With the continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, employee and customer safety are at a critical junction this holiday season and will remain intertwined well into 2021. The holiday season has brought new challenges to an already tenuous situation.
- The U.S. continues to experience high infection rates, exacerbated by a post-Thanksgiving surge from which we’re yet to see the full impact. According to The New York Times: Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count, COVID-19 currently is “surpassing heart disease and cancer as the leading killer in the United States.”
- A resurgence of cases in Europe is prompting additional restrictions from now into the new year, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel stating, “There is an urgent need to take action.” (Reuters: Germany to impose stricter lockdown to battle COVID-19)
The reasons for increasing infections may vary, but all contribute to community spread. Many people are not adhering to the basic safety measures of mask-wearing, social distancing, hand washing, contact tracing, and quarantining. COVID-19 caution fatigue is real, with “months of isolation and anxiety” having “drained people of their motivation, causing many to become less strict” about following CDC guidelines. (Northwestern Medicine: Do You Have COVID-19 Caution Fatigue?) A Yahoo! News survey of registered voters conducted by YouGov in mid-October found that people are “far more likely to have noticed failures to properly protect against coronavirus when committed by others than by themselves,” possibly contributing to a false sense of security. (YouGov: “I’m following COVID rules properly, but other people aren’t,” say half of voters) And basic safety measures, such as wearing a mask or limiting indoor gatherings, have become highly politicized, with people disregarding or openly flouting executive orders in some states. These factors and others force communities and medical providers to grapple with significant public health implications and may also impact vaccine acceptance and eventual herd immunity.
Combine the holiday season with already increasing infections, overconfidence in one’s own safety adherence, nine months of isolation from friends and extended family, the double whammy of pandemic + holiday stress, flu season, the overwhelming (and understandable) desire for many to find joy somehow, vaccine suspicion, and herd immunity still months away, and you can see why it’s imperative to maintain vigilance when it comes to employee and customer safety.
Before I continue… I get it. We’re all tired, and we’ve been seeing the same messaging for many months. That there are people still not adhering to basic safety protocols means there’s room to improve engagement and compliance. Not everyone will be convinced, but—like a political campaign—effective communications can help sway the “undecideds.” So how do we mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible and prepare for the vaccine rollout and post-pandemic shift while continuing to engage our employees and customers?
COVID-19 Safety Communications
The good news is that your communications can take a more optimistic tone. With vaccine approvals in place, there is light at the end of the (long) tunnel.
- Measure the effectiveness of your communications: Year-end is a good time to measure the effectiveness of your comprehensive communications strategy against your goals. Analyze both qualitative and quantitative feedback to uncover the “why” behind the numbers. Look at your messages, tone, channels, cadence, audiences, and engagement. Your communications and marketing teams will want this data to evaluate all the hard work they’ve done this year!
- Look for ways to improve content, delivery, and engagement: We’ve been in crisis mode for nine months, likely using the same communications for policies, notifications, customer messaging, and contact tracing. People tune out when they see the same message over and over.
- If your communications contain a lot of educational content—which was critical at the beginning of the pandemic—consider shortening your messages and linking to educational or background information.
- Where can you use infographics, images, animation, charts, illustrations, GIFs, Memes, videos, user-generated content, or other visual assets? Visuals help simplify your message, amplify its impact and retention, and make sure it gets noticed. Highlight your safety measures visually and be sure to note any pre-pandemic images.
- Emotions are the highway to the brain, so evoke positive emotions such as hope, caring, teamwork, and empathy. Don’t take an overly celebratory tone, as many people have experienced significant loss and hardship during the pandemic.
