It is always a good sign when you have been lined up to follow someone you find yourself enthusiastically agreeing with, as I did when I recently heard IPA Director of Training Derek Luckhurst speak on the subject of employers and unions, and putting in place key strategies for workplace return. Derek said:

“Organisations need to take a leap of faith. Bring the trade union representative in and  tell it as it is.  If they need to make significant cost savings, be honest about it – don’t dress it up.  This is a period of time people need to be brutally honest about the messages they are giving each other.

It is a big risk to wait and see how the trade union will react to something you have already decided to do. Certainly, if a Trade Union doesn’t have all the information behind the decision  making, it is going to react negatively.  If you bring in the trade union, they might , just might come up with an idea or a comment about the  risk analysis. There are huge benefits to doing it.

The risk of not doing it is something that I don’t think any organisation can control and at the moment they need to control the strategy narrative, they need to control what they tell staff, and they ned to do it in conjunction with whatever representative body they’ve got.”

For employers, there are a number of certainties on which to plan the return to work; public health guidance, government restrictions, risk assessments and occupational health changes,  legislation, financial position. There are likely to be some tough messages to be delivered as we face a challenging recovery period ahead that has the potential to adversely impact, or worse still, derail any return to work plans. In addition to this, there are a number of uncertainties that must be considered in developing the return to work message. It is vital that employers both identify and factor in those most relevant to support a successful transition back to work, and this is also an area where union representative engagement can help.

When it comes to identifying and developing difficult narratives, understanding the mindset of those receiving and responding is absolutely critical.  This is primarily to:

  1. Understand the levels and sources of anxiety – health, job security etc
  2. Understand levels of engagement – or detachment (especially with furloughed employees returning)
  3. Identify common themes and trends
  4. Flag any issues not previously identified in risk register

In the case of employees and COVID-19, the additional challenge is the fear factor that will linger on for some time until the virus is under control.  The level of fear will vary according to each individual perception of the risks they may have when it comes to juggling homelife that has changes, travelling to work, and being at work. There may also be mental and general health issues as well as grief and bereavement influencing how employees feel.  Combined with organisational or market uncertainties, all can have an impact on how employees react if the narrative isn’t properly researched and developed.  Communications and engagement are therefore key – especially with a difficult narrative. Methods include pulse surveys, sending out an CEO video message or email of intent to employees broadly outlining what is planned and inviting feedback.

Once you have a better idea of the uncertainties facing the return to work, flagged issues, ideas and opportunities, fine tuning the return to work plan and crafting the narrative can be  developed. This is when it is a very good idea to have trade union involvement.  It is better to work through a potential issue rather than deal with a crisis of confidence post-announcement.  Trade union representatives will also have a good sense of how the narrative will land in terms of impact and influence.  The basic composition of the narrative :

  • Return to work announcement – confirmation of the intent ; what is happening and when. Leave no room for ambiguity.
  • Facts – include hard and soft facts, and why.
  • Tone – a human crisis requires a human response. Be empathetic.
  • Evidence – include any scientific evidence, guidance or attributable facts to support the return to work plan.

Once finalised, consider the method and timing of delivery.  The spoken word is the most preferred, delivered by the leadership. It is also important to have a robust and extensive FAQ, as well as the framework for employees to follow up anything they are concerned about. Typically, this would be though their line manager, a HR help desk or perhaps an agreed arrangement with the trade union representatives, particularly if they have been involved in the return to work planning.

Finally, to understand how I identified with much of what Derek said, I am drawing from my former experience in the Royal Navy for an analogy on approach. Part of the rigorous training for everyone is to spend time in the Damage Repair Instructional Unit (DRIU).  This is a metal box mounted on hydraulics that simulates a ship hit by a missile. It is highly coordinated teamwork and situation reporting that will save the ship and everyone has their role; those most impacted are managing and repairing the incident to ensure the survival of the ship.  Others onboard have a role too as ‘all hands to pumping stations’ ensure the water entering the ship is discharged as soon as possible.

As we look forward and plan to repair the economic damage to organisations, engaging with others onboard to get other situations reports, as well as engage with those that contribute directly to the damage repair.

COVID-19 we hope is a once in a lifetime event .  There is no playbook on how to approach the fallout from a medical, economic or personal perspective.  What helps to give us all a sense of control with the best chance of successful outcomes is effective communication.  That is best achieved when you involve all impacted parties, or their representatives to keep the organisation afloat and resume your post-COVID-19 course to calmer waters.

Sheena Thomson is Founder and Director of Conduit Associates