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Human Capital Management during COVID-19: How Leaders Can Connect with Employees in a Crisis

COVID-19 has quickly transformed the world, causing shock waves throughout all parts of life and business. Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have resulted in remote working, and leaders are challenged to take this new employee experience into account while making sure their communications are effective during these unprecedented times.

Employees are looking to their leaders for stability in this time of uncertainty. In fact, according to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, employees believe their employer is a more trustworthy source of information than the government.1 However, The Conference Board found many employees are still not satisfied with the communications they receive: “communication channels” is the second-highest driver of job satisfaction, but only 37.5 percent of workers are satisfied with their communication channels.2

During a crisis, clear communication between leaders and employees is even more important as miscommunications can have costly ramifications. The Conference Board recommends the following 10 actions to help leaders communicate more effectively during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

  1. Be transparent and accountable. More than anything, employees want to be able to trust what their leaders say. Leaders need to treat people with respect and be direct and truthful even when it’s bad news.3 In a moving example of transparent leadership, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson recorded a widely viewed video explaining the steps the organization had to take to survive, including laying off 15,000 workers. He was visibly shaken but delivered the message with compassion and announced that his salary would be suspended and his executives’ pay reduced 50 percent.4
  2. Communicate with empathy and create a sense of togetherness. These are the moments to show compassion by recognizing that employees may all be affected in different ways. View each employee as a whole person, and recognize the efforts he or she makes every day to push through various personal challenges and ensure work continuity. Such understanding can strengthen the bonds of community within the organization. Some companies have recorded messages from senior leadership that stress the importance of taking care of self and family first. One CEO set an example of this “family first” ethos by sharing stories about how she shuts down during the day to spend time with the kids, showing her human side by sharing videos of work calls featuring her children in the background.
  3. Demonstrate a commitment to employee well-being. Leaders should make it a point to continuously communicate the organizational support and resources available to employees.5 HR can ensure that employees have the tools and information they need to feel safe and supported.6 Use internal communication channels to promote the availability of childcare, counseling, and self-help. How the company responds to employee needs now will shape the employer brand (how the company is viewed as a place to work) long after the crisis has ended.7 Some organizations provide support through programs and live podcasts dealing with mental wellness and self-care. Others offer virtual exercise classes to help employees reduce stress and stay fit. These approaches help convey a sense of interconnectedness as everyone in the organization experiences the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions.
  4. Maintain a high level of situational awareness around the ramifications of COVID-19. Many employees and their families face significant financial hardships and severe health concerns as a result of COVID-19.8 Managers should know if their direct reports are struggling and work closely with HR, finance, and other key departments to communicate impactful, meaningful support measures to employees.9 For example, Columbia University’s vice president of HR crafted communications that highlight flexible work schedules, pay continuity, paid emergency absences, and employee assistance programs. These measures address hardships employees might face, such as how to handle lack of available childcare and manage stress and anxiety.
  5. Be available and maintain regular communications during the crisis. It is crucial that employees not feel ignored or isolated. Organizations cannot lose focus on employee engagement and experience during a crisis; an inadequate organizational response will derail work continuity now and jeopardize longer-term retention.10 HR leaders should encourage open communication between leaders and employees. For example, the Activision CEO gave his personal cell phone number to over 10,000 employees.11 Some senior leaders have created anonymous message boards or facilitated virtual “Ask Me Anything” town hall discussions during which senior leaders share basic information on current business status and impacts on employees. Leaders follow up by encouraging employees to send questions and making a point of answering all of them, even the difficult ones.
  6. Recognize the role HR plays in crisis communication. During a crisis, it is imperative that the HR function be front and center as the primary resource for employees to feel safe, reassured, and heard.12 Keeping employees aware of what is going on in the organization can help create a sense of stability during a time of heightened distress.13 HR leaders must recognize that a one-size-fits-all policy to address challenges may not be beneficial and certainly will not address the specific needs of individual employees. Some companies address various employee needs through enhanced benefits and strategies such as unique recognition programs for employees who are particularly affected by the crisis and company-sponsored care that provides employees with additional pay they can use to cover any expenses they deem necessary. One organization’s HR Rapid Response Team created an easily accessible, evergreen HR FAQ to answer common employee questions.
HR’s role in supporting managers Managers are on the front lines, and the HR function should ensure that they have the tools and support they need to lead their teams through this crisis. It is crucial that managers know how to deliver a crisis message to their teams; this is where HR can provide training.14
  1. Create two-way communication channels. Two-way communications between leaders and employees are just as important as one-way communications coming from the organization. It is vital for organizations to seek input, as employee voices are crucial to the company’s ability to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and determine the pace at which it can do so. Organizations should support a continuous listening dialogue that allows HR to hear concerns and current status updates from employees.15 Some organizations are increasing the frequency of their employee engagement pulse surveys and tailoring the questions to employees’ current experiences to keep track of and address concerns (e.g., remote work, morale) in real time.
  2. Create channels for employees to share their experiences with each other. HR leaders should set up channels to facilitate open communication among employees. By doing so, organizations can enable their staff to be human and “safely” share various personal dilemmas, challenges, and needs while being encouraged to seek support not only from HR but also their managers and colleagues.16 Baystate Health, a not-for-profit integrated health system, encourages employees to use existing videoconferencing tools to stay connected and share experiences with colleagues to support mental well-being.17
  3. Recognize the long-term effects of dealing with a crisis. Organizations shouldn’t underestimate the need to communicate empathically with employees for a prolonged period. Employers must accept that their people and organization will face long-term psychological impacts from the COVID-19 crisis that cannot be ignored.18 Just as many veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after life-threatening events, many people whose lives have been upended by the current crisis, such as frontline workers, may develop PTSD.19 Organizations need to be aware of the potential fallout and ensure they offer the appropriate mental health benefits. In addition to its employee assistance program, Target now offers employees free access to apps that help with stress, sleep, and physical fitness.20
  4. Look ahead. Post-crisis communications will be just as important as current crisis communications. HR can take an active role in the aftermath by checking in with each department and asking questions like: “Based on how the crisis affected you and your department and what you’re hearing from your community, how can we make internal communications better next time?”21 Suffolk, a national real estate enterprise and construction company, has created an organization-wide Microsoft Teams channel called “COVID-19 Communications” that gives employees a platform to provide valuable feedback to company leadership on COVID-19 communications and actions.22

