Leading Teams in a COVID-19 World - Communicate to Build Trust

No matter how good of a job UO leaders are doing at communicating with employees through the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, your people also need to hear from you and feel that you are hearing them. When organization- wide announcements are made of changes that affect employees’ work, you need to follow those quickly with communications of your own and with calls or meetings at which your team can ask you questions. Your people will want to know what the changes mean for each of them.

Too little communication leaves an information vacuum that people tend to fill with speculation, rumor, and fear. This is a time for extra communication: more frequent, with more detail, and with more opportunities for questions and discussion.

How you handle that communication will be key to whether your people feel comfortable in following the plan and whether they are motivated to give their best work. A big part of their reaction—and how they behave moving forward—will be based on their level of trust in the organization and in you.

How can you build that trust as a manager? By communicating clearly, honestly, and often, and by taking the time to listen to your employees’ concerns. If your team members believe that you and the organization care about them as people, that you understand their work and personal needs, they are more likely to follow and give their full energy, focus, and creativity to their work. If, on the other hand, they feel that their needs—especially their health needs during the pandemic— aren’t understood or respected, they may withdraw into feelings of resentment, follow directives only reluctantly, or even consider finding other work.

Here are some ways to communicate and listen to build trust and engagement:

Communicate often

In times of rapid change and disruption, your team needs to hear from you often. Share relevant email and posted updates from the organization as they come to you. Your team may also need more frequent opportunities to discuss issues and plans together.

Stay connected with your team

Consider a schedule that includes regular check-ins for individuals and the team, including those working remotely and those who are in the workplace. Use the check-ins both to communicate casually (one human being to another) and to maintain focus on work objectives. Consider building extra time in meetings for social interactions if the team is no longer together in person. You might even schedule a weekly time just for catching up with each other, with a rule that work discussion is off limits on these calls or video conferences.

Ask, don't assume

Ask about the best times for check-ins and meetings; don’t assume what works for you will work for each of your employees. Those with children at home may have new schedule constraints, for example. Ask how employees are doing; don’t assume everything is fine. Ask how the technology you are using for meetings is working. Ask whether people understand new directives and priorities. When you ask, pause to give people time to think and respond, then listen carefully to what they say.

Frame your communication with positive messages

Even when delivering tough news, share the facts, then shine a light on the positive and hopeful aspects of the situation.

  • Choose words that inspire confidence and don’t amplify fears—while maintaining honesty and openness.
  • Keep yourself and your team focused on the present—the reality of the situation as you know it today, and what you and your team can do to make things better. Model the idea that “today we can do better.”
  • Remind your team to focus on what they control. It’s draining and unproductive for people to worry about what they can’t control.
  • Encourage a problem-solving approach on your team. Ask for ideas on different ways to get the work done. Explore cross-training opportunities to build more flexibility as to who is able to do needed work at home and in the workplace.
  • Demonstrate a calm, thoughtful, open-minded, problem-solving approach yourself.
  • Discuss with your team what you are all learning from the changes you are going through: which new work practices are effective and might be built on for further improvement; what you are learning about each other.
  • Share successes and review accomplishments with your team to keep spirits up.

Anticipate questions employees will ask and be prepared with answers

If changes are being made to where, when, and how employees are to do their work, your team members are likely to have questions about:

  • Safety protocols
  • What training is available on safety protocols and new work practices
  • What steps will be taken if an employee tests positive for COVID-19
  • How decisions are being made about who comes into the workplace and when
  • What to expect when coming back to the workplace for the first time after a period of not working or working from home
  • Whether attendance in the workplace is a request or a requirement, and the consequences of choosing not to come in
  • How specific needs will be considered, such as lack of child care or high health risk
  • Listen more than you talk so that employees know that they are heard and so that you learn what they are experiencing and thinking. As a sign of active listening, summarize what you are hearing from employees during your discussion and ask for confirmation that you have understood. Ask open-ended questions to get people talking, and make an effort to draw out team members who are holding back.
  • Share what you know, even if it’s only partial information. In a rapidly changing situation like a pandemic, even experts don’t have all the answers yet. Your organization’s leaders and you will need to make decisions based on the information you have. The more information your team has, the more confident they will feel in moving forward.
  • Be clear about your expectations. Goals and work practices may have changed dramatically. Make sure employees understand what you want from them and how you expect them to work together.
  • Avoid jargon. Employees have an extra need now for meaningful communication and will not respond well to catchphrases that don’t address their concerns.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know the answer to a question. When that happens, say that you don’t know and commit to following up. In some cases, that might be by finding the answer from someone else in your organization. In other cases, it might be by finding out where the employee can get the answer.
  • Build a culture of trust on your team by making it a safe place to express emotions and process reactions to changes and new information together.