Part One: Focus on Human Needs
With special thanks to Dr. Jinger Gustafson, Department Chair and Assistant Professor, Minnesota State University, Mankato, for inspiration and structure.
The past month has been all about facing hard truths — about our industries, our businesses and our plans for the future.
Here’s another hard truth: You do not have the same workforce you had four, six or eight weeks ago.
You may have the same names in the same spots on the org chart. You may, if you are lucky, have the same number of employees. But the people behind those names and numbers now have different priorities, different demands on their time and energy, and different ways of working. Never has it been more apparent that our workforce is made up of actual human beings, with human needs, and never has it been more apparent that in order to communicate with them effectively, we need to start by taking those needs into account.
When we work with clients to develop compliance communications playbooks, we always start with audience insights — not just who they are demographically, but why they come to work, what motivates them, what they need.
In more normal times, these insights are unique to every company, but the pandemic and its economic effects have made certain experiences more universal. A helpful framework for understanding what your employees need right now and how you can communicate with them more effectively is the hierarchy of needs developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow: physiological needs (health), safety (security), love (belonging), esteem and self-actualization (purpose).
Your Employees Need Health
You must communicate empathetically.
Expressly acknowledge the reality of the situation in your communications: We know you may be concerned about your health and you may not be feeling like your usual self.
Your Employees Need Security
You must communicate transparently.
The future feels uncertain in a number of ways right now. For your employees, this uncertainty may be big and abstract or it may be very personal: What will their jobs look like in a few months’ time? Will they be able to keep their jobs? Will the business remain intact?
Nothing feeds uncertainty like the feeling that you are not getting complete, accurate or honest information. As much as possible, communicate transparently, cultivate trust and, when appropriate, show some vulnerability as well.
Your Employees Need Belonging
You must communicate your values and your culture.
If your employees are working from home, they may be missing the camaraderie of the office. They may be feeling disconnected from their work and your organization. Even employees on site may be distracted and disconnected. It’s easier to do the right thing when you feel like you’re part of a team, so now, more than ever, you need your employees to continue to feel like a team.
Enlist leaders from every level of the organization to share messages about your company’s values and culture — what they mean to them, and how everyone can continue to live them. Find ways to come together as a team — on conference calls or chat threads — beyond topics related specifically to work.
Your Employees Need Esteem
You must celebrate accomplishments and remind people of the value of doing the right thing.
Celebrate accomplishments large and small. Celebrate personal and team wins. Acknowledge good work both privately and publicly. It can feel good just to acknowledge that, hey, we made to the end of another week together.
Another important form of self-esteem is just feeling like a good person. Compliance communications should acknowledge and emphasize employees’ desire to do the right thing.
Your Employees Need Purpose and Fulfillment
You must show them the bigger picture.
When our physical and safety needs are met, when we feel belonging and self-esteem, we get to the top of Maslow’s pyramid: a need for self-actualization, purpose and fulfillment. Many people get this, in part, from their work.
Your communications can remind employees of all the reasons they are proud to work at your organization: your mission, corporate citizenship, charity work, volunteer opportunities and more. You can even remind people that if they are working from home, they are already doing the right thing and saving lives.
Everything is different now. But at our core, we all still have the same, basic human needs, and starting with the needs of your audience has always been the best way to plan your compliance communications.
The risks of alienating employees right now are very real: If they sense insincerity or detachment from their reality, they will tune you out. But by being genuine, acknowledging people’s needs and building connections, you can help make them more receptive to risk-based communications and training when the time is ripe for that.