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Communication Tips for Leading During the Pandemic

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WBHeadshotIn an effort to share crisis communications tips during this pandemic, AOE sat down with Whitney Belkowitz, President and CEO of Intelligent Concrete, LLC, to learn about their approach to communicating related to COVID-19.  Intelligent Concrete, LLC is an international company that provides research, development, testing and consulting services for the concrete and construction industry.  She shared that one of her passions is helping to bring new and emerging technologies to market.

Question: How has COVID-19 impacted your operations?

Belkowitz:  To begin, we have more people working from home now and we were on a skeleton crew in the office for about six weeks – we only had people come in if they absolutely had to be here. Initially, everyone was required to wear face masks at all times and no hugging and touching. It just changed the feel here and made things less personal, which was tough but we are loosening somewhat on facemasks when people are several feet part, still trying to keep social distancing as much as possible and are letting people start coming back to the office more. However, if anyone gets on a plane or has to go to the hospital, or has any suspected symptoms, they are on a mandatory seven day quarantine and can only work from home.

In addition to the changes in how we work, on the first day of this new work arrangement, we lost two major contracts. It was tough and we had to really tighten our belt. Thankfully, we were able to recapture that revenue fairly quickly, but it was a good lesson in being comfortable with "trimming the fat."

Question: Did you have a crisis communications plan in place before the pandemic? 

Belkowitz: We did not have a crisis communications plan in place before the pandemic. There just was no need for it and really it had never crossed my mind. Jon, co-owner of the business, and I talk openly at least once a week with one or more of our advisors about the direction of the company and how projections are looking for workflow over the coming months. We are a small enough business still that we are used to being flexible, dynamic and still have that hustle that people can loose once comfort sets in. For years it was just Jon and me so we got used to things being tough and adjusting, pushing for better outcomes.

Question: When and what did you start communicating related to the pandemic?  

Belkowitz: Early, before things started shutting down, Jon started doing some research and came across this great article talking about how to create a crisis plan step by step. We immediately started doing that late at night and early in the morning. We ran it through our group of advisors to get their input; we reviewed it several times a week, updated it as we needed to and anytime we thought about deterring from our plan we would talk to our advisors first just to make sure it made good business sense. 

Question: How have you communicated with employees?  Customers? Frequency?

Belkowitz: One of our mottos is communication and follow through. We did a meeting at least once a week with our employees, and more frequently if things suddenly changed. We were extremely transparent about what was going on with our company, losing/gaining contracts, etc. We let them know we would take as big of a hit as we could (Jon and me) before we did any pay cuts for them, but we let them know it was a possibility. We did not want anything to be a surprise. We made it known that air travel was not allowed if they planned to come to work unless it was an emergency, and we temporarily suspended all company travel. We also followed up with our customers regularly, which was daily for some and weekly for others, as we wanted to know how they were doing and let them know we were still in the lab and open for business to provide any support they needed.

Question: How do you make decisions related to the communication surrounding COVID-19? 

Belkowitz: I think for us, it comes from looking at all the possible scenarios and planning for them before they happen. If you don't have a plan, the response to include communication will be defensive and not offensive. It is looking at all the bad things that can happen, when you are calm, and just look at it rationally and figure out the best approach if it were to happen. We never wanted to be unprepared. We saw things taking a turn in early March and knew we needed to start planning and preparing for several different scenarios. This allowed us to have some peace of mind with the craziness that was/is going on. It also allowed us to communicate clearly and frequently with our customers and employees in a calm and prepared manner.

Question: Have you continued to market? If so, how did you alter your message (assuming you did)?

Belkowitz: We have, but we changed our approach. One of the big ways we market is doing free videos on You-Tube to educate the industry. Well, because of the pandemic, not only were we working from home, but our kids were at home doing school, as were their friends. People kept reaching out to us for homework help, especially with math, which Jon and I both love. So, we started doing videos to help parents who now had become school teachers. We also just tried to have a message of hope as we were still plugging along and hoped others were too. We really wanted to show appreciation for the concrete construction industry as so many are still out working and doing their thing.

Question: Any lessons learned thus far related to your communications strategy?

Belkowitz: Plan and execute -- every time. Figure out what needs to be done and do it, but plan when you have a clear mind and are able to look at a situation rationally. Communicate early and often. As far as change in communications for the employees who did work from home, they checked in every morning when they signed in to work. They would have a quick chat with their immediate supervisor to make sure everyone knew the priorities for the day and then before they clocked out, they sent an update via email regarding how their day went. Key to success so far has been communicating as often as possible to make sure everyone is on the same page.

One of the other big lessons is just to really spend time trying to figure out what we needed to do for our business, and this includes having discussions about those tough cuts and other potential decisions. It was key that we addressed how to approach it and then discussed it with people we trusted to help keep us on the right track. I think one of the most overwhelming things with this pandemic is that it is something so different from anything we have dealt with before. Everyone needs to figure out what will work for them, so while there are great resources, it is a matter of taking the time to dig deep, and figure the best approach to make sure the business can succeed and not being afraid to look at things in a completely different light.

Editor’s Note: Wow! Although Intelligent Concrete, LLC didn’t have a crisis plan moving into the pandemic, they buckled down and assembled one, and continue to refine their communication efforts.  And what an amazing example of shifting their marketing message and sharing their expertise by helping parents with those math assignments.  Kudos to Intelligent Concrete, LLC for continuing to communicate early and often during this pandemic, and for sharing their best practices.  Visit Intelligent Concrete, LLC to learn more!

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