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Strategies for effective return-to-office communications

In March 2020, the world shifted beneath our feet. Restaurants, theaters, and schools closed. Air travel and hotel stays dwindled. Taking public transportation became a death-defying experience. Even trips to the grocery store created anxiety. And for good reason, with a mysterious virus hanging in the air and few defenses against it.

For many office workers, the original plan was to work from home for a few weeks, at most, while the virus ran its course and faded away. When things didn’t work out that way, weeks stretched into agonizing months. But eventually, with the help of safety precautions, things started to change for the better.

And we got used to working from home. Employees were freed from the daily commute and could reallocate that time for other activities. At home, unused space was transformed into home offices. In multi-family buildings, property managers worked with building owners to re-imagine common areas. We bought sweatpants and comfy shoes and started walking more, for the fresh air and for the exercise.

A lot of people, tired of the small spaces of urban living, especially families with small children, moved to the suburbs, or further. The concept of the “15-minute city,” with all our needs met within 15 minutes of our homes – shops, parks, entertainment, and work – is beginning to take shape in cities around the world. And today, most workers say they enjoy remote work, reporting greater productivity and less stress.

With the majority of workers reluctant to return to the office full time, we’re seeing a vast difference between employees and employers. A Blackhawk Network survey reveals that 41% of respondents would seek new employment if required to return to the office full time, and even part time.

While different surveys provide different insights, they all point to a need for employers to be flexible, realistic, ask for input, and openly communicate return-to-office plans with employees.

Maybe your business has already established and communicated a plan for employees to return to the office, maybe you’ve delayed the transition, or maybe returning to the office has proved more complicated than expected. Here are some suggestions to help inform your communications.

Communications begin with the CEO

Your CEO sets the stage for a successful return to office strategy. This is where the trust and credibility with employees begins. They’re the example for other employees to follow, and establish the tone for communications.

Return to office communications should start with the company CEO, setting expectations, new protocols, timeframes, and a way for employees to weigh in. Keeping employee needs and concerns front-and-center will make or break your return-to-office plans.

Address employee concerns

Employees may have concerns about:

  • The safety of public transportation
  • Vaccination requirements
  • Social distancing
  • Masking
  • Protocols around anyone in the office who test positive

Make sure the communications around these issues are clear and easily accessible to employees in more than one spot. Also, it’s a good idea to designate certain employees as the go-to facilitators for these communications and any questions employees have.

Be sensitive

Remember that your employees didn’t choose to work remotely, and yet, they made it work. They remained productive despite the many challenges they faced. In fact, 94% of employers say productivity has remained the same or improved since employees began working remotely.

Also, keep in mind that many people are scared. They may live with unvaccinated children or have contact with those at high risk, despite vaccination status. Clearly articulate what steps you’ve taken to help maintain the health and well-being of your employees, from social distancing to masking to vaccine requirements. Ask employees about their commutes and other obstacles to returning to the office.

Keep in mind that employees are traumatized. They may have lost friends and family to COVID-19. Express compassion, understanding, and support of their mental health, emotions, and fears.

Define the ‘why’ for a return to the office

After all, if your employees have been working remotely successfully all this time, why should they go back to the office? What’s the business case for asking employees to return to a designated workplace? Your answer to this question is crucial to successfully returning to the office.

Think hard. Is it for increased collaboration? Efficiency? Before you answer, consider how your response will resonate with employees, and how your reasoning will help them succeed in their current and future roles. Keep in mind that, in one study, 30% of respondents say they will leave their employer if they are required to come back into the office full time.

Flexibility first

We’re on a bumpy road. A recent Gartner study indicates flexibility as key to their productivity. Similarly, 64% of employees say they’re more likely to choose a role that allows for flexibility than one that does not. The COVID-19 Delta variant also showed that the course of the pandemic is no straight line, and companies must account for second- or third-wave outbreaks in return plans, underscoring the need for flexibility.

In working with employers on their return-to-office strategies, experts have learned employers that communicate flexibility, open-mindedness, and a willingness to work together will build speedy and enduring employee loyalty.

Other considerations

Depending on your company culture, engage a diverse team of employees to facilitate an easy transition and to make returning a moment of celebration. Make being back together and seeing each other again in real life a special moment.

Keep in mind that re-entry will be difficult for some employees. Even if some employees have been back in the office for a while because of their personal preferences, proximity to the office, or job responsibilities, it’s hard for others from a psychological perspective. For others, they may be scared and feel at risk of contracting the virus and bringing it home to their families and friends. Remember to keep emotional, physical, and mental wellness top of mind.

Ask for feedback, and take it seriously

Employees want to be consulted to share their experiences and comfort level with being back in the office. Ask them how it’s going, if they feel more productive and collaborative. Most importantly, use that input to make adjustments to your plan and policies. Make them feel heard and a part of the process. But be genuine. Taking their input and not acting on it is worse than never asking at all.

Remember that returning to the office, like life itself, is a journey. Also, despite the many studies indicating strong employee preference for a remote lifestyle, there’s also a large number of employees who want to return to the office for a broad range of reasons from feeling isolated at home to missing colleagues to feeling more productive in the office. As you craft and execute your plans, keep an open mind, listen to your employees, adjust, and assess results regularly.

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