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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

New Data Can Help Leaders Improve Communications During COVID-19

In times of crisis, leaders need to make the most of their communications with employees. Data from a new survey can help.

Business leaders are familiar with using data to improve their communication with customers: carefully choosing their target audience, customizing special offers, and learning what customers want to know. In today's COVID-19-driven environment, leaders must also focus on communications with a different target group: their own employees.

For Further Reading:

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Our firm's March 2020 survey found that 83 percent of respondents said the public health response to COVID-19 has had an impact on their organization. We know that employers are the most trusted institution after health authorities, and employer communications are considered a more credible source for COVID-19 information than the government. Knowing what to communicate and how often is a huge but important challenge. Leaders need data to know how best to address the needs and anxieties of workers amid increasing furloughs, firings, and economic uncertainty.

Although our understanding of COVID-19 continues to evolve, we can at least attempt to quantify the impact of our communications at this moment. We surveyed 454 individuals employed in the U.S. to better understand what organizations are communicating and how effective it is. This data provides helpful insight into how people think their organizations are communicating about COVID-19 and what employees want to see in the future.

An Initial Report Card

First, the good news. Organizations have been delivering on-topic communications (82 percent) using the right communications channels (85 percent) with an appropriate frequency (79 percent). Leaders have been keeping their promises (83 percent) by following through -- doing what they said they would do and communicating as promised.

Next, the less good news. Only between 63 and 66 percent of respondents said the messages they've received in the context of the pandemic were "very" or "extremely" clear, trustworthy, and appropriate in tone as well as honest and open. Satisfaction with COVID-19 communications is even lower (55 percent); only 53 percent of respondents believe communications are useful for explaining what employees should think and do.

Our survey identified specific areas where leader and employer perceptions differed significantly. For example, leaders were more likely than employees to say:

  • Communications were "very" or "extremely" trustworthy (75 percent versus 63 percent)
  • Clear (69 percent versus 62 percent)
  • Honest and open (75 percent versus 58 percent)
  • Successful at alleviating anxiety and concern (46 percent versus 33 percent)
  • Useful for communicating what employees should think and do (58 percent versus 51 percent)

Furthermore, leaders were more likely than employees to say communications were frequent enough (85 percent versus 76 percent) and clearly indicated what leaders did and did not know (29 percent to 21 percent).

What Employees Want

In navigating any issue, it is important to keep closely connected to the individuals you are communicating with. This can take a lot of the guesswork out of what to do and say.

Unfortunately, less than half of employees (43 percent, compared to 60 percent of leaders) said they believe their organization is "very" or "extremely" interested in hearing their feedback during this pandemic.

What else do employees want from their leaders' communication about COVID-19?

Given a list of choices, respondents selected:

  • Transparency about what the organization knows and doesn't know (32 percent)
  • More information about resources for emotional and mental health, including dealing with stress and anxiety (25 percent)
  • Stronger acknowledgment of the difficulty of the situation (23 percent)
  • More frequent communications (22 percent)
  • More clarity in communications (22 percent)
  • More direct acknowledgment of misinformation and/or rumors (22 percent)
  • More information about sick days, personal days, and other benefits to deal with sick family members, children at home, etc. (21 percent)

More than 200 open-ended responses shed additional light on the topics employees want help understanding. The most frequent responses fell into three broad categories:

  • Plans for the organization's future
  • The impact of the disruption on their role, work, and job security
  • The benefits (e.g., PTO policies) available to them

Employees also want to see more consistent, frequent, and direct communications from top leaders, with several respondents indicating that they were receiving inconsistent information depending on the source of the communication. Although the best frequency, structure, and source for employee communications varies for each organization's specific needs and operating environment, it is not unusual for leaders to share daily updates during the pandemic.

Tracking Effectiveness

Although most organizations have provided employees with practical information about the pandemic's immediate impact to the organization and how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leaders must consider ways to track and address employees' ongoing information needs. This is increasingly important as it becomes clear that COVID-19 is not a short-term disruption. Communicating well in this time of crisis can have the added benefit of establishing trust that can persist far into the future.

Beyond sharing information, thoughtful communication strategies (such as transparency about scenario-based plans for the long-term future of the organization, visibly self-aware and optimistic leadership, and mechanisms for feedback) may transform the relationship between leadership and employees.

We recommend that individual organizations put mechanisms in place to track how their employees are doing now, if they are receiving the information most important to them, and what organizational leaders can do differently to better meet employee needs. Establish a baseline and track changes over time, ideally via a combination of research vehicles that provide a mix of qualitative and quantitative feedback.

Survey Methodology

The survey was conducted online between March 25 and March 29, 2020; 454 employed individuals ages 18-64 completed the survey, of which 327 identified as an "employee" and 127 identified as leaders (specifically a "board member," "member of the executive leadership team," or "member of the management team"). Respondents represented organizations of all sizes; 27 percent worked in organizations with 1-50 employees, 18 percent with 51-200 employees, 20 percent with 201-1,000 employees, 14 percent with 1,001-5,000 employees, and 21 percent with over 5,000 employees. The confidence level is 95 percent with a margin of error of +/- 4.6 percent.

The full report is available at no cost and with no registration required.

About the Author

Mike Kuczkowski is CEO of Orangefiery, a consulting and communications firm focused on helping leaders and brands navigate inflection points.

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