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Retail employee with a mask during Covid-19

How to Communicate with Retail Teams During the COVID-19 Crisis

Research-Backed Tips from Experts on How to Keep Your Employees Calm, Collected, and Focused During a Global Pandemic

  • By Matthew Ritchie

Retail is no longer business as usual.

The COVID-19 crisis is taking a toll on the industry and its employees—not just physically and emotionally, but financially, too.

But despite chains closing their doors, some—like grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, and convenience stores—remain open, ramping up their operations to meet consumer needs. Others, meanwhile, are operating behind the scenes or in a limited capacity, adjusting their offerings to keep customers and products moving along.

Increasingly, retail team members are nervous about going to work (and those who do are prone to burnout). Many feel like their employers don’t have their best interests at heart.

In a time of crisis, your internal communications strategy can make or break your business. At the end of the day, stores are run by people, and the success of your stores depends on their well-being. If retail teams don’t feel supported in this time of societal change and economic upheaval, sales will grind to a halt.

By this point, you probably have a good idea of what to share with retail teams—like health and safety guidelines and official resources. But do you know the best way to do it?

As COVID-19 sweeps through the world, communicating information accurately, efficiently, and succinctly has never been so important.

Here are research-backed tips from the world’s leading experts on how to communicate with your team in a time of crisis.

 

Washing Hands during Covid-19
Photo Credit: Mélissa Jeanty

But First, What is Risk Communication?

According to the World Health Organization, risk communication refers to “the exchange of real-time information, advice, and opinions between experts and people facing threats to their health, economic or social well-being.”

The goal of risk communication is to ultimately share information that changes beliefs or behaviors that directly impact the health of yourself or others. And, due to the transactional nature of retail (and its customer-facing staff), proper risk communication is essential during the COVID-19 crisis. That’s because disseminating best practices and guidelines helps minimize the transmission of the disease amongst potential customers and current employees, who directly impact a business.

 

A Few Things to Note Before Communicating with Staff

The way people receive and process information related to risk has changed in the era of 24-hour news and widespread internet access, according to WHO:

  • Experts and authoritative sources are less trusted
  • The public increasingly seeks health advice online
  • More people are valuing opinions over well-sourced news stories

Essentially, employees are more swayed by emotions than cold hard facts. Yet stress is at an all-time high, in part because people don’t have all the answers.

What’s a business to do?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that sharing information about COVID-19 “can make an outbreak less stressful, and allow employees to not get overwhelmed and continue to function.”

With that in mind, when constructing a communication strategy with employees during the COVID-19 crisis, remember that everyone is unsure and looking for guidance. Retail leaders who understand the current climate for risk communication and consider those facts while crafting and sharing communications will increase the likelihood of being listened to and can even help relieve anxiety.

How to Communicate During the COVID-19 Crisis

 

Gather as Much Information as Possible Before Communicating with Staff

According to the WHO, “risk communication is most effective if undertaken in a systematic way, and generally starts with the gathering of information on the risk issue of concern.”

Follow local, state, provincial, and federal occupational guidelines and workplace recommendations (like those shared by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the U.S.) published by government agencies overseeing the areas your employees operate in. Keep track of any regular updates government organizations make in response to the COVID-19 crisis and how it’s evolving. Many municipalities, states, provinces, and countries are also sharing information at regularly scheduled times on government websites to keep the public aware of any updates. You can also find government-approved resources for prevention online.

 

Don’t Worry About Having All the Answers

In his Harvard Business Review article “Communicating Through the Coronavirus Crisis,” corporate communication professor Paul A. Argenti suggests employers “try to provide timely information” rather than waiting to have all the answers before communicating with employees.

That may seem counterintuitive. But, in reality, regular communication helps assuage any fears and builds trust by making employers seem honest and transparent in their decision-making, even when they don’t have the full picture.

COVID-19 (and other crises like it) evolve. It’s impossible to have all the answers right away. Focus on what’s important now, even if it’s bound to change.

