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Communicating with employees during re-entry

While leaders may not know all the answers, if they communicate openly and candidly, employees will respect being brought into the conversation.
Ana Mendy

Helps organizations proactively prepare for adverse events, respond to crises, and transform their culture, with a focus on crisis response, diversity, inclusion, culture, and change management

As organizations plan for re-entry and recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders have an opportunity to engage and strengthen overall connections with employees. Recognizing and addressing the core human emotions of grief, loss, and anxiety in the workplace offer a chance to rebuild organizational health, productivity, and talent retention.

Clear and inspiring communication is central to re-entry success. In addition to moving decisively on strategic changes, leaders must help rattled workforces believe in the future.

Four overlapping phases of communication messaging and activity can help employees transition from loss to renewal. Leaders should design the right approach toward communicating for their organization’s circumstances, culture, and history by taking the steps outlined below.

Phase One: Lay the groundwork with sensitivity to employees’ needs.

Leaders must understand where employees are mentally and prepare for re-entry accordingly. For example, in addition to health and safety considerations, employees are facing long-term uncertainty around lockdowns and job insecurity.

Practical steps that leaders should take in this phase include:

  • Surveying employees regularly
  • Making return planning processes transparent
  • Offering information about the practicalities of re-entry
  • Soliciting feedback from all stakeholders on a recurring basis
  • Clarifying how employees can get their questions addressed

Phase Two: Honor the past by addressing emotions directly.

Employees have experienced varying degrees of trauma and loss throughout the pandemic. It is important that leaders cultivate open and compassionate conversations, validate emotional impact and that it can be discussed in the workplace, and look for ways to honor the past.

Practical steps to take include:

  • Leading conversations with individuals and teams about emotional impact
  • Taking time to celebrate and reinforce the values the company stands for and how they were demonstrated in the company’s pandemic response
  • Creating company-wide recognition efforts to honor employees
  • Creating an ecosystem where employees can maintain relationships with those who have been furloughed or lost their jobs

Phase Three: Mark the transition with the power of ritual.

COVID-19 has created unprecedented upheaval in the lives of organizations. New rituals, alongside company values and a renewed sense of purpose, can serve as pillars of psychological safety and normality.

Practical steps to take in this phase include:

  • Making the focus of communication the well-being of employees, not work
  • Setting a specific timeframe of events for the organization to pivot from past to future
  • Providing a “welcome back” kit, consisting of what employees need to navigate the new normal
  • Continuing to communicate the availability of resources and ensuring employees know where to turn for help

Phase Four: Look to the future by embracing a new sense of purpose.

Leaders can use this moment to define and demonstrate a common sense of purpose with employees. When decision makers align decision-making and communication messaging with a sense of purpose, they can support their employees’ potential at a time when it is most needed.

Practical steps include:

  • Starting or renew discussions on corporate purpose, based on discoveries from the crisis
  • Showing how this purpose feeds into strategic direction
  • Setting strategic direction in context by developing, articulating, and sharing the organization’s new or refreshed change story
  • Committing or recommitting to organizational health
  • Showcasing stories about “living your purpose”

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Recovery will challenge organizations’ communications functions to become increasingly agile—and human. While leaders may not know all the answers, if they communicate openly and candidly, employees will respect being brought into the conversation.

More about these four phases, including how to implement associated practical steps, can be found in our article, “Communications get personal: How leaders can engage employees during a return to work.”

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Career Exchange is a COVID-19 response initiative offered at no cost to companies hiring, furloughing, or laying off individuals. It is a digital talent marketplace that aims to address the mismatch of labor supply and demand, helping organizations and individuals. McKinsey & Company supports the platform as part of our commitment to safeguarding livelihoods. Learn more or visit the Career Exchange website to sign up.

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