence that we have come to take for granted. Clear, consistent, and credible internal communications from company leaders will help restore employee comfort and confidence, and enable everyone to move forward and fulfill the organization’s purpose, whatever “new normal” lies ahead.

Want to learn more about how you can effectively plan for future crisis scenarios? Contact us: