March 26, 2020

Communicating to Employees in a Pandemic

By Liam O’Connell and Diana Pisciotta


Employers are working hard to keep up on the hour-by-hour changes in government and health advisories about COVID-19. Meanwhile, their employees are facing moment-to-moment uncertainties about pay, benefits, child and health care, many while trying to do their work remotely. How best can employers communicate given these worries and uncertainties?

Keep in mind, in this period of uncertainty you can’t solve every issue at once. Think short-term: getting through today, tomorrow, this week; medium range: keeping your business operating over the next few months; long-range: what groundwork can we lay now to be ready for regular operations?

Be direct: Tackle the issues that you can address – mandated telecommuting, wage and hour implications, notifications about exposed colleagues, coverage under sick time and FMLA. People understand this is a fast-moving situation and know that things will change. But don’t wait for matters to become clearer before communicating, that moment may not come.

Consider modifying sick leave or other time-off policies to avoid negatively impacting employees at home caring for themselves or other sick family members. In addition, employers should consider introducing work policies or directives that reduce the risk of exposure to the virus to those remaining at work. Remote working arrangements, use of video conferencing and other like technologies and limitations on employee gatherings in the workplace for meetings or other events should all be considered.

Be transparent: Don’t make promises that cannot be met later. If it is not possible for you to pay employees past the minimum entitled under earned sick time laws, make that clear. Employees must understand their situation as early as practical.  At the same time, you can be compassionate, direct employees to other resources or hotlines and reinforce that their contributions were valued and nothing but this extraordinary circumstance would have resulted in this move.

Know your audience:  It is critical to understand your audience and direct the right message to them. Are your employees – non-exempt, hourly, union, customer-facing, administrative, able to work from home, etc.? Understanding that each group of employees faces different challenges and perhaps, different working agreements is key to making sure everyone is appropriately informed.  Think about how communication will flow going forward and what tools your employees have access to: “check the company website / Intranet, email or social media for daily updates.”

Be practical:  In a matter of days, many companies have upended traditional ways of working.  Think through the logistics and prepare for likely needs.  For example, for all those remote workers is there a help desk, is it still staffed?  If so, let them know and if not provide an alternative.  If, for some reason, an employee needs access to a company facility, will that be an issue and what should they know?

Continue operating like a team: It is also important to be mindful that working remotely can feel isolating! Many employers are conducting meetings using FaceTime, Go-To Meeting, Zoom and other digital tools available so that people can see each other and have interactions, almost as they normally would.  Some employers are also exploring options for “virtual social hours”, as a substitution for some of the frequent social activities that employees may be missing, to maintain connectedness and ease any feelings of isolation some might be experiencing.

Be timely: President Trump has signed into law a revised version of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”) that was passed by the Senate on March 18. The most immediate impact for employers of fewer than 500 employees, is the law’s Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act and Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act; both Acts will take effect no later than April 2, and both will expire on December 31.

Create an audience grid, detailing which employees might be impacted and how you will communicate to them about every ramification.

Individual states are also making frequent announcements that impact employers. Massachusetts employers should pay close attention to for up-to-the-minute information on employment benefits and other issues that impact your business.

Be accurate: It is not necessary to figure it all out at once – especially during such a fast-moving situation – but be clear about the facts. Check your sources and have every communication reviewed by legal counsel.

One more thing – these are unusual times. Recognize that your employees –some who may be working from home for the first time – may have kids at home who would normally be at school or in childcare. These folks may not have the ability to meet deadlines as they have before. Be flexible, be kind.


Liam O’Connell is the Co-Managing Partner of Nutter and Chair of the firm’s Labor, Employment and Benefits practice group. Diana Pisciotta is the President of Denterlein, a Boston public relations firm, specializing in risk management communications.