Leadership communication: Check in, don’t check up

It’s always important for leaders to be visible within an organisation, but never more so than in a crisis like COVID-19.

For many companies, ‘business as usual’ is simply not possible – but a bit of direction, reassurance and understanding from leaders can mean so much to employees who may, frankly, be feeling rather lost and scared.

Usually, we would recommend leaders to build a strong connection with their staff by showing up in person. With a workforce in lockdown, however, it’s time to embrace technology.

Over the past few weeks, video conferencing software, such as Zoom, has seen an explosion in usage. Companies have been hosting virtual townhalls and running #AskMeAnything sessions on Yammer, Microsoft Teams and Workplace by Facebook. Such initiatives are ideal for making senior leaders ‘virtually visible’.

But how can leaders remain accessible at a departmental or line-management level? They might consider weekly one-to-one calls with direct reports or dial into regular meetings already happening within their teams. The crucial thing here is to ensure employees feel leaders are checking in and not checking up on them.

Everyone’s circumstances are different. Some employees may have to juggle childcare responsibilities with work. Others may need to run errands for vulnerable friends and family. And some may be feeling the strain on their mental health.

In these strange times, leaders can demonstrate empathy by accepting that working patterns may not be as usual and trusting staff to get on with their jobs. The focus should be on the results employees achieve, not whether they are sat at a laptop nine-to-five.

And if employees are struggling to meet targets, for whatever reason, a bit of understanding goes a long way. When this is all over, employees will remember how supportive their leaders were and feel more strongly connected to them as a result.

Leaders cannot be understanding without listening first, however. If leaders only talk about the issues that matter to them and don’t address concerns or rumours at the front of employees’ minds, they will appear out of touch.

So good leadership communication is not just about being visible but also demonstrating trust, empathy and credibility. Nobody knows how the coronavirus crisis will pan out, but one thing is certain: engaged employees are still companies’ number one asset and leaders must keep them on side if they are to continue working productively and profitably into the future.