By: Rachel Heisterkamp
Before you assume that communicating about the COVID-19 vaccine is not a responsibility of the private sector, or that employees are getting their information from other sources, think again. According to a 2021 Edelman survey, “my employer” was the most trusted institution by 18 points over business in general and NGOs, and by 27 points over government and media. In other words, countless employees are relying on their employers – over the news, over the CDC or other health institutions, and over their social media communities – for reliable information about the pandemic, and what to do next.
Your communications in this time are absolutely vital. In the U.S. and internationally, vaccines are starting to be mandated in certain sectors such as healthcare, education, and more. But in most cases, when these decisions are not put in place by local or state governments, it’s up to individual businesses to make a judgment call. And it’s trickier than it sounds – especially when it comes to communicating your decisions to your workforce.
Many employers may have already started communications about a return-to-work plan – or maybe their rollout has been delayed (again), which means a whole new set of messaging is needed. Other companies may be in a position where on-site workers haven’t slowed their usual operations since March 2020, while corporate staff has moved completely virtual, and guidelines now need to be made crystal clear. Every organization likely has a set of unique circumstances, which means there is no single set of tips that will work for everyone. And there are new developments every day, such as President Biden’s recent action plan that requires companies with 100 employees or more to ensure their workers are either vaccinated or test negative weekly for COVID-19.
As you move forward with communications around COVID-19 policies, return-to-work management, and maintaining the equity and morale of your workforce, here are some guiding principles you might consider:
Map Out Employee Segments & Their Risk Levels
It’s the priority of any company, especially in the high-stress environment that we’re all in, to ensure the health and safety of their employees. The organizations that have the ability to move their employees to a remote work environment have done so, but there are also plenty of sectors, companies, and locations where “going remote” is simply not an option, even in the most creative or scrappy of times. For companies where some in-person, on-site work is not negotiable, the idea of communicating COVID-related health and safety guidelines for employees is tricky and hard to navigate.
In light of the U.S. government’s newest action plan, you may already have a new set of rules you’re planning to roll out in the near future. But, it’s important to your workforce that additional plans you make – such as a return-to-work mandate or mask policy – is contextualized for the amount of risk your employee groups face. And, you’ll need a comprehensive internal communications plan to support the decision you’re making in case of any negative feedback or impact on morale.
No matter what you’re mandating or asking of your workforce, it’s critical that the underlying message in any of your communications is that your employees’ health is your top priority, and keeping your people, their families, and their communities safe is the driving force behind any of these decisions.
Be Clear About Employees’ Health & Safety Options
As mentioned above, your word as an employer means a great deal to your workforce, and holds a lot of weight. Demonstrate that you trust your people to make their own health-related decisions, and at the same time make a clear, strong statement about what’s being required on a company-wide level. Employees that seek follow-up information or have questions about your guidelines or requests should have clear and easy avenues for feedback and conversation. The less tension – and the more open communication – in this process, the smoother it will go for everyone.
That being said, this communications process will almost certainly leave some employees feeling singled out or sidelined. It’s important that your communications team has resources – FAQs, email messaging, risk guidelines – at the ready so they’re prepared to answer questions in a unified way while still having the room to be empathetic to individual situations.
Lead with Data, but Anticipate Emotions
There’s no getting around the fact that, for many employees around the world, the subject of mandating or encouraging vaccines will strike a tricky chord. Throughout America and many other countries, there’s a dramatic range of views around the COVID-19 vaccine – from complete trust, to slight trepidation, to deep anxiety, and much more. Your thoughtfulness, empathy, and patience when it comes to employees’ potential emotional responses will help you that much more in follow-up meetings and subsequent conversations. While it’s important to be clear about company expectations and policies, there is always space for understanding differing points of view. To do this well, equip your people managers with the resources they need to have meaningful conversations that leave everyone feeling heard – while still putting safety and health at the forefront.
As an employer, your messaging around COVID-19 health and safety policies makes a big impact – it’s important that your communications team takes this responsibility seriously and executes a strong, clear, empathetic message on behalf of your company. Building a comprehensive internal communications plan will help this process go more smoothly, and while it likely won’t be a perfect or easy process for any organization, the guidelines above can help you get started.