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Will reopened businesses greet people with a warning message? Or should the message be more nuanced?
By Greg Nelson, Altitude Design Office
After months of efforts to slow the transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus and bolster the country’s healthcare capabilities, stay-at-home orders are slowly but surely being lifted. In some states, people are already returning to the spaces they knew before, and in other states they soon will be. In all cases, they’re returning with new perspectives as well as different required behavior protocols. How will people know how to navigate these once-familiar spaces under new and different circumstances?
While the country is experiencing a major medical emergency, people are also experiencing a crisis of communication. Information, after all, can be one of the antidotes to stress and uncertainty. People need to receive communication that is accurate, authentic, straightforward and helpful. This is critical to consider when workplaces, hotels, mixed-use developments and other urban spaces and places begin to reopen in order to help people feel safe and secure. Whether they’re communicating with words, graphics or symbols, the information must be carefully placed and designed with a clear, accurate message and an appropriate tone of voice.
Careful consideration must also be given to how each message might be received, especially given today’s unprecedented situation causing heightened anxiety and uncertainty. It’s important to remember that each individual has a unique point of view based on their personal experiences, and each may be in a different state of mind. In fact, a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that over 50 percent of people have reported that the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health. It’s important for businesses to approach their reopening with empathy for their employees, customers and guests. Also, businesses and organizations should continually ask for feedback from employees and customers, either in-person or through other channels like email and social media, especially since the impact of this coronavirus continues to evolve.
What types of communication will spaces require?
Ultimately as businesses are hoping to get back to some sense of normal, they know they will indeed have to adjust the behavior of employees and customers. Remembering that both thoughts (what people think) and emotions (what people feel) influence human behavior is vital in developing cues and communication, especially during times of crisis when thoughts and feelings are likely on overdrive. The Kaiser Family Foundation has developed communication best practices based on their experience in public health crises, and has found that the most effective messaging reflects and responds to the real-life issues people face. This means that messages must be kept current and contextual as opportunities and challenges shift in real-time.
With public information changing daily, one way to consider communication is around four primary dimensions: safety, wayfinding, brand and empathy. In order to successfully communicate with people as businesses reopen, spaces need to address all four dimensions with clarity and thoughtfulness. In the near term, safety is paramount. But business leaders have worked hard to build a strong foundation of brand, culture, and human connection and emotion into their organization, so that shouldn’t get lost or overshadowed in the messaging, even as safety now must command a big spotlight within each space.
This pandemic has forced a new emphasis on the most fundamental human needs for health and safety, so as they reopen, businesses must emphasize the priority they place on these basic needs. By doing so, they demonstrate that the health and safety of their employees, customers and guests really matter. Information must be clear and concise using a mix of words and graphics, including easily recognized symbols. The information must also be accurate and consistent with the messages the employees and customers are receiving from authorities in local jurisdictions or subject matter experts, such as the CDC. When safety is at stake, the communication should be straightforward, not nuanced, so it’s quickly and easily understood. Also emerging are many governmental and other regulatory notices that need to be posted to meet requirements. Business leaders should work with their HR, legal and facilities/safety teams to ensure all facets are being addressed.
People coming into spaces they once knew will present new challenges. Many spaces will have new arrangements to help separate people, and new circulation patterns will likely be required. For these reasons, navigational communication must be clear and concise as well. Even under normal circumstances, the goal of wayfinding devices is to help the user move through a space with comfort and ease. When issues of health and safety are layered into the experience, it’s even more important to direct employees and guests to the places and products they need while navigating around each other too. Wayfinding messages should be short, direct and use familiar cues like symbols and arrows, that can easily be comprehended.
Now more than ever, businesses need to ensure that their brand remains intact. This not only helps to continue the business’ short- and long-term viability, but also communicates to employees and customers that the brand cares and can continue to be trusted. Whether the message conveys information about safety, wayfinding, or empathy, it must be communicated in the familiar established brand voice, using an empathetic and reassuring tone. Keeping the communication open, and asking for feedback is critical too—questions like “how are we doing?” and “how are you doing?”
By understanding how people feel, businesses and brands have an opportunity to show their genuine care by providing inspiration and information about ways that individuals can assist each other. Inspirational messages that use a positive tone can remind people that their thoughts and feelings are important, and can reinforce the behaviors that ultimately promote positive change. Communication must be human-centered, but also action-oriented, offering tools and resources that guide people in helping themselves and others through challenging times.
Post-Pandemic Framework for How Spaces & Places Communicate
The table below offers a framework for considering the way space addresses these four dimensions and what it communicates as people return. Each space is different, just as each brand and each audience is different, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Some spaces will require a different balance of these components. For example, an airport might need to focus most of its primary communication on safety and wayfinding in the short-term, while a retail environment also requires strong elements of brand and empathy.