Opinion: Taking care of your team during a crisis

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A couple of years ago, I was sitting at my desk on what seemed like a normal day in the office, writes Emi Kamezaki. Within a few hours of my arrival at work, a light rain shower quickly escalated into a tropical storm, then a full-fledged hurricane. My entire organization jumped into action, working to address the many stakeholders in our hospitality organization’s operation, especially our guests, but nobody thought to focus on the thousands of employees who were also concerned about their own safety.

In this case, the hurricane ended up passing over our area, leaving behind only limited power outages, fallen trees and some minor flooding, but the situation uncovered important gaps in our ability to communicate with our team. In this moment, we realized most contact information was out-of-date, leaving us without an efficient way to immediately contact the majority of our frontline workforce.

If you’ve never experienced something like this in the office, you may not have considered how crises impact your workforce, and how critical employees are in a crisis situation. Often, it isn’t until we are in the midst of chaos that we realize employees are a key stakeholder and need to be addressed.

Diffusing issues before they become crises

Beyond natural disasters, it’s important to establish clear lines of communication and ensure that employees are considered in all types of crisis planning. From shifts in the company’s strategic vision to brand reputation issues, it’s human nature to seek information in any period of change – your employees are no exception. When questions are left unanswered, emotions become heightened, and your employees may be unsure of their path forward.

In fact, intentional internal communications strategies can help mitigate risk and diffuse issues before they escalate. Many organizations learned this lesson the hard way over the past couple of years, as the Covid-19 pandemic completely redefined the way we do business. Some organizations are at odds with their employees over returning to the office and even the fundamental idea of what an employee’s experience should be. However, something as simple as announcing decisions publicly to the media, for example, a vaccine mandate, before informing one’s own teams, can lead to major backlash.

While it’s impossible to anticipate every crisis, you should have a clear understanding of where your employees land within your communications cascade, and the best channels through which to reach them. That way you’ll know where to start when the unexpected occurs.

Take these steps to ensure you’re able to care for your employees during a crisis.

Develop a baseline strategy now

The best time to plan for a crisis is when you feel the business is secure, so seize the opportunity to organize your approach now. Start by mapping out the various groups within your workforce, considering frontline employees who don’t have access to traditional channels such as company email. Ideally, this will take shape as a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) – a step-by-step guide that anyone in the organization, regardless of department or title, can pick up and execute. Include components such as the internal review process, channel strategy and the communications cascade. Will you share information with managers first? Will you send out a companywide announcement? The best approach depends on your employees’ communications habits and the level of urgency. 

Communicate quickly and often

Just as we create standby statements for external crisis communications, it’s important to do the same for your internal stakeholders. There’s nothing worse than unanswered questions as the mind tends to assume the worst. Even if you don’t have the complete story or a fully baked solution, let your employees know that they’re not alone. A simple “we are gathering additional information and will share updates with you as available,” can go a long way.

Make sure the leadership team embraces the communications strategy

The traditional approach to employee communications is centered around sharing “need to know” information only. Make sure the leadership team shares a vision for how transparent employee communications should be. Employees want to hear from their leaders, especially during challenging times, so they will benefit from having a prior understanding of this stakeholder group.

While there’s no perfect, all-encompassing, crisis communications plan, having some basic processes in place can make your job significantly easier when issues arise. Employees are your most important asset, and they need to be a central consideration in any issue or crisis plan. 

Emi Kamezaki is a senior account supervisor of corporate communications at twelvenote agency, a Lippe Taylor Group Company, in New York, where she shapes communications roadmaps for clients across different industries. She focuses on providing strategic counsel, driving thought leadership programs and strengthening corporate culture with a focus on DE&I. A demonstrated leader who thrives in collaborative environments, Kamezaki coaches team-mates to exceed goals and overcome new challenges.