“Once available information has been used to fully identify the hazards, [decide upon] and assess the appropriate risks,” according to the WHO, “then the preparation and dissemination of this information is required.”

 

Communicate with Teams Frequently

Another good point from Professor Argenti is to give regular updates, and “communicate no less than every other day.” Why? Because regular communication not only keeps employees up-to-date as the situation evolves but shows leaders are connected to their regional, field, and store teams and making smart decisions that impact employees’ health and well-being.

“By all means keep telling us what to do,” risk communication expert Peter M. Sandman advises in a piece about COVID-19, anxiety, and underreaction from public health officials. “Tell us as often and as emphatically as you can… you’re likely to think you’ve already said it ad nauseam when we haven’t yet taken it in.”

Communicating with retail teams regularly reduces stress, creates a sense of community, and reinforces recommendations and guidelines.

 

Communicate Clearly and Succinctly to Reduce COVID-19 Information Overload

If you work in a grocery store, pharmacy, convenience store, in the field, or for a chain that remains open during the COVID-19 crisis, chances are you don’t have time to read through a 30-page document—you need information that’s easy to understand, fast.

To ensure information immediately resonates with employees, experts like Argenti recommend keeping communications short.

“Be succinct,” he says. “Long turgid messages written by health professionals or lawyers will not be read or easily understood.”

Think about your intended audience when sculpting your messages—even highlight or bold individual sections for easy skimming. That way, it’s easy for employees to stay in the loop and nothing gets missed. And reduce corporate jargon—your messaging needs to feel like it’s coming from a confidant, not a corporation looking out for their bottom line.

 

Communicating with teams during Covid-19
Photo Credit: CDC/ Hannah A Bullock; Azaibi Tamin

 

Be Transparent with Employees

“Your team expects accurate, authoritative information,” says Deloitte. “They also need transparency—trying to conceal risk can potentially create more.”

So be open and honest with employees, even (and maybe especially) when you don’t have all the answers. Explain how (and why) certain decisions were made, and the thought process behind each one, and get team leads involved, so your communication is carried out correctly.

According to Deloitte, the most important players in your communications plan are your frontline managers—in retail, that’d be your district, regional managers, store managers, and field team leaders. Outline your communication strategy early on so they know what to expect, what their role is, and how they can help.

 

Get Feedback

Speak with your frontline regularly to find out which information was helpful, what wasn’t, and any recommendations they have moving forward to create a thriving workplace for employees and customers alike.

“Participation of your workers in discussions about health and safety is important, as they are most likely to know about the risks of their work,” experts at Safe Work Australia advise during the COVID-19 crisis. “Joint involvement in identifying hazards and assessing and controlling workplace risks will help build worker commitment to this process and any changes that may result.”

 

Foster Trust with Employees

According to the CDC, trust has a significant effect on compliance rates amongst message recipients in a time of crisis, as “individuals are more likely to follow instructions given by someone they trust.”

Experts examined attributes associated with establishing trust, and found the following behaviors and qualities necessary for building long-term trust:

  • Accessibility
  • Dependability
  • Good/clear communication
  • Mutual benefit
  • Openness
  • Providing accurate information
  • Sharing of power/responsibilities
  • Supportiveness
  • Truthfulness

“How leaders behave during critical moments leaves a lasting mark on corporate culture,” says Deloitte. “Proactivity, consistency in message, and modeling behaviors as the situation evolves is paramount. In a period of unknowns and a vague timeline, your people are looking to you for direction and confidence.”

 

Looking Ahead

The COVID-19 crisis is continually evolving, and what works for retail teams today may not work for employees tomorrow. But by having a strong risk communication strategy in place, retailers and brands can keep stores functioning and protect their most valuable assets—employees and customers—as the world rides out this global pandemic.

“Remember to think of the future as well,” advises Deloitte. “If there is disruption, there will also be recovery.”

Follow these steps to make your communications stick long after the COVID-19 crisis is over.

 

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