Communicating across distributed frontline teams (in a crisis)
by Nicky Budd-Thanos, on April 3, 2020
Operating a business across many locations brings a set of complex issues in the best of times, but during a crisis, having a concrete plan for staying on top of and responding to the different needs of workers at your various locations is critical. Without effective communication to and from your frontline workers, it’s impossible to manage these situations effectively, risking confusion and in the worst case, the health and safety of employees and customers.
When it comes to communicating across dozens or even hundreds of locations during an emergency, not all crises are created equal. Whether it’s inclement weather or a natural disaster that affects one isolated location, the communications each team and location should receive may differ considerably. In the case of COVID-19, while the virus is spreading across the United States, several states still have not yet issued “stay at home” orders, which means that parts of your business may be more affected than others.
We’ve collected three guidelines to help ensure that you have an agile emergency communications plan flexible enough to implement and adapt as needed across locations, and sometimes, across states.
- Establish both centralized and local communications leads
Ensure that there is a consistent team responsible for communicating information across your various locations, and just as importantly, ensure that every employee is aware of who is on this comms team. Daily change is the new normal with the COVID-19 outbreak and monitoring it as it evolves is critical; meet regularly to stay on top of updates and new instructions.
Develop a local communications team at each location to own area-specific updates with more tailored messaging to reflect the local policies surrounding ‘shelter in place’ orders or rules around which businesses are deemed essential during the crisis. Keep a regular feedback loop between the central and local communications teams to maintain visibility into how communications are being received and address any issues as they arise. Make sure your communications are clear and consistent. Here’s a guest Q&A we did with UC Berkeley lecturer Alex Budak on how to do this.
- Maintain regular, consistent communications
Barring any especially urgent update or news, try to maintain consistent times for when and where your distributed teams can expect to hear from you, i.e. a morning and evening update, in the same place every time. When working across time zone differences, this will make it easy for everyone, regardless of location, to know when they’ll hear an update and where they can find it. There’s a general benefit to giving your employees the security of when they can expect to hear the latest accurate information. As Cousins Subs CEO, Christine Specht, said on a recent episode of QSR Magazine’s podcast Fast Forward, “Store leaders will hold tight when new news is coming out because they know they can expect to see communication from us.” Plan to segment your communications, with ‘global’ communication updates with information that is relevant and necessary for all members of your team, regardless of location, as well as regular location-specific messages.
Provide a library accessible to all employees that they can easily find these messages on, with both corporate announcements, as well as the localized updates and details that are relevant for their particular location and circumstances. Look for and invest in digital tools to do this so you can keep all information up to date as new developments unfold. Check reporting data that will allow you to verify whether messages are being read and acted on - follow up with local comms teams and operations leaders when you identify gaps in communication.
- Allow for two-way communication to assess needs and address questions or issues quickly
Different locations will have different needs. For example, while some food service locations may be closed for the duration of COVID-19, some may still be serving delivery and takeout orders and may need additional gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, and other supplies. Christine Specht of Cousins Subs, said “At this point, we are taking things on a case-by-case basis, reflecting any flexibility we do have. There may be some stores that can’t have their dining rooms open for a number of reasons, where there may be some that do have their dining rooms open.” Similarly, many primary medical care groups are separating their locations, designating which are for well-care services only and which are for COVID-19-specific care.
Another thing to take into consideration is staffing during the crisis. If some of your frontline gets sick or is unable to work due to changing personal or family circumstances, you may need to look into transferring healthy and available employees from other locations to stay properly staffed. This is an area where preparation really counts. Having a unified digital communications workflow between nearby locations can make finding last-minute shift coverage simple and fast. By staying in close contact with each of your locations, you will be able to stay on top of and respond to their evolving needs, concerns and questions.
Communicating clearly and consistently while apart will be critical to getting through this together. For more best practices on navigating the COVID-19 outbreak, learn from Crew customers across grocery, assisted living and more.