Returning to a new normal
Reopening as COVID-19 eases
With the onset of COVID-19 and the associated shutdown of non-essential businesses in March 2020, we all learned the value of flexibility and on-the-job learning. The subsequent 13 months have given us a lesson in resilience and in some cases, shape-shifting. Collectively, we learned to navigate the color-coded risk levels, procurement of PPE and other resources, management of the waves of emotion that are prompted by remote working and social isolation, and of course…Zoom. Now we must further tap into our well of resilience as we make plans to reopen in a world that looks very little like the world we knew at the start of 2020.
The key to re-opening safely is to follow the science, but be prepared for intermittent interruptions to our best laid plans. As of this writing, the nation is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases after a period of steady decline. With some jurisdictions opening fully—removing mask mandates and generally relaxing social distancing protocols—the prior progress may be jeopardized. Many other areas are being more conservative in their approach to reopening, opting to do so in phases. Three vaccines are now available and are being administered at numbers in excess of 3 million per day, which President Biden has indicated puts us on track to have all adults [who wish] fully vaccinated by the end of May. This may translate to summer concerts, dining indoors and family gatherings in time for the 4th of July. It also means getting back to business in a way that doesn’t risk progress we’ve made.
In California, our coronavirus case decline has continued unabated in most counties, paving the way for a smoother return to business. Communicating without a clear understanding of all the potential obstacles is challenging, but we now know enough to anticipate specific human [and viral] behaviors so that we are able to incorporate contingencies into our planning and protocols. Here, we’ll look ahead at what this all means for our employees and the communities we serve. The framework provided should enable any agency to plug in unique goals or desired outcomes enabling the development of communications that inform all stakeholders in a timely way.
Communicate First, Re-Open Second
Most communications professionals have spent the last year feverishly researching and producing print collateral, marketing material, Facebook, Twitter, blog and other social media posts, as well as working the phones and using every conceivable tool at their disposal to get a variety of messages to a host of stakeholders. Be prepared for much more of that in the coming months. We were all hit with the pandemic at the same time and started down that road together, but the way we come out of it will be a more solitary endeavor. Each organization will have to chart a path that is specific to their own business, staffing and budgetary needs.
In a few steps you can plan, prepare and produce the necessary material to effectively communicate what people should anticipate and what they can do to help things run smoothly.
- Determine your path forward (open or closed, and with what caveats?).
- What has changed (for employees, customers, vendors, etc.)?
- What are the current rules (cover as many areas as possible)?
- What are upcoming or anticipated changes to those rules (give dates)?
- Provide links to resources and opportunities to ask questions (answer them publicly). If one person asks a question, many more have the same question, but choose not to ask.
- Consider implementing your Reopening Plan incrementally to allow time for evaluation and adjustment.
- Thank everyone for their patience as your organization works through the process.
Each California county’s risk level is tracked by the state and available for review on an easy-to-read dashboard (https://covid19.ca.gov/state-dashboard/). The public health experts provide guidance on reopening based on a variety of metrics, but generally businesses (or public agencies) that fall within the yellow or orange categories (minimal or moderate risk, respectively) can re-open to the public, albeit with certain accommodations. It’s advisable to have your plan ready to go even if you are in the two more restrictive categories if your county is making progress in the right direction (few positive cases, available ICU beds and higher rates of vaccinations).
Communicating to stakeholders where on the continuum your county falls and then offering an anticipated date of reopening, even if with caveats such as limited hours or days, or reduced staff (slower service), will be helpful in allowing them to make plans. For instance, are they able to make arrangements for paying a bill or submitting documents in person versus mailing it in or using a drop box? This might be particularly of interest for courts, DMV or for other services where people generally manage their affairs in person for taking photos or getting official seals or handling other private or sensitive matters.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) along with the Health & Human Services and other federal agencies have worked judiciously over the last few months to establish a process for prioritizing the order of vaccine distribution. Now that over 40M [primarily elderly and high-risk] individuals have been fully vaccinated and over 100M people have received at least one dose (of the two-dose regimens), the availability is expected to open to all adults who choose to take advantage of the vaccination. Any person can check their eligibility by visiting the California Dept. of Public Health’s My Turn website (https://myturn.ca.gov/) and following the easy steps. It should be noted that there is a growing movement of people who are resistant to being vaccinated for a variety of reasons. This issue may be of concern if your planning involves assumptions about fully-vaccinated staff or herd immunity.
There has been talk about mandatory vaccinations and “vaccine passports,” that would essentially require people to have full immunity to the virus in order to be able to travel freely or bypass certain restrictions. However, at this time there is no proposed legislation or industries that have taken that step. It’s reasonable, however, to assume that those conversations will continue and perhaps intensify as more people are vaccinated while others reject their opportunity to be vaccinated. Continue checking for updates in this arena, as it might impact staff members’ ability to travel or your agency’s ability to mandate vaccines, if that is a path you are contemplating.
