Quick Tips! Communicating with Employees During a Crisis

Videos March 17, 2020

When the COVID-19 crisis first hit news headlines, colleges were focused on making sure students knew what was going on and helping them transition to online classes. Now, it’s time to shift the focus to your employees and address their concerns. In this Quick Tips! video, Cheryl Broom offers advice on how your college can better communicate with your employees during this time of emergency. 


Hi, I’m Cheryl Broom, president of Interact Communications, and today I am coming to you from my kitchen counter, where I’ve been working for the past couple of days. It’s been about a week since the president declared a national emergency in response to the coronavirus, and in the past couple of days a lot has changed for our communities and for our colleges. I’ve been getting a lot of calls and emails from colleagues across the nation, asking for some guidance and some help on how to best communicate with employees. I think that during the first week or two of this crisis, we were really focused on making sure our students knew what was going on, and getting their classes moved to online, and once school districts, K-12 school districts, started closing down across the country, we had to shift our focus to our employees.

What did it mean for employees who now have to stay home because their children have nowhere to go during the day? Big questions our campuses are having to answer. How do we move technology into people’s homes? What about technology that’s protected, that has student information that shouldn’t be moved out of campus? How can we continue to serve our missions if our employees are scared, and our employees don’t know what’s coming up? Well, here’s a couple tips that I’ve been thinking about to more effectively communicate with your employees during this time of emergency. First of all, you have to be proactive. I know our colleges like to study, and we can be very slow in responding even during emergencies, because we want to make sure we’re saying the right thing. But it’s okay, if you don’t know what’s happening, to still communicate.

It’s perfectly okay to be honest with your employees, and to let them know that their safety, that their employment is top of mind, that you’re working on it, that you know that they’re frustrated, that you don’t have all the answers for them right now, but you’re working on it, and you will be communicating with them regularly. That you’re confident in the leadership team of your college, and that you know that the decisions that will be made are going to be good decisions, decisions that will take care of employees and will keep them safe and informed. So be proactive and don’t wait to have all the answers before you start communicating to employees. Also, realize that your employees are just like everybody else. They’re going to go to social media. They’re going to be talking about the crisis, and if you’re not communicating with them, they’re going to be filling in the gaps in that communication with kind of whatever’s in their mind at that moment, and they can carry that message out into the community. So you want to make sure that you’re giving them things that they can communicate with confidence. So, if that’s something as simple as, “This is what we’re doing today, we’re having an emergency board meeting. We’re going to be talking about our stay at home policies. We’re going to be talking about what’s happening next week.” Just let them know that, and then follow up with communication later that has some more actionable items that you can actually share with them. You might want to consider making a special page on your coronavirus update page, your website, just for employees, that has information about sick leave, catastrophic leave, information on your policies, login information for important software, tools, help desks where they can go to find tutorials on things that they’ve never done before, how to use communication tools like Slack if you’re going to be implementing things like that on your campus. So, set up a separate page just for your employees. Also, I know we rely a lot on email, and sometimes recorded messages to communicate with our employees. But now is a great time to get your college superintendent or your president in front of a camera, and addressing your college through video, so that they can look at them and you can see the emotionality, the empathy, the concern that your leader has. Right now, I’m recording this Quick Tips! on a $15 tripod and my phone. So it’s not difficult to set that up in an office, and to record your president making some sort of announcement to your employees, letting them know that they’re working on measures that will keep them safe, protected, and the confidence they have in the leadership of your college. Use video, it’s a lot times more powerful than email can ever be. But if that’s not available to you, then use the tools that are. So, there’s a lot going on right now. I’m happy to take questions, emails, comments, ideas. Us at Interact are trying to put together a series of information just to help our communicators across the country be better prepared for what comes next. Start thinking about what’s coming next, and don’t stop thinking about your employees. I hope that you took away something useful in this Quick Tips!, and as always, Interact is here to serve you, and we will be in touch with more information in the upcoming days. Thank you so much. Talk to you soon.