Communicating with your employees in a crisis

13 May 2020 - 1-2 minute read

Effective employee communication is always important, but in a crisis it’s critical. During the recent lockdown, our business had its employee communications tested, so let’s all share what worked, and why.

Here’s what we did at Southern Cross, and our best tips for connecting with employees during a crisis.

Why communicating with employees during a crisis is so important

Engaging your team during a crisis is critical to:

  • Give people a purpose and align your team behind a cause.
  • Get people to act together to help the company.
  • Ensure everyone understands their role and what's expected.
  • Reassure people and provide emotional safety during a time of uncertainty.

It is also an investment in your recovery. After the GFC in 2008:

“Companies with engaged workforces seemed to have an advantage in regaining and growing earnings-per-share at a faster rate than their industry equivalents.” 1 

Tip 1: Make a plan

Consider possible scenarios you might face and write down: 

  • What you want to say to employees - your key messages. Start with employee concerns first, then move to those of the business.
  • Who will say it - your most trustworthy and authoritative spokespeople. Our sole internal voice during the lockdown was Chief People and Strategy Officer, Vicki Caisley.
  • How and where they will deliver this message - your platforms. We used a combination of text, email, web, social channels and live chats to engage with employees during the lockdown.

Tip 2: Create a single source of truth

People will seek information, and any news - true or false - will spread quickly thanks to social media. The World Health Organisation have even coined a term for this: an infodemic.2 

So, create a single source of truth and keep it up-to-date.  

Here’s how we did it:

  • Created an ‘always-on’ intranet page containing our latest information and advice.
  • Kept everyone informed with a daily email update from Vicki.
  • Reinforced messaging with a twice-weekly email from CEO Nick Astwick.
  • Monitored employee concerns through a range of channels including a weekly pulse survey, our crisis management team, and our social chat space (Yammer).
  • Co-ordinated all communications through Head of Internal Communications Jo Lawrence-King.

Tip 3: Be quick. Be clear. Be consistent. 

Don’t leave your team in the dark. Talk to them as soon as possible and deliver a clear, honest message:

  • Say what you know and what you don’t know.
  • Make your message as simple as possible.
  • Repeat and repeat again.

Here’s how we did it:

Here’s the emergency text we sent our people on Sunday 22 March:

Hi team - Apologies for the Sunday interruption. Due to an updated position from the NZ Government and our desire to keep our people safe & healthy please note: **If you are able to, and want to, work from home on Monday please do so. **If you are a vulnerable person (aged 70+ or with an underlying health condition, immune-compromised or pre-existing conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes or hypertension) please work from home, or stay at home on Monday if you are unable to work and we will be in touch. **From Monday physical distancing protocols will apply in all offices. Full details of changes to our current response plan have been emailed to you, please read as soon as you can access your emails. Our Silver CMT [crisis management team] is working today to refine our plans further and you can expect to hear from your People Leader before work commences on Monday morning. Have a great rest of the weekend. Vicki.

Tip 4: Be empathetic

Be clear with the facts, but show empathy while you deliver them:

  • Start by addressing the needs and concerns of your people first.
  • Be open and honest with bad news - acknowledge the impact these decisions will have.
  • Share your own personal stories where appropriate.

According to American Professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield, who have modelled effective leadership communication, there are three characteristics that matter: "Direction-giving", "Meaning-making" and "Empathy". While most leaders are great at the first, many neglect the other two.3

Here’s how we did it:

Vicki’s daily updates were candid and focused on employee concerns with headlines like:

  • You will continue to be paid.
  • We’re looking after your wellbeing.
  • Getting you up and running.

Tip 5: Be accessible

Talk to your team regularly and keep them up-to-date. Your presence alone says: "You're important, and I'm here for you." 

Here's how we did it:

  • Vicki did live chats so people could ask their burning questions.
  • Our medical officers did virtual sessions to answer employee questions about Covid-19.

Tip 6: Be responsive

People will have lots of questions or constructive suggestions, so give them an on-going opportunity to provide feedback:

  • Answer every question you can.
  • If you can’t answer a question, explain why.
  • Always be prepared to change your plans in response to good feedback. 

How we did it:

We ran weekly pulse check surveys to assess people’s wellbeing during the lockdown, including asking about people’s home workplace set up. 

Celebrate success

Finally, remember, there will be moments of light, and there will be people who step up and shine. Make sure you take time to celebrate these and share positive stories and a few laughs at the right time.

How we did it:

At Southern Cross, our ‘values cards’ were shared in record number. We use these to recognise each other for living our values. They acknowledge the individual acts of kindness, teamwork and resilience.

Now how about you?

What worked for you? What unique challenges did you face? We’d love to hear, and you can contact us via LinkedIn or call your Southern Cross Account Manager.

Want to find out how employer-funded health insurance can help you attract and retain young talent?  Get in touch with your account manager or your adviser and request a call back today.


  1. (2013, June 20). How Employee Engagement Drives Growth. Retrieved from
  2. (2020, February 2). Novel Coronavirus(2019-nCoV)Situation Report-13. Retrieved from
  3. (2020, April 6). Coronavirus: Three reasons why Jacinda Ardern’s response is perfect crisis leadership | Retrieved from
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