Site-based Social Distance Modifications
Among the significant changes made in adjustment to the coronavirus were modifications to worksites and physical plants. From erecting Plexiglas partitions to placing footprints at 6-foot intervals, and limiting the number of people in such places as restrooms, elevators and company vehicles, letting staff know what is in- and out-of bounds will be critical for continuing the level of social distancing required based on your county’s guidance and your agency’s Reopening Plan.
Determine whether or not handwashing stations, thermometer kiosks and similar hygiene and social distancing requirements will stay in place and establish policies that clearly indicate what is expected for anyone who enters your buildings. Similarly, create policies for your employees who work in the field where guidance or specific instructions may differ from that of your company. Include with that communication what rights and responsibilities they have if they encounter conditions make them uncomfortable or conflict with your stated policies.
Hours of Operation
Perhaps the most basic of all questions is whether to re-open to the public or remain closed or continue operating with a model that may include a hybrid of open-closed, such as open only by appointment, or with limited hours or only for certain must-do-in-person transactions. If your county has given the green light to open, and you opt to do so, give your staff and clients as much notice as possible. Keep in mind your employees may very well live in neighboring counties with differing guidance or have personal obligations that are in conflict with your agency’s plans to reopen.
Many in today’s modern workforce shoulder the responsibility of caring for young children as well as elderly or ailing parents (or spouses). While you may have the right to demand a return to in-person performance of duties, it’s best to give notice allowing people to put necessary provisions in place to accommodate those under their care. For instance, two weeks’ notice might be required to remove a child from daycare and even longer may be necessary to find suitable daycare. Similarly, staff who abruptly remove family members from a caregiver’s facility, thereby breaking a contract, will be at a distinct disadvantage should they need to re-engage at a later time if the county moves back to a more restrictive tier.
Written notice, signage and regular reminders, along with access to resources such as an Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are appropriate to help employees transition back to a traditional working schedule.
If your agency assessed that your business needs have been well met using remote staff engagement, online correspondence and by way of other forms of staff-client interaction, then you may opt to remain closed for an additional time period to be better aligned with the achievement of herd immunity. Provide updates, complete with ‘as-of’ dates, so your clients can be prepared to continue doing business remotely. As more businesses reopen people will make assumptions that all businesses and agencies are open for regular hours. Save them a trip downtown by keeping your website, social media or other platforms current.
Depending on your type of business and budget, now might also be a good time to send a direct mail piece that provides a status update as well as ‘thank you’ to the people you serve. Let them know you appreciate their patience/understanding/support or any other way they have been loyal partners to your agency. This type of messaging builds good will but it also serves as a buffer for your frontline employees who get the brunt of the frustration felt by your stakeholders who have become progressively fatigued by the seemingly unrelenting impacts of coronavirus.
If you plan to continue allowing employees to work remotely, please do not lose sight of the emotional aspects of staff working from home. While some employees welcome it with open arms and have home office accommodations that make it a preferred way to do their job, others have had their homes overrun with office equipment, experience stress over the interruptions by children, pets and other random distractions (think: the doorbell delivery or a neighbor’s lawn mower), and still others simply thrive in the structure of a professional office work environment.
If your employees are able to continue working remotely, issue a statement clarifying who can and who cannot work remotely (recognizing this may be a departure from what was offered in March 2020), and provide a future date through which this policy will remain in effect. Language such as “we expect to continue using this schedule/arrangement through August 31/the end of the year/etc.” is sufficient to give your team an indication of how long they should be prepared to continue with their current system. Again consider child- and elder-care, vacations, accommodations for college-age children, etc. While the employer doesn’t need to know the specifics, it should be assumed that each employee has their own unique set of obstacles. The aforementioned are just a few.
Create shared files (with appropriate access and administrative rights) for staff to pull and use in lobbies, billboards, mailers, sandwich boards, windows, or any other locations that serve as platforms for communications with your audiences. Make sure employee newsletters, bulletins or the text on your Intranet are deployed regularly to convey updated messages that are timely and informative. If necessary, carve out special communiques that grab the attention of employees so critical messages aren’t overlooked. You may also want to send direct mail to the homes of your employees, which are more likely to capture their attention if this is not a regular communications channel for your agency.
Be sure to procure print services that are able to rapidly turn around the kind of collateral you need, including large format jobs. Just as there was a rush to produce collateral on the front end of the pandemic, there will be a comparable push to produce reopening material on the back end as well. Print shop staffing, social distancing and other concerns should be a little easier to work around, but timing and delivery need to be monitored. Setting up such services in advance will reduce stress when you are ready to produce any final print collateral.
