How to communicate COVID-19 working patterns

Is your company encouraging employees to work from home or self-isolate due to COVID-19?

What advice and guidance are you giving them? How are you working alongside your HR colleagues to make sure your people know what to do?

How can teams keep in touch with each other if working patterns change?

So many questions.

Now is the time to settle, reassure and communicate with employees. Make sure you have two-way communication methods in place and you’re actively listening to employees’ concerns, rumours and questions.

I’ve written on my blog numerous times over the past 11 years about the need for authentic, honest and transparent communication inside our organisations. Now is the time where this needs to happen. If you were waiting for the right time, this is it.

The mindset you need? Providing certainty, clarity and consistency.

If you don’t have a working group set up already with HR, IT and Legal colleagues, create this guiding coalition today. Having the decision makers and sign-offs working cohesively together not only makes your life easier as a professional communicator, it helps minimise time delays in getting the right information to the right people at the right time to allow them to make smart decisions and check their understanding.

Further reading: Coronavirus advice via ACAS.

11 March update: I’ve just read the term self-isolate may be replaced with stay at home. That feels like a victory for plain English and common sense comms!

You need your leaders to be visible, even if it’s virtually visible (I’m planning to write more on this topic in future).

Through this blog post I’m going to share some ideas with you about communicating with team members. I’ll also highlight some examples and resources.

Free crisis communication guide: See my recent article to access my crisis communication guide. You can also watch me talk through it below:

The World Health Organization has published advice on getting your workplace ready for COVID-19 in case it arrives in your community.

It includes:

  1. Simple ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in your workplace
  2. How to manage COVID-19 risks when organising meetings and events
  3. Things to consider when you and your employees travel
  4. Getting your workplace ready in case COVID-19 arrives in your community.

See their website to access the full advice and guidance.


What to do if an employee becomes ill with suspected COVID-19 at one of your workplaces

According to the World Health Organization, you need to develop a plan of what to do if someone becomes ill with suspected COVID-19 at one of your workplaces.

Their advice is:

  • The plan should cover putting the ill person in a room or area where they are isolated from others in the workplace, limiting the number of people who have contact with the sick person and contacting the local health authorities.
  • Consider how to identify people who may be at risk and support them without inviting stigma and discrimination into your workplace. This could include people who have recently travelled to an area reporting cases, or other employees who have conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness (e.g. diabetes, heart and lung disease, older age).
  • Tell your local public health authority you are developing the plan and seek their input.

According to ACAS, it’s good practice for employers to:

  • keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace
  • make sure everyone’s contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date
  • make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes, for example sickness reporting and sick pay, and procedures in case someone in the workplace develops the virus
  • make sure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap, and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly
  • provide hand sanitiser and tissues for staff, and encourage them to use them
  • consider if protective face masks might help for people working in particularly vulnerable situations
  • consider if any travel planned to affected areas is essential.

Further reading: access the full advice and guidance from ACAS.

How to communicate self-isolation and working from home

Tip: If you have not introduced working from home yet or have people who are self-isolating, it’s worth thinking this through in case they become a reality for your organisation, wherever you are in the world.

Why? In my experience, it’s far better to do scenario planning and message creation during ‘quiet’ times than when you’re under pressure and up against deadlines from stakeholders.

I know it’s not quiet for any Comms practitioner right now(!), but if you haven’t been doing scenario planning e.g. shutting sites, cancelling events etc, you may want to grab a cup of tea and a notebook and start mapping out ideas.

You need to be clear on the terminology – there’s a difference between working from home and self-isolation. Make sure it’s clear inside your organisation.

There will always be situations where it’s hard/impossible for certain employees to work from home.

Childcare assistants, train drivers, retail colleagues and medical professionals for example, cannot take their work home with them. However, if you have scenarios where your employees can continue working from home, I recommend thinking through what you’re communicating with them.

Tip: Work alongside your IT and HR colleagues to make sure your people managers know how/when to grant permission and know what equipment/access employees need to your systems.

Advita Patel, CIPR Inside Chair told me today: “Internal communication practitioners are working incredibly hard at the moment and it is at times like this where many practitioners can demonstrate the value good IC practice can bring to an organisation.

“But during times of crisis, it’s critical that IC pros look after their own wellbeing and ask for help when needed. We’ve advised countless members and given support where we can. I know others have done the same, which is one of the reasons I love our IC community – the support we give each other.”

Further reading: See Advita’s blog post about frontline workers: Top tips for communicating with frontline/remote workers during COVID-19 and see the CIPR Inside website.

What are others doing?

I had a conversation with a client today who gave me permission to share how they’re communicating with their team: “I’ve put in a 15 minute video call check-in into my team’s diaries for each day – just so we can say ‘hello’ and [hopefully still] feel part of a team. We’re also going to look at ‘virtual coffee breaks’ so if you’re working from home, you don’t miss out on the team camaraderie away from your screen. We’re also sense checking our channel strategy so we have a plan on how to increase our digital comms over our face-to-face comms.”

