Emergency communication with employees in times of crisis
The suddenness with which the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the global economy caught many businesses off-guard. Mild concerns about an outbreak of a strange, new disease in far-away China towards the end of 2019 had not yet escalated into a full-blown global pandemic that would force a worldwide economic shutdown barely three months later.
In South Africa, far from the epicentre of the pandemic and with barely a handful of (non-fatal) confirmed cases, businesses were still grappling with the impact of the pandemic on their global supply chains, when the government closed the country’s borders and ordered a total shutdown of all non-essential businesses and services.
“Stay safe, stay home,” was the instruction. The impact of this unprecedented turn of events on organisations as they closed their doors and sent their bewildered employees home could be likened to the entire country – indeed the entire world – having been hit simultaneously by a devastating natural disaster like a flood, cyclone, earthquake or fire. Unlike the relatively short-term regional catastrophes experienced in the past, this time there was no indication of when, how or even if things will ever return to “normal”.
Non-essential businesses in which employees could continue to do their jobs remotely, scrambled to put protocols and structures in place to enable this. However, the benefits of a suddenly transformed remote workforce potentially opened these organisations to further challenges, even devastation, from cyber attacks at worst, or breaches of standard company process management controls at best, especially when using unprotected, public communication channels.
“As the pandemic continues, uncertainty has become the only constant for businesses and organisations of all sizes, regardless of whether they are categorised as ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’,” says Elias Moreira, Product Manager for SAP People Connect 365 at SAP Digital Interconnect.
“Employees need to know whether or not to go to work, and what to expect when they get there. Managers are uncertain about what the new work requirements entail and how to deal with them on the ground. They need to be able to raise concerns with head office as they arise and obtain answers as quickly as possible. Employees need reassurance about their job or income security while management needs to be able to consult with employees about potential changes to their conditions of employment. The only way to overcome this uncertainty is to enable open, effective and efficient communication between employers and employees.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the need for companies to find ways to communicate with employees during a crisis to the fore, Moreira also points out that it’s not only natural disasters, of which the COVID-19 pandemic is one, that can result in business turmoil. Unreliable electricity and water supply issues have also become part of everyday life in South Africa, often resulting in business disruption.
“When the unexpected happens, businesses need to be prepared: they need to have a way to rapidly identify which of their employees have been impacted and to communicate with them quickly, safely and effectively in order to minimise disruptions and uncertainty,” he adds.
The best way to do this, he says, is to have a system in place that can enable intelligent, interconnected and personalised communication that doesn’t require manual calls or e-mails to individuals or groups of employees in a time of crisis.
“Integrating automated workflows and standard process management procedures into the communications system would make it possible to prevent or at least minimise drops in revenue and productivity during disruptions and disaster situations.
“In addition, sharing timely updates with employees and taking actions to minimise the impact of a crisis event will also enable employers to simultaneously fulfil their duty of care obligations to employees while ensuring employees feel engaged with the organisation, rather than isolated and unnecessarily worried during what is an already traumatic time,” Moreira says.
Uffe Jes Hansen, VP MEA at SAP Digital Interconnect, notes there are many platforms available for communicating with employees. However, he believes non-standardised or manual processes across unconnected departments, process silos and isolated call trees can hinder rather than help communications and response times across the entire organisation.
“What’s needed are systems that allow intelligent interconnectivity that bring together the people, data, syndicated risk news feeds and multichannel communications that reach employees wherever they may be via a device such as their mobile phones, which could be connected to the cloud and therefore reach those employees who may have run out of data. This will allow organisations to stay in touch, stay aware of risks and keep people safe and things running smoothly,” he adds.
Moreira cautions, however, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every organisation or even each department within the business. Although the goal of each will be the same – to ensure employees are updated and safe and to minimise disruption, the needs of each in terms of engaging with employees will be different.
“Any communications solution selected by a business should be able to accommodate these specific needs within the overall requirements of the organisation,” he concludes.
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