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Communicating with employees during COVID-19

by Lori Kelly
in Communication, Human Resources

When COVID-19 hit, the City of Mississauga, like other municipalities, had to adjust its workplace to allow many employees to work from home. The primary internal communications goal was to get timely and accurate information to all staff, and to help them feel supported in their transition to the new normal.

One of the key success factors for the city was to have the guidance and support of our communications partners. As a large municipality, employee communications are important to support two-way communication and contributes to a positive culture. With support from our Strategic Communications team and Director Ivana Di Millo(who is also the city’s Public Information Officer on the COVID-19 Response Team), the plan forward was guided by the recently completed Employee Communications Audit. As we have learned from our partners in Strategic Communications, messaging cannot only be focused on the public; it also must focus on employees as a key audience. Working from the results of the audit, messaging and updates were developed and shared knowing employees want to receive important information directly from their supervisors; that they need context in understanding what the messages mean to them; and that they want the ability to ask questions of their leaders. This insight helped inform the city’s plan and focus our efforts on our employees in a responsive manner.

Strategic Communications, in partnership with Human Resources (HR), developed a framework for internal communications. This was done in tandem with an overall COVID-19 communications plan that included internal, external, media, and stakeholders. From there, Communications staff worked with HR to streamline messaging and ensure it aligned with information coming from the Incident Management Team (IMT).

Transformative Incrementalism: A journey to sustainability

The first step was to identify ways to ensure staff had the most up-to-date information, as things were changing by the day and sometimes even by the hour. It was important to target communications to employees of all levels and service areas, make sure they were in plain language, and reflect the new way of work for all employees. While more than 2,000 employees started to work from home, 2,600 continued to come to work to deliver essential services.

Below are the key tactics we implemented for effective employee communications:

  • developed a schedule for weekly emails from both HR and the city manager;
  • led a virtual town hall for leaders (including logistics, speaking notes, moderator, Information Technology (IT) support);
  • led a virtual town hall for all staff;
  • collaborated with IT to redesign the city’s intranet to make COVID-19 information easy to find;
  • ensured that all information on Inside Mississauga (our employee intranet), including frequently asked questions (FAQs), was current and in plain language; and
  • scheduled weekly updates to the employee telephone hotline.

In addition to the key tactics above, there is also a coordinated effort for sharing community information issued by the mayor and city councillors across multiple channels, including social media, tele town halls, and virtual press conferences on the city’s intranet site.

Setting a Schedule for Employee Emails

Email messages from the city manager are sent to staff every Monday and Thursday. These emails contain updates related to COVID-19 and the city’s response as well as shout outs to the city’s essential service employees, including park operations staff or MiWay transit operators. It’s an easy way to recognize employees for their important role during the pandemic and let them know they are valued and appreciated.

HR sends out messaging to staff on Wednesdays and Fridays, so not to overlap with the city manager emails. These messages include responses to the latest FAQs and information about online resources available through Employee Health Services and the city’s healthcare benefits provider. HR is also responsible for sending customized messages to managers, supervisors, and other groups requiring more specific types of support and information.

Staying Connected with Virtual Town Hall Sessions

Strategic Communications organized virtual town hall sessions, hosted by the city manager, to share COVID-19-related information employees are seeking. The first session targeted managers and supervisors and included updates from the fire chief and incident management team commander, as well as HR. The second town hall was opened to all employees, who were encouraged to submit their questions in advance.

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These virtual town halls are a great example of an easy, innovative channel to reach employees. The team worked closely with IT to ensure all staff had online access to the sessions.

Supporting Employees Working from Home

As a large number of employees started to work from home, almost immediately, the HR team, with support from IT, posted information and presentations on our intranet with how-to details on common work-from-home practices such as “How to Conduct an Effective Webex Meeting” or “How to Detect a COVID-19 Phishing Email,” with links to IT support.

Building Toolkits – Resources for Resilience

To make finding resources easy, Employee Health Services created an online toolkit with resources ranging from tips for working remotely to managing anxiety. These resources were targeted to specific employee groups such as supervisors and managers to support mid-level leaders and help them maintain communication with their teams remotely. The toolkits included tips for supporting employees with productivity and morale as well as modules on leading the “new normal” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To meet the needs of employees in a variety of service areas, different supports are required. HR created a second toolkit for those employees required to come to work to continue to provide essential services. The resources in this kit will help address the unique challenges faced by these leaders and their teams.

Employee Wellness

Employee wellness is important to develop resilience and well-being. Strategic Communications created a new story and image that appeared front and centre on the home page of the city’s intranet. The story was created to feature resources to support employees through these abrupt changes to work and home life. It showcased a series of webinars on topics such as Dealing with Today’s Changes.

In addition, staff were encouraged to sign up for a series of online health and mental wellness webinars led by the city’s staff physician. Topics included:

  • Easing Your Way into Today’s Reality;
  • Understanding Your Resistance to the Current Reality;
  • Identifying Your Gaps; and
  • Create Your Personal Action Plan.

We also provided additional videos with tips on how to get a good night’s sleep and how to recognize stress, as well as tip sheets on topics such as ergonomic tips while working from home.

The city’s Recreation division has exercised its creativity by producing a series of short fitness videos aptly named The Stay at Home Series. These one-minute mini workouts feature city fitness instructors working out in their own homes and include cardio and core as well as upper and lower body exercises. The videos incorporated everyday home items such as a chair, coffee table, or jug of water.

Frequently Asked Questions

Just as the city manager and HR answer employee questions through weekly emails and regular virtual town halls, we have compiled FAQs into one accessible online resource that are updated regularly. The questions range from employee benefits coverage to essential services and emergency access to childcare services.

The city has reached across the corporation to pull together resources and supports for employees. As new needs and opportunities emerge through this crisis, the city is working creatively and collaboratively to deliver the tools that will help leaders and staff cope and thrive during this time.

Access to Range of Supports and Resources

Communicating quickly and in a timely manner is important. xMany staff are not only working from home, but are also caring for children, supporting elderly parents, maintaining their households, and perhaps coping with financial pressures and more. Employees have access to a range of supports and resources and can contact HR Monday through Sunday by phone or email.

We continue to urge everyone to stay home, stay healthy and help #FlattenTheCurve.

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Michael Genova, David Di Benedetto, and Jennifer Ormston’s article: Communicating in the midst of a global pandemic. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.

Lori Kelly has served the City of Mississauga for more than 20 years. Prior to her role as the Director, Human Resources, Lori spent more than two decades in leadership roles with the city.

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