- Emphasize continued safety measures: Face masks, social distancing, hand washing, contact tracing, and quarantining are all effective at reducing the risk of contracting the virus. Even with mass vaccinations, safety measures such as face masks may be around for a while. High risk and priority populations are being vaccinated first, and scientists are still researching if those who are vaccinated can transmit COVID-19. (NYT: Here’s Why Vaccinated People Still Need to Wear a Mask)
Vaccine Rollout and Policies
Much remains in flux about vaccine rollout, and companies will have to navigate this ambiguity well into 2021 or longer. Regardless, companies can make important HR and vaccination decisions now and prepare communications in advance to quickly and effectively vaccinate employees when the time comes. (Note: I am not giving legal or financial advice. Please consult with the appropriate experts for your organization.)
- Partner with local health departments, benefit plans, healthcare providers, and related organizations will be key to determine what works best for your organization. Vaccine availability, supply chain, logistics, and prioritization will play a role in when, how, and where your employees can get vaccinated.
- The COVID-19 vaccine is a very positive development that can help companies improve worker and customer safety while regaining their business and financial footing, yet it also presents important legal and HR issues. Companies will need to look at the role they play in vaccinating their employee populations and if they should require vaccines. This article, Gartner: 5 Questions Business Leaders Should Ask as COVID-19 Vaccines Roll Out, outlines excellent points to consider. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides helpful guidance on its website, addressing several issues related to COVID-19. (EEOC: What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws).
Reopening Plans… Finally!
Remember those reopening plans we eagerly created last spring? Time to dust them off! Many things have changed since those first drafts, so be sure to update the following:
- How have your locations changed during the pandemic? Have you closed or moved work sites? Do you need to reconfigure or add space to allow for social distancing?
- What does re-entry look like for your employees, how will you phase people in, and what remote/in-office work policies will your company embrace long term? How can you leverage these policies in terms of recruitment and retention? What tools do remote employees need to be most effective?
- What safety measures will you continue for employees and customers over the next 12-24 months (or longer)?
- What budget shifts are needed to ensure safe employee and customer environments, support remote workers, provide ongoing vaccine and related COVID-19 resources, meet changing consumer habits, and communicate with your stakeholders?
- How will you leverage communications to inform, engage, and earn the trust of your employees and customers throughout this process? A strong communication program will include:
- A continued commitment to safety and wellbeing, in terms of physical and mental health.
- Clear information on services, protocols, policies, and expectations.
- Adequate time for employees to plan and adjust to returning to work.
- Continued improvement of the new services, like drive-up, customers love most.
- Additional support for leaders and HR business partners to help them guide teams through this transition.
- Frequent measurement and feedback mechanisms, with transparent communications about what the company has heard and how it will improve.
- An ample dose of patience. Shifting into lockdown wasn’t easy and shifting out will present new challenges.
- Recognition and appreciation for the extraordinary contributions of your team and support from your customers.
Communicating with your teams and customers remains paramount during this extended crisis. With the right experts, tools, and strategies, you can improve employee engagement, increase customer loyalty, drive business innovation, and—most importantly—help everyone have a happy, healthy new year.
Can we help you?
Bryghtpath has developed crisis management programs, business continuity programs, COVID-19 plans, and advised many Fortune 500, non-profit, and public sector organizations on their COVID-19 response efforts. Our firm has more than a century of experience in developing actionable plans to help prepare organizations for the unexpected.
Our expertise includes crisis communications and emergency procedures, and we’d love to help empower your management team and advise on the best practices to handle the recovery of your business operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Contact us today at +1.612.235.6435, reach out via our contact form, or click here to set up an initial call with our team.
About the Author: Lena Michaud
Lena is a communications executive with 25 years of experience in the areas of public relations, crisis communications, media training, internal communications, change management, and speech writing and coaching.
She previously held leadership roles at Target Corporation, Optum (UnitedHealth Group), Cargill, and JCPenney, and has nearly 15 years of experience in the retail industry. Lena has served as a media spokesperson on critical issues in the areas of public affairs, social issues and activism, safety and security, corporate governance, human resources, and litigation, and most recently led communications related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She holds a B.A. in political science from Northwestern University and an advanced marketing certification from Southern Methodist University.
Learn more about Lena on her LinkedIn Profile