Clearly indicating the messages by which your business is operating is critical to a successful re-opening campaign. Signs clearly indicating whether you are open or closed, the hours of operation, the restrictions for entry, and where and how to do business will help your customers comply with your operational objectives. Consider clients with disabilities or those who may visit after normal business hours. One very practical option for long-term communication of available services is to use the exterior windows of the business as a “billboard.” Window graphics (or window “clings”) are helpful and tend to be a tidier way to post information that can be seen from the curb or even a passing vehicle. This also allows for images that support your overarching mission, making for an effective marketing tool.
In addition to informational signs, it’s also helpful to review and update all wayfinding, directional, and other environmental signage. If your social distancing protocol requires a limited number of people in restrooms, employee break rooms, or lobbies and other common areas, consider replacing signage as appropriate. Before making the investment, however, you might think about the length of time until the messages become obsolete. Estimate the value based on a cost ÷ time calculation.
Website/Social Media Engagement
Before customers or members of the public make the trip downtown or to your office, they will likely visit your website to get a sense of what to expect. Put the relevant information on the main landing page of your website and supplement it with social media posts or video addresses (think: welcome back message from your agency’s leadership), that underscore your key messages. While main page website space comes at a premium, creating a coronavirus-specific page with a prominent link on the main page is a practical alternative.
Be certain to include the date each entry is made, remove outdated content and think of your end-user when crafting messages. What do people want to know and what information is important for them to understand. For instance, they may want to know if you are open, or if they can submit forms or payments online. So answer those questions. However, you may need them to know that deadlines are not being extended or fines are being applied for late payments. While they may not think to ask, it will save time and stress to proactively address these matters before they escalate. FAQs are a handy way of tackling some of these specific concerns.
Social media is another very important component of most organizations’ media mix. If you use it, use it purposefully and regularly to help reinforce your customers’ habit of visiting your platforms. Remember that while Twitter may only allow 260 characters, you can always link back to your website or to other online content hosted on other platforms. Videos, PDFs and images can contain key messages that are easily shared and forwarded.
In the Jan/Feb issue of CAPIO Communicator Newsletter, Kerry Shearer provided a great primer on Digital Communications Trends in 2021. Take a few moments to refresh your understanding of some of the more popular platforms and consider incorporating some of the great ideas into your outreach strategy. A blend of audio, video, written and (socially distant) in-person communications will expand your ability to reach all of your targeted audiences. Remember, however, not everyone is tech-savvy or have web access. Direct mail, newsletters, or ads in the local paper could resolve some of the gaps in accessibility.
Finally, employees returning to work have rights (as well as responsibilities). New laws have been enacted and guidance has been provided from entities ranging from Congress and the CDC to State and local health agencies, among others. Know what laws apply to your staff regarding various types of leave, child/elder care resources, as well as HIPAA laws, prior to communicating about any healthcare issues. Your Human Resources team should lead on these matters.
Again, if your agency offers an employee assistance program, promote it widely and often. Most of these programs offer practical assistance for everything from locating care for loved ones to mental health support and so much more. Allow professionals who have been vetted (and paid for through your benefits program) to be go-to-sources for staff as they work through what has, for many, been a turbulent, if not traumatic, experience.
Don’t forget to reactivate employee badges, restock the vending machines and refurbish your toilet paper supply.
How Does Reopening Look?
As with any campaign it is useful to “brand” your Reopening Plan. This doesn’t mean producing a series of cringe-worthy gimmicks, it means plan an array of integrated messages delivered through myriad platforms, using a consistent look and feel that helps the audience(s) know it’s all part of a concerted effort to move toward an end. In this case, your Reopening Plan should outline a sequence of events that moves internal and external stakeholders along a path to full workplace engagement as it will remain once the pandemic is over (assuming it ever will be). So embrace that and name it!
Consider celebratory activities
Gather the team, including your graphic designer(s), and come up with concepts that express a sense of completion, celebration and collaborative forward movement. Keep the messaging straight forward, but still try to have fun with it. Use different platforms to create communications that range from formal letters to TikTok videos and everything in between. Don’t forget to include the perspectives of your external stakeholders in your messaging; success will require the cooperation of every person who engages with your agency.
If your agency uses or operates its own television or public broadcasting service, you could develop programming that informs and educates your community about your plans vis-à-vis re-opening. Capitalize on the use of the various assets available through your channel including City Council meetings, interview-style programs and public event calendars.
Once there has been a declaration that the pandemic is no longer a public health crisis, your agency may want to host an event that celebrates the many contributions, undoubtedly, made by your staff and other stakeholders. Perhaps an open house event that allows people to come in person to your site(s) and experience engagement using new rules and modified facilities will be in order. In such circumstances, as with any other ‘return to business’ or ‘we’re re-opened’ types of activities should be first vetted and assented to by legal counsel.
In short, using all available resources to communicate will help reduce the number of incoming questions and the burden on the communications staff. The purpose isn’t to overwhelm your stakeholders with excessive amounts of information, but to anticipate the information they’ll need to re-engage in ways that might be new and make the transition to the “new normal” seem, well, normal.