Thank you Padraic Knox @padraic_knox who Tweeted this to me @AllthingsIC today: ‘We had a global webinar this morning with members of our response team. We put ourselves out there for questions and (were) upfront and honest about our response.It’s quelled a lot of noise and queries despite numerous comms recently. We covered Medical, Business Continuity planning and People (e.g home working). Importantly we called out clearly how ppl keep abreast of latest advice/guidance. Top of Intranet and dedicated Workplace channel. Critical updates via email.”

Further reading: Advice on the COVID-19 outbreak via the International Association of Business Communicators, IABC.

Tip: See 15 questions you need to know the answers to – this includes knowing arrangements for people who are unable to come to work.

Note: Most of the advice in this article relates to the UK, but I’ve included global resources too. Refer to your country-specific advice or see the World Health Organization or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Sources to keep an eye on

Looking for crisis comms advice? Download my free crisis communication guide.

I feel the need to bust some jargon.

Working from home is self-explanatory.

What is self-isolation?

According to Public Health England, self-isolation is about protecting others and slowing down the spread of COVID-19.

Their website states: “It is very important that anyone who has the virus, or might have been exposed to it, limits the number of people they come into contact with for 14 days. This is the most effective way of preventing the coronavirus from spreading. If you are asked to self-isolate, it is important that you follow the advice which is there to help keep you, your loved ones, and your community safe.”

You can find the poster above and many more resources via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website including print resources.

According to the NHS, if you have been told to self-isolate, you need to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people for 14 days.

It is important to follow the advice for the whole period, even if you do not have any symptoms.

Below you’ll find the self-isolation advice on the National Health Service (NHS) website. Refer to it directly in case the information I’ve highlighted changes.

Working from home – communication tips

If you are managing a team who are all working from home, there are lots of practical things you can do to keep in touch with each other and keep the lines of communication open.

Further reading: I wrote a post the other day about using technology to communicate with employees during COVID-19, which includes advice for virtual events or team meetings.

If colleagues aren’t used to working from home, see below for some wellbeing tips.

You could make use of functionality such as SharePoint’s email a news digest feature to collate and created a targeted channel to keep people managers updated for example. Remember you need to be encouraging two-way communication methods, so make sure you’re inviting questions and encouraging them to get in touch.

Further reading: Watch Martin Brooks’ video re: using teleconferencing to communicate because of COVID-19.

Mental health and wellbeing during self-isolation

The Mental Health Foundation has shared the following advice: “If there’s a chance you could have coronavirus, you may be asked to stay away from other people (self-isolate).

For people that are in self-isolation or are in quarantine, this may seem like a daunting prospect. It will help to try and see it as a different period of time in your life, and not necessarily a bad one, even if you didn’t choose it.

“It will mean a different rhythm of life, a chance to be in touch with others in different ways than usual. Be in touch with other people regularly on social media, e-mail or on the phone, as they are still good ways of being close to the people who matter to you.

“Create a daily routine that prioritises looking after yourself. You could try reading more or watching movies, having an exercise routine, trying new relaxation techniques, or finding new knowledge on the internet. Try and rest and view this as a new if unusual experience, that might have its benefits.   

Make sure your wider health needs are being looked after such as having enough prescription medicines available to you.”

Further reading: See the Mental Health Foundation website.

Working from home – five wellbeing tips for employees

I have some suggested wording for you to share with your workforce. Thank you to one of my clients who sent me what they’re communicating inside their organisation, you can see it below…

“Thanks to technology and smart working principles, smart working is already an option for many of our people. In light of the current circumstances, we’re encouraging the use of smart working wherever possible. While smart working really supports those who need more flexible schedules, it could present some challenges to your health and wellbeing if you’re not careful.

We therefore want to ensure you make time for self-care by considering these five ways to stay healthy while you’re working from home.

1 Think posture and workstations

Good posture is important. Spending a prolonged period of time working on a laptop or a tablet with poor posture can be harmful to your musculoskeletal health. It’s also not healthy for your eyes to be glued to a computer screen all day. Make time during every hour spent on your computer to close your eyes for a few minutes or look at something else to make sure you’re not straining them.

2 Keep moving

In the office you’re far more likely to move away from your desk to attend meetings, head out for lunch or speak with colleagues. It’s important to keep active, particularly when working from home so don’t forget to stretch your body between periods of sittings and walk around where possible when on the phone.

3 Set a schedule

It can be difficult to establish a set schedule when you’re working from home, because, if you need to, you can just keep working. However, try thinking of your work-from-home hours the same way you do office hours. Choose a start time, lunch break and finish time that you stick to as closely as possible so you can maintain a healthy work-life balance.

4 Communication is key

Without regular interaction with office colleagues, it can get a little lonely working from home. Develop a support system of colleagues, friends or family you can chat with online every now and then or call when you need to talk about a work-related accomplishment or setback.

5 Stock up on healthy snacks and drinks

You might be tempted to eat whatever unhealthy foods you have in your kitchen when you’re working from home, but resist the temptation. Pack yourself a bag full of healthy snacks as if you’re headed into the office, and keep a water bottle handy to sip from throughout the day.”

Further reading about working from home

I hope this is helpful.

Thank you for stopping by


First published on the All Things IC blog 10 March 2020.















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