This report is part of the larger Human Capital Management during COVID-19 series created by The Conference Board to help HC leaders navigate the effects of the pandemic with their employees. The series reflects not only the latest research (ours and others’) but also the comments and insights from our Members as they address this unprecedented challenge. To see the other reports in the series, visit The Conference Board COVID-19 Pandemic Resources & Support for the Human Capital Community.


Related Resources

1 “2020 Edelman Trust Barometer,” Edelman Research, January 20, 2020.

3 Alex Parkinson, Corporate Communications Practices: Key Findings, 2018 Edition, The Conference Board, February 2018.

For more information on this topic, see Marion Devine, Amy Ye, and Robin Erickson, Human Capital Management during COVID-19: Support for Well-Being and Mental Health, The Conference Board, 2020.

6 For more information on this topic, see Human Capital Management during COVID-19: Leading Virtual Teams during Crisis, The Conference Board, forthcoming 2020.

7 For more information on this topic, see Robin Erickson, Human Capital Management during COVID-19: Navigating Talent Acquisition in a Changing World, The Conference Board, 2020.

8 “Insights for Communication Leaders,” The Conference Board, 2020.

9 Devine et al., Support for Well-Being and Mental Health.

10 For more information on this topic, see Robin Erickson and Amanda Popiela, Human Capital Management during COVID-19: Focusing on Employee Engagement in a Crisis, The Conference Board, April 2020.

12 Diane Strohfus, “How HR Should Take the Lead on COVID-19 Communications,” Ragan, April 2, 2020.

13 Paul Argenti, “Communicating through the Coronavirus Crisis,” Harvard Business Review, March 13, 2020.

14 Novid Parsi, “Communicating with Employees during a Crisis,” SHRM, October 25, 2016.

15 For more information on continuous listening, see: Robin Erickson et al., Continuous Listening Part 1, The Conference Board, October 2019, and Continuous Listening Part 2, February 2020.

16 Devine et al., Support for Well-Being and Mental Health.

17 “Employee and Family Well-Being Resources: COVID 19,” Baystate Health, April 2020.

18 Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” Harvard Business Review, March 23, 2020.

19 “COVID-19: Resources for Managing Stress,” National Center for PTSD, US Department of Veterans Affairs, 2020.

21 Parsi, “Communicating with Employees during a Crisis.”

22 Keara James, “Take These Steps to Enable Your Firstline Workers Today,” Microsoft, April 9, 2020.


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Nabeel Ahmad, EdD

Senior Researcher
The Conference Board


Robin Erickson, PhD

Principal Researcher, Human Capital
The Conference Board

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Vivian Jaworsky

Research Analyst, Human Capital
The Conference Board


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