Businesses: Think of Reopening as a Major Change Initiative

As a general rule, people do not like change.  We do not like disruption.  And coronavirus has been the most disruptive force in our lifetimes, hands down. 

Individuals have different physical, mental and emotional capacities for ambiguity and significant change. Once our change “sponge” is full, we have reached our capacity and dysfunction may then set in absent strategies to build resilience and coping skills.  Recognizing that is the first step in building a reopening plan and communications strategy to support it. Effective communications are a critical component of any successful change.

First and always, communications plans must be created and executed with empathy and compassion. Each person will have different concerns and viewpoints about what has transpired.  How the organization treats each individual and manages its reopening will become public knowledge and may have a lasting impact on the reputation of the company and its leaders.

Be honest and direct. Do not sugarcoat things.

Listen at least as much as you talk. It is ok to say “we don’t know yet” so long as you can assure stakeholders that you will share information as quickly as possible.

Start with the basics.  It has been said before, and I will say it again:  you cannot over communicate.  Talk early and often. Repeat messages over and over. You cannot put out a message just once and expect that everyone received it, understood it, and is ready to change their thinking or behavior upon it.

Make sure that safety and security of employees, customers and other stakeholders are at the top of the priority list.

Communicate clearly and frequently about what you are doing. Establish a communications schedule and stick to it. If you do not have decisions you can talk about, then talk about the process and timing to make decisions.

Employees rightly are your first communications priority. Business leaders will have to rebuild trust with employees such that they feel that it is safe for them to return to their workspaces. They have to feel that you are doing everything possible to protect them. If they do not believe in what you are doing, that skepticism will rub off on everyone with whom they interact.

As you think through operational plans, start by listening to staff concerns. We all have been talking about “the new normal,” but we are not yet sure what that really means.  Tell stakeholders that your plans will evolve and change as new information becomes available.

Consider short surveys or virtual focus groups to learn employees’ concerns, and to help them feel like they have a voice in the process. There are free tools available online to conduct simple surveys and hold video calls with small groups.

Provide every employee with a detailed safety plan to help instill confidence that leadership has their health and safety uppermost in planning and execution of the reopening.

Recognize that a return to some form of ‘normal’ may not be linear.  You will have to set new expectations for how people interact with one another in the close proximity of retail establishments, offices and public work spaces. Staff will need training and will need to be armed with information to answer questions from customers and other stakeholders. Senior leaders must model the behaviors expected from staff. 

Customers will have the same kinds of expectations but they may also want to know how you are protecting your employees. Corporate social responsibility efforts, which recently have been focused on community support, should also recognize that customers care about the employees they interact with at your company.  Employees who feel safe and respected will convey that same sense of well being to customers. In turn, customers who feel that the company is taking care of “their own” will reward your efforts with return business.

#changemanagement #crisiscommunications #covid19communications #businessreopenings

Deb Hileman, SCMP

Deb Hileman, SCMP

President and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management