The Costs of Uncertainty: Addressing Communication During the Pandemic

The operative word is “pivot.” COVID-19 has meant trucking companies have had to do an about-face in communicating meaningful information to their staff at all levels. Effective—not efficient—communication is key.

By Dave Elniski

Many trucking companies struggle to recruit and retain drivers in quantities sufficient enough to put management at ease.  Office and maintenance staff turnover also pose challenges.

A company owner may dream of the profits possible if their workforce were to remain steady.  Orientations cost money, and the loss of each competent worker represents further financial loss as all their experience follows them to their next job.

COVID-19 has not eased any of these organizational burdens.  Canadians are on the threshold of their second pandemic year, and many trucking businesses that survived 2020 with decreased revenues are wondering how to get through another year of similar challenges.

A business needs more than customers

All businesses need customers and trucking companies put considerable effort into finding the work necessary to keep their fleet moving.  But if there isn’t enough labour to move the freight then more work isn’t a blessing.

Trucking companies are also often unable to influence their load rates; for many, rates are determined by shippers and brokers.  And even if rates rise in response to fewer available trucks, no one is giving anything away and such changes can take more time than many carriers have to survive in their current state.

There is profit in efficiency, and addressing worker concerns mid-pandemic may be the key to greater efficiency for many companies as worker anxiety rises.

The effects of elevated uncertainty

If there is a lot of uncertainty, there is also a lot of anxiety, stress, and panicked decision-making.  At the same time, lots of uncertainty means there is less trust, long-term planning, and felt security.  Simply put, high levels of uncertainty make workplaces unpleasant.

Uncertainty prevents workers from focusing on the problems at hand.  If a business which, on a good day, struggles with communication and retention, increased uncertainty will only exacerbate these issues.

Unfortunately, many trucking companies struggle to communicate effectively with their drivers.  Drivers, whose skills are in high demand, may respond to uncertainty by leaving their employer to drive for a different company where they feel more likely to survive and advance.

Trucking companies can’t do anything to reduce the wide-spread anxiety surrounding the pandemic at the national and international levels.  However, they can adopt improved communication strategies to reduce the uncertainty that exists within their own operations.

Cross-cultural considerations

COVID-19 challenges even the most homogeneous workforce.  However, most Canadian workplaces include significant levels of cultual diversity and this diversity needs to be central in communication planning.

The delays and poor reception sometimes seen when video conferencing are distracting.  Additionally, written communication like newsletters and emails don’t provide a way of conveying the messages coded in body language and facial expressions.  People who struggle with your organization’s primary language will have a harder time comprehending electronic messages.

Workers with extra communication barriers will require special attention during the pandemic.  They experience all the stress and uncertainty of their coworkers while having to contend with communication challenges that naturally occur in a diverse workplace.

A pandemic communication tune-up

Communication is something every organization can improve, however, during the COVID-19 world of increased uncertainty and stress, communication strategies deserve extra attention.

Many carriers have excellent communication practices, but even these companies should re-evaluate their practices now that the pandemic has changed the day-to-day world of many workers.

The subsections below will examine some aspects of organizational communication that carriers can reflect on in their operations.

Remote communication challenges

What types of communication have diminished due to remote work that were previously taken for granted?

Many workers are working from home due to COVID-19 restrictions.  While this does not typically apply to drivers, having office staff working from a different location will create challenges for many companies.

A lot of communication is done informally in settings like offices.  While there may be a shared calendar and workplace email system, a lot of messages may be passed verbally depending on the layout of the facility.

If remote work is presenting communication challenges for your company, reflect on how much information typically gets passed through hallway conversations and the poking of heads into offices.  The communication strategy being used for remote work must make up for the loss of these informal types of conversations.

This is directly aimed at offices, but if there are communication deficiencies between office workers there will be problems in the information being conveyed to drivers.

The renewed importance of meetings

Love them or hate them, meetings are essential to a healthy business culture.  Does the carrier have a way of regularly gathering thoughts and ideas to improve operations and dispel rumours?

COVID-19 has altered many types of gatherings including the traditional conference room meeting.  Despite these restrictions, companies need to find a way to ensure that key goals are being communicated to the right people and that information is being shared from the right sources.

Rumours will grow and thrive when communication is poor.  The pandemic has caused increased levels of uncertainty for many as well, so rumours related to changes in the business need to be confronted and controlled.

Whether social distancing or virtual platforms are used, meetings should be maintained as much as possible so that information can be passed down and feedback passed up.

Communication time

Many workers and owners are spending extra time on planning and managing the challenges arising from the pandemic.  Where is this time coming from?

A business leader or owner may simply have to put in extra time to manage the operation.  However, these individuals should not assume that all of their workers are willing to do the same.  If there are logistical challenges due to remote work or increased delays in operations due to enhanced health and safety protocols, this time cannot be taken for granted.

Business leaders need to communicate that they understand the challenges their workers are facing due to the pandemic.  They must also acknowledge these increased efforts through fair compensation or through the lessening of individual workloads so workers avoid burn out.

In order for successful communication to take place, time must be spent on investigating, using, and tweaking communication systems.  And finally, leaders and workers alike can help the company thrive by checking in on their co-workers and direct reports to get a sense of how people are feeling.

Virtual communication platforms

At this point in the pandemic, most people are familiar with video conferencing programs like Zoom, Google Chat, Apple’s FaceTime, and Microsoft Teams.  Adequately research different programs to determine what is best for your organisation.

A business doesn’t need to choose a single platform.  Remote office workers who meet regularly for a committee may elect to use a certain platform that suits committee members.  But when a virtual meeting is scheduled with a driver, see if that individual has a preference for a program.  People’s expertise with and access to technology differs dramatically, so giving options will help gain greater acceptance of these changes during the pandemic.

There are also other internet-based communication apps that may work for specific business needs.  Programs like WhatsApp allow for the sharing of text, video, and audio messages without access to a cell signal as long as there is internet, so WIFI and Ethernet-based devices can participate in group discussions.

Each type of communication program or app offers specific advantages and disadvantages, but there is something important to remember: many workers dislike all of them and never wanted to work like we are forced to during the pandemic.  Managers and leaders need to recognize the annoyance many people feel when asked to participate in virtual meetings.  They must also recognize that people are being asked to become proficient in different forms of technology which they may have never used pre-pandemic, so patience and understanding are critical to a collaborative work culture.

Keeping it positive and real

Finally, all managers and business leaders should strive to remain positive and genuine.  Bad news will need to be delivered when appropriate, but if the company is still operating then there are people doing good work that needs to be recognized.

Now is a great time for businesses to create programs of recognition for the dedication of their staff.  Drivers away from home, office staff working from their bedrooms, and all other workers doing what is required to get the job done deserve pats on the back.

Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the resiliency of many carriers despite some segments of the industry seeing all-time highs in terms of demand for their services.  The key takeaway from this article is that the pandemic represents a time of change and change needs to be handled carefully.

Effective – not efficient – communication can reduce uncertainty in the workplace, address negative rumours, and help workers feel more involved and appreciated.  The key word here is effective: effective communication will take more effort and time than using the most efficient means available.

Workers are people and people thrive when they feel like they are cared for and part of a community.  If a company can create this type of culture, the resulting cohesion will more than make up for the time spent practicing proper communication.

Dave Elniski is a trucking safety professional from southern Alberta who writes on a variety of transportation-related topics.

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