The Most Important Conversations to Have with Your Employees

Effective communication between employers and employees is always important, but never more so than during an ongoing (seemingly never-ending) crisis like the one we are in. A recent post on Forbes offers pointers for having “5 Crucial Conversations.”

The author, Diana Rau, who is a facilitator of Transformative Conversions, “and co-founder of multiple startups that are Changing the World Through Conversations,” says this is the end of the workplace as we’ve known it.

Whether or not that’s true, employees probably are experiencing anxiety and confusion. I recently got news of a company in which leaders sent an e-mail to employees with a subject line asking them to return to the office. It noted the great gains the company has made during the pandemic, but emphasized at the same time the advantages of in-person collaboration and teamwork. Employees were told that their managers would be sharing with them a schedule for returning to the office. A schedule will be necessary since social distancing requirements will not allow all 500-plus employees back in the office at one time. Since mid-summer, a rotation for in-office time has been in effect, but only on a voluntary basis. The new rotation will be “expected” rather than voluntary, as in “Starting next month, we ‘expect’…”

I immediately thought to myself of the great pushback the company likely will experience from employees who currently are hearing news reports of increasing COVID-19 cases and the start of a new wave of the virus. There also are travel advisories in the New York City area, where the office is located, to avoid all “non-essential” travel to the surrounding states of New Jersey and Connecticut. Would “non-essential” travel include commuting to and from work on mass transportation? Would having employees back to the office starting two weeks prior to Thanksgiving create the potential for newly infected employees, who caught the virus in the office or on their commute to the office, to bring the sickness back to their families during holiday gatherings? And how about the potential of employees returning to the office after the long Thanksgiving weekend with COVID infections contracted from those gatherings?

And what does “expect” mean? It’s a legally vague term, meant most likely to be a safer word choice than “require,” but doesn’t it, in effect, mean the same thing? Most employees hear an employer say “I expect you to…” and interpret that to mean they must do whatever it is the employer “expects.”

The first leadership conversation with employees in an environment like the one we’re in, with some companies talking about bringing employees back for required in-person work, should be a conversation based in empathy and reinforcement of the message: “We care about our employees. Your health and safety is our top priority.”

Rau says Conversation #1 should be “Let’s talk about our collective suffering.” I agree with her that this is a great place to start because it opens the door to helping employees express the anxieties the company may be contributing to. If the company is planning a return to in-person work, this conversation would give employees a chance to note the dangers of doing so, and to inquire about the safety precautions being put into place. For instance, while company leaders likely will think of masking and social distancing, what about an air filtration system that helps freshen the air? As studies have shown that the virus can linger within indoor air for some time, it would be understandable if some employees wondered how safe the air inside the office will be.

Collective suffering also can mean the additional burdens of balancing work and personal life when many children now are home schooling at least part of the time. How would a required in-person rotation at the office account for the need to continue supervising children working from the kitchen table rather than a classroom?

Rau points to the issues of sexual harassment, racism, and discrimination as additional crucial topics company leaders must address. This might include distributing an online survey that assures anonymity, so employees can express realities of the workplace’s racism and sexual harassment (or double standards for men versus women employees) without fearing retribution. Another topic that might need to be broached: managing post-election response. The editorial advisor I work with on my publication said he expected the whole month of November to be “shot” due to post-election anger from whichever side loses. If he’s right, some of that anger and frustration will reveal itself in the workplace. It might be worth talking ahead of time with employees about the need to maintain workplace decorum and routine, regardless of the election results or related turmoil.

Fortunately, some of the other crucial conversations Rau recommends are not so dark. Among them: a conversation about what we can still be optimistic about. At a time of great stress and apprehension, that’s worth thinking about, including how to optimize those good things to improve service to customers and work life for employees.

What essential conversations are you working with leaders at your company to have with your employees? What are the most important points that need to be communicated between company leaders and workforces?