Alan Hosking is the publisher of HR Future magazine, and an expert in preparing people and companies for the future of work. The Planner Guru spoke to him for his advice on how employers and employees can best navigate the challenging conversations that need to take place about COVID-19 and its impacts.
The Planner Guru (TPG): COVID-19 has created a lot of uncertainty. How important do you think it is for companies to communicate with their staff about what is happening – even when they do not have any specific information to share?
Alan Hosking (AH): While communication has always been important at the best of times, in times of uncertainty, it’s even more important for leaders to communicate proactively – and regularly – with their people.
An absence of communication causes employees to jump to their own conclusions and jump they do. That’s when the grapevines and rumour mills get out of hand and cause damage through misinformation and so-called fake news being spread as people are left to draw their own conclusions.
“An absence of communication causes employees to jump to their own conclusions and jump they do. That’s when the grapevines and rumour mills get out of hand.”
An absence of communication also triggers suspicion and mistrust. Prevention is better than cure, so companies should make a point of communicating with their people on a predictable basis and in a predictable way, as predictability engenders trust and security. If staff know when to expect communication from their leaders, and they receive it as and when expected, they feel that their leaders know what they’re doing and that things are under control. This results in a higher level of confidence and comfort – despite the general discomfort.
TPG: Jobs are on the line, and measures such as reduced hours are being introduced. There is obviously a lot of fear and anxiety about job losses. What advice would you give someone in terms of how to have conversations about this with their staff?
AH: Accept that, as a business owner or leader, you have to have these conversations. Prepare for it so that you know what you need to say, and why, then do so with courage and compassion. When the chips are down, people appreciate good, old fashioned honesty. The circumstances that led to the need for the conversation were not the fault of anybody in the company, so be gentle, be kind and be practical. Don’t burn any bridges.
It’s also important to have developed a survival strategy that is fair to all. There’s nothing worse than being challenged on a decision and not being able to defend the decision in an objective way because it is not based on fair principles. Compassion is critically important. Some leaders think that compassion is a sign of weakness. It’s not. It’s a sign of emotional maturity. Approaching this conversation in a hard hearted way because you feel uncomfortable about it is simply destructive and closes doors rather than leaving them open.
“Some leaders think that compassion is a sign of weakness. It’s not. It’s a sign of emotional maturity.”
If there are implications in terms of the Labour Relations Act, it’s best to seek the advice of a legal practitioner who can advise you on the options available to employer and employee, and on how to manage the process correctly so that there are no unpleasant comebacks simply because correct procedures weren’t followed.
TPG: What would you advise an employee in terms of how to broach a conversation with their boss if they are not being told anything right now?
AH: As any musician will tell you, timing is critical. You might know the right note to play but if you play it at the wrong time – disaster. If as an employee you want to get a considered and appropriate response from your boss, it’s best to wait for the right time to speak to him or her and not catch them unawares or in the middle of something. It’s a good idea to ask them when would be a good time to chat to them. If they ask what it’s about, you can simply say that there are a couple of uncertainties you would like clarified and wondered when they had a quiet moment for you to chat to them.
When you have the conversation, try not to allow your emotions to get the better of you so you become aggressive, as that won’t help the situation at all.
TPG: Is staff morale and wellbeing important at a time like this? And if so, do you have any simple suggestions on how they could be improved?
AH: Staff morale and wellbeing have never been more important. As people are being forced to work remotely, they are all going on a steep learning curve. Employees need to learn how to manage their time and workload while they also manage children’s home schooling. Team leaders are having to learn how to keep in touch with staff who are not in the office. At a time like this, it’s easy for morale to plummet because of all the additional challenges and stress that goes with them.
“At a time like this, it’s easy for morale to plummet because of all the additional challenges and stress.”
Morale and wellbeing are determined by team leaders so it’s vital that they make a point of projecting positive energy at a time like this. One of the ways is to welcome the remote working situation that has been forced on everyone as it provides an opportunity for everyone to try it out.
Leaders need to send messages that build confidence in their staff, display understanding when they receive complaints about how difficult it is and offer what practical advice and support they can under the circumstances. Understand that, if an employee is expressing frustration that they can’t get their work done, there’s a good side to that – they’re actually WANTING to get their work done! Recognise that for what it is and be their cheerleader during these uncomfortable times. Instil a confidence in their ability to cope and do what is required of them to do.