Fiona Hartnett – Communication during Covid-19

Hello, my name is Fiona Hartnett and I am the General Manager for Clinical Services at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. My role involves overseeing operational and administrative support to our childrens and adults services. During the Covid-19 pandemic this has required a real increase in the frequency of communication with staff across the Directorates and today I am going to reflect on how we have done that and hopefully offer some useful advice to both those receiving and those delivering communications in this context.

In these challenging times it can feel difficult to keep on top all the information that is flying around and it may feel that somehow you have missed something that everyone else knows, or that you can’t keep your team up to date quickly enough. Guidance and information is constantly changing and what was right one week may no longer be the next.

It is important to remember that lots of people at all levels in organisations can feel this way and that usually this is not about you not paying attention, it really is difficult. It is important that you find a balance between keeping in the loop and supporting your own wellbeing by not becoming overloaded with information. Managers also need to strike this balance and not give their teams too much information that can be overwhelming.

For those on the receiving end, remember its normally not necessary to know the latest information straight away. It may help you to set a time of the day to catch up on emails, read minutes of meetings or listen in to staff briefings that may have been recorded. Having a specific time may make it feel less overwhelming and can hopefully mean you see the latest information and can digest it at your own pace. Linked to this I would advise considering setting periods in the day when you close your email so you are not bombarded and can focus on specific tasks, if anyone really needs to contact you they will find a way to do so.

Secondly don’t be afraid to ask – if something is unclear you can be sure you are not the only person to think so. Ask for clarification or for more details. Similarly if you have an idea for how the team can improve communication let your manager know, it may be something they hadn’t thought about.

For those of you responsible for communicating with staff be sure to keep communication regular – I have found that even team catch ups where I thought I didn’t have anything to say have been helpful to check in, confirm nothing has changed and to let people bring their own questions. If you send email updates consider doing this at the same time each week or day so people know when to expect it.

In email communication where possible keep it brief. Consider sending headlines in the body of the email and more complex breakdowns of information in attachments so people can choose how much they can or need to read now but can get the salient points quickly. Make sure you check your emails and documents before you send them to be sure that they are clear and if necessary ask a trusted colleague to look over it for you as its easy to miss something when you understand the information well yourself.

Think about communicating in more than one format – one email is unlikely to be enough so do try various methods to get messages across. Linked to this you should be prepared to repeat yourself and be patient in doing so. People will miss messages and in these challenging times it’s important to give them that time and accept you may need to say things more times and in more ways than usual.

Finally, while it is of course OK to say you don’t know, don’t ignore people, explain that you need to look into it further and that you will get back to them. While it may be difficult or feel unimportant to you it isn’t to whoever asked.  

I hope this was useful to you and encourage you to remember that communicating in this environment is difficult for everyone and if you are finding it hard to know what is going on you are not alone.

Fiona Hartnett is the General Manager of Children, Young Adults and Families and Adult and Forensic Services at The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. Fiona reflects on the impact COVID-19 has had on communications with staff and offers some useful advice to both those receiving and those delivering communications in this context.