The First Rule in a Crisis is to Communicate

Posted on 8 June, 2020

When the Covid-19 tsunami hit South African shores in March this year, the construction sector had already been in the doldrums for some time. The economy was struggling, and many big-name construction companies had sadly nose-dived in the preceding years. Lockdown and the ceasing of all construction activity at the end of March arrived like a bad dream to an already embattled industry that now stood to lose thousands of jobs, and potentially suffer even more casualties.

Construction companies were faced with the reality of sending staff home to “work from home”, an alien concept to bricks and mortar men and women. Executives at GVK-Siya Zama Building Contractors, a national construction company with offices in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Gauteng, knew that it would require great commitment to keep their teams focused and engaged in this new online environment. From the outset, all efforts were concentrated on ensuring the welfare of staff and securing the survival of the company in an environment where the rules had changed overnight.

A critical component of the company’s Covid-plan was to communicate as often and authentically as possible with employees. Says Marlize Fourie, Group HR Executive: “It was essential for us to look after our employees, thus honouring one of our values, that of respect and care. GVK-Siya Zama is a big family and we wanted to ensure that every member of the family remained safe, stayed positive and connected.”

Fourie elaborates that a weekly communique from CEO Eben Meyburgh to all staff became a key priority on the agenda as the lockdown settled in during April. “We strategised and carefully formulated messages to keep staff informed during this unsettling period. In addition, we tried to ensure that regional management teams and heads of departments checked in with team members several times a week to connect beyond work requirements to offer moral support.”

Feeling that they had to gauge the effectiveness of their communication strategy and the welfare of employees during the extended lockdown, GVK-Siya Zama designed an online, mobile-enabled employee wellness survey to ascertain how well staff were coping, what their needs were and how the company could assist. The survey included questions about emotional and financial wellbeing, the potential effect of Covid-19 on family and friends, as well as company communication, leadership and management support. Executives also wanted to understand employees’ productivity, how they were coping with working remotely and adapting to online meetings and workshops with clients and colleagues.

A high response rate of 92% with 76% of employees electing to add their names to their online submissions, revealed that employees were, understandably, concerned about their personal finances and the effect of Covid-19 on the sustainability of the company. This came at a time when the company had announced salary cuts, which the majority of employees regarded as fair, under the circumstances.

Fourie adds how encouraging insights included that employees commended the company’s consistent communication up to that point and included a strong voice to sustain frequent communication. 89% of employees expressed confidence in company leadership to make the right decisions in the crisis and 81% felt supported by their immediate managers.

Within a week of the close-out of the survey, employees received a high-level summary of survey results by email. In response to survey data indicating that staff wanted weekly updates, preferably by WhatsApp voice notes, CEO Eben Meyburgh started recording his weekly messages for distribution via regional groups. Survey insights were shared with regional management teams who were subsequently tasked to put action plans in place in response to survey trends, indicators and concerns.

Fourie concludes that despite the effort required to generate frequent employee communications at a time when all team members were deeply involved in ensuring the survival of the company, the impact of this powerful tool cannot be underestimated. “This has contributed tremendously to the strength of our employer brand voice and has brought our teams closer over the last few months.”

As the construction industry returned to work under Level Three from the beginning of June, GVK-Siya Zama leaders and management are now tasked to continue the company’s Covid Communication protocol with consistent, honest and authentic communication.

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