Updated: Mar 26
Emergency situations are unexpected and require quick and organized action. At the same time, misinformation across social media and other outlets has never been more prevalent. Inaccurate or incomplete information could have disastrous effects for both employees and customers.
It’s absolutely critical that leadership have the right tools and plans in place to help employees and customers navigate the unexpected safely. This is particularly true in large and geographically distributed organizations, where it is typically hourly and frontline workers -- whether in retail, restaurants, travel or other service industries -- that are most acutely impacted by dynamic and evolving circumstances.
The recent outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is a powerful example of such an emergency, but unfortunately, businesses regularly face emergency situations, ranging from natural disasters to product recalls to terrorist activity. It's in situations like these that the typical model of tops-down cascading communication simply won't suffice; communication needs to be proactive, comprehensive and real-time. Leaders need to be able to reach their entire organization immediately. Unfortunately, it is those same frontline employees -- those interfacing with customers all day and thus, most likely to need access to real-time information -- that are most disconnected to the rest of the organization and as a result, often most reliant on second- or third-hand relaying of information.
Given this dynamic, it’s important to understand the risks posed to businesses if developing an emergency plan and the right processes is not prioritized.
Misinformation going viral
There is no shortage of information reaching your employees during an emergency situation. The question is, is it the right information? With the coronavirus outbreak, there’s been a constant cycle of information - and sometimes misinformation - across the news and social media. But according to a poll by Kronos last year, only 45% of employees said that they had received communications about the impact of an emergency on their workplace from their employer in the last 12 months. Without adequate and regular communication to their teams, companies run the risk of inconsistent and incorrect information.
Stressed and panicked employees
An absence of trusted, reliable details about what’s happening creates the potential for panic among your employees. This lack of communication also creates a heavy burden on all of your managers to answer questions and keep their frontline teams constantly updated, even though they may sometimes be unsure of the proper measures to take.
What begins with a few employee call outs or no shows can quickly spiral into dissatisfied and disgruntled customers if your service levels fall short due to understaffed shifts. During an emergency, any delays in recognizing or addressing potential operational issues can have a snowball effect, creating a major, negative impact on topline business results.
Now that we’ve dissected the costs of inaction when it comes to emergency planning, let’s dig into the proactive steps you can take now towards successful crisis management with your frontline team.
Put systems in place before you need them
If you’re trying to pull crisis communication systems together after an emergency situation hits, you’re already in trouble. Ideally, get ahead of the game and demonstrate how much you care about your employees and their health, well-being and success on a consistent, regular basis during non-emergency times. Communicate not only what they can expect to hear from the leadership team, but what will also be expected of them during a potential emergency situation. Per Kronos’ study, in the event of inclement weather, employees expect a window of at least three and a half days to prepare, and 36% expect at least 24 hours’ notice. Think not just about what you’ll need to communicate, but how you’ll do so. Implement a channel for real-time communication that you can trust. Make sure people are aware of the channel before an emergency takes place and can easily access it to find announcements, information and updates. Once you have that solution in place, avoid creating panic by using it to communicate calmly, early and often, showing your employees that not only are you informed and in control, but that you care about them and their well-being.
Plan, train, test
While it’s important to have a plan in place for an emergency situation before the need arises, it’s equally as important that the plan and any expectations of employees are +shared beforehand as well. According to Kronos’ poll on emergency preparedness, “less than half (49%) of employers say people managers are permitted to decide when and how to respond when disaster strikes without waiting for approval from leadership”.
Appoint people to specific positions of emergency authority to maintain order and give everyone a clear sense of their responsibilities as the team navigates the situation. Consider the various necessary decisions, community partners, and communications and ensure that someone is in charge of each.
You may want to designate a team of people to be in charge of communicating updates and next steps to fellow employees - for example, in the case of COVID-19, how will your store respond to a community outbreak? Will there be closures, limited hours, etc? Next, designate employees to speak with customers about how an emergency situation will impact operations (i.e. closures, changes to service times, restrictions, customer support contact info). Finally, you might want to appoint someone to handle any communications with emergency responders or local health authorities.
When people know clearly what is expected of them, there is less room for error. Offer training, such as CPR and general first aid, to build confidence and skills in your team members. Running through potential emergency scenarios will allow the team to test the plan and surface any questions or blind spots before an actual crisis occurs. Frontline workforces experience high levels of turnover; ensure that emergency training and information is part of onboarding for all new team members.
Ensure that your facilities stay stocked with necessary, useful emergency supplies. In the event of an emergency situation like COVID-19, that could include a guide to proper hand-washing in the restrooms, as well as access to hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and tissues.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Make sure your approach to company-wide communications isn’t just a bunch of “one-and-done” messages. Establish a consistent, centralized repository of current information, updates and relevant documents that you can point people to for the latest information. Consider including not only your Employee Handbook, but also resources from local and federal organizations, such as the CDC.
For example, as Hurricane Dorian prepared to make landfall in Florida in the fall of 2019, Crew customer Celebration Restaurant Group took extra steps to develop a communication plan for their frontline workforce. Janet Stewart, Chief People Officer at CRG, explains, “Living in Florida, hurricanes are an unfortunate fact of life and preparing our frontline team for inclement weather is critical. We used our digital workplace to communicate emergency information - everything from evacuation routes and resources providing trustworthy updates to advice on how to keep themselves and their families safe. While it was crucial that we were able to get this time-sensitive information out, it was just as important to have instant feedback on who had seen the messages and information we were sharing. This allowed us to convey a sense of calm and order in a changing situation as well as ensure that everyone across our locations was on the same page.”
With health-related emergencies like the spread of COVID-19, make sure employees know which symptoms to look for, that they shouldn’t come to work sick, and who to inform. For example, some companies are asking all employees to report to HR any recent travels to certain countries so that corporate can keep an eye on risks across locations.
Consider the customer
Think about the customer experience and perspective during the emergency situation, and consider adjusting policies during this period, especially for hospitality businesses. For example, Alaska Airlines is one of many companies who have proactively reached out to customers as the coronavirus outbreak develops. They recently shared their Peace of Mind policy, offering customers flexible travel options during this time, alongside information on their company blog about extra steps they’re taking to ensure cleanliness on their planes.
Just as you would with your employees, try to anticipate the fears and concerns your customers may have and make sure that the information and updates they need are readily available. Share this information via any channels you have available: company blog/website, social media, email newsletters, etc. Reassure your customers that you’re aware of the emergency situation and detail the steps your business is taking to protect them.
If you're interested in learning more about how businesses are leveraging Crew to improve their real-time communication with their frontline teams, click here.