Tips for Internal Communication Regarding the Pandemic

When it comes to communicating decisions regarding the pandemic, leadership teams need to be transparent and direct with employees.

By Candice Warltier

Two colleagues, a man and woman, both wear masks and discuss something over coffee

Effective communication is essential to keeping employees motivated. It can build or hinder your reputation and ultimately your business performance. As an expert in strategic communications, I’ve recently seen firsthand how the pandemic has impacted organizational communication.

Executives are making decisions regarding returning to the office, vaccine mandates, and safety protocols. Most likely, they are making these decisions and communicating them over video calls.

While unemployment remains high, white-collar employees are increasingly finding themselves in the driver’s seat when it comes to how and where they work. In fact, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020, 62% of people surveyed trust their employer to respond effectively and responsibly to the coronavirus outbreak.[k1] 

Some associations have made their plans clear to employees about how they will work, while others have yet to decide, leaving employees uncertain about their future in an unstable environment. For those about to make a major announcement, I recommend a three-pronged approach.

What to Say

Before you make any major decision, ask questions, and listen.  Do you know what your employees would like their workplace to look like? What will make them feel safe to return to the office? Do they feel connected and engaged with their team? Consider conducting an employee engagement survey. Understanding your employees and demonstrating that you have listened to them is the first step.

There is no blueprint for this decision process. Some major companies have extended work from home indefinitely, while others are eager to return to the office. JPMorgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon told the Wall Street Journal in a podcast that working from home “does not work for younger people. It doesn’t work for those who want to hustle. It doesn’t work in terms of spontaneous idea generation.”

While being direct is a valued approach, communicating often and with empathy can lead to better results.

The American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology (AANA) realized early on that the back to work plan was changing as quickly as the virus was spreading. According to Eric O’Connor, chief growth officer, “We communicated to our 125 employees each step of the way. Early on we kept telling employees ‘one more month, one more month.’ In early May we decided we would reevaluate in October. Then by July, with the Delta variant spreading, we ultimately decided to push going back to work in the office to January 2022.”

How to Say it

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Words matter but so does tone and delivery. We’ve heard a lot about empathy during the pandemic for a reason. It works. According to the State of Workplace Empathy study conducted by Businessolver, workplace empathy improved over the past year but concerning gaps still exist. Results showed 68% of CEOs admitted they fear they will be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace—a 31-point increase over 2020. Also, leaders must be prepared for employee backlash. If you feel strongly that your employees should be vaccinated because you are an association representing healthcare professions, and know that some of your employees do not agree, be prepared for them to leave. 

Effective Communication

Identify your stakeholders and consider these 4 questions:

  1. What are your biggest challenges right now? And, how will they impact your stakeholders?
  2. Are you listening? Do you know where they stand on this issue?
  3. Have you communicated your plans with them effectively?
  4. How do you know they have heard you?

Prior to the shutdown of the office, the AANA held an all-staff meeting once a month. Many employees felt a disconnect during shutdown, so they implemented an all-staff meeting via Zoom where AANA’s CEO would respond to questions.

According to O’Connor, “The virtual staff meetings provided an opportunity to be open and honest, while letting the team know we were hopeful. We conducted engagement surveys to really understand how all employees felt, we processed what they were saying and then brought it back to them.”

“There were a number of times our CEO said ‘I don’t know, but I’ll tell you when I do. Our promise to you is we will listen and this will be a two-way conversation’,” he added.

As a science-based organization, American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) let science guide the approach. According to Dr. Janet Donlin, CEO, AVMA, the AVMA conducts an annual employee engagement survey but also focused on gathering employee feedback via group discussions and individual conversations to ensure they heard and understood their employees’ feelings, perspectives and needs on an ongoing basis. “Particular to COVID, our leadership team has been talking with their teams all the way through this. One thing we heard in particular was a deep concern about returning to the office and working with individuals who aren’t vaccinated, and that helped to inform our recent decision to implement the vaccine mandate this fall,” said Donlin.

Ensure you are heard

Communication is only effective if your audience takes notice, and takes the desired action. This may include in-person staff meetings, virtual meetings, email, or through the careful use of social media.  

For the AVMA, listening to member concerns about going back to work with individuals who weren’t vaccinated was the reason AVMA began to strongly encourage staff to get vaccinated. “We communicated this frequently, and even offered a $100 gift card if they provided a copy of their vaccination card. As a public health organization, we are proud that our staff is 94% vaccinated. We did very recently make the decision that vaccination will be mandated by October 12,” said Donlin.

“We have encouraged vaccines from the very beginning, because we understood the importance of ensuring the best protection for our employees, their families, our members. We also understand how important it is to keep our organization open because our staff is critical in communicating key information about the pandemic to our members who are navigating this situation as essential workers,” she added.

About the Author

Candice Warltier is a Founding Partner at the strategic communications strategy agency, CS-Effect.

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