In May, the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) that was officially declared more than three years ago will officially end. COVID-19 has killed about 1.1 million Americans and is still responsible for the deaths of between 2,500 and 3,500 Americans every week.
It’s clear that most Americans are ready to move on from the pandemic, but this might not be as simple as it sounds. This is especially true for businesses, many of which are still dealing with the impact of the pandemic. This includes ongoing supply chain disruptions, persistent labor shortages due to a smaller pool of workers, and the challenge of bringing some skittish employees back into a physical office.
Another challenge many companies face is how to communicate with stakeholders — both internal and external — about the impact of the end of the COVID-19 PHE on their business practices.
Communicating with Employees
The pandemic brought about one of the most drastic changes in how employees perform work since the beginning of the Industrial Age. Practically overnight, millions of office workers were told to start working from home in order to limit the spread of the virus. Many companies have since implemented — and rescinded — plans to bring employees back to the office. Some employees still have legitimate health concerns about working in a face-to-face office environment while others have gotten used to the perks of working from home. While the end of the PHE might inspire more attempts to create “in-office” work policies, communication around a shift to in-office work should be both carefully thought out and transparent. The nuances of what goes into your policy and how it’s communicated will vary by company and situation, but some areas to consider include:
Safety protocols: For employees who are worried about the health risks of returning to the office, it is important to develop and clearly communicate what protocols your company is following to keep all of its employees healthy. Protocols might include vaccine and mask policies, placing portable air filters or UV lights in meeting rooms, disinfecting practices around the office, as well as steps you’re taking to help employees avoid interacting with coworkers who may be sick. (For example, asking employees who are ill to remain home until they are no longer contagious—and considering whether the company should offer additional sick time to workers to help ensure this kind of policy is seen positively and not as a burden.)
Health benefits: Any changes in healthcare costs to employees, especially regarding COVID testing and vaccines should be communicated. HR teams may want to confirm possible changes to their company’s health insurance plan—for example, whether employees will need to pay a co-pay for future COVID vaccinations.
In-office work: Depending on the company and industry, the discussion around working in the office again could be a non-issue, or one fraught with emotion. An Accenture survey found that 83 percent of workers around the globe prefer a hybrid work model, so mandates about in-office work should be well thought out and clearly communicated. It’s also ok not to have all the answers or know what work model the company will use for the foreseeable future. The important thing is to communicate often and clearly to employees, particularly if your company plans to try out different hybrid work models or schedules to see which works best.
Communicating with the Public
Devising an external communication plan is equally important, especially for public-facing and retail businesses. Many customers and other stakeholders want to know how the businesses they frequent are handling the (perceived) end of COVID.
For example, will you continue to mandate or strongly recommend masks for customers who enter your place of business? What steps are you taking to clean and disinfect your facilities, or to increase air changes per hour to mitigate the spread of airborne infections? How will ongoing supply chain disruptions or labor shortages affect your ability to deliver products and services to customers in a timely manner? Be proactive in communicating with the public about these and other pandemic-related issues.
Staying competitive with hiring in today’s climate also requires planning your company’s communications. Clearly communicate policies about in-office or remote work policies, both current and planned. For example, will you offer a remote or hybrid work option for certain positions? Is there a potential for remote positions to become in-office positions? Being transparent from the outset is a good strategy for avoiding potential backlash against new policies set in the future.
Craft Your Post-COVID Communication Strategy
With the end of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency approaching, now is the time to devise your company’s post-pandemic communications strategy. Doing so can help ease concerns some employees may have about returning to the workplace and let your customers and other external stakeholders know your company’s position and approach toward key COVID-related issues. ICR Westwicke works with clients across business sectors, with a dedicated investor relations and public relations team serving healthcare clients. Need help with post-COVID policies and communications? Get in touch.