Ten Communications Imperatives for Returning to Office

7.09.21 • Thought Leadership

Across the country, companies have been planning for the future of their workplaces. Some are encouraging their employees back to the office full time. Others are pushing flexible or hybrid models. Either way, businesses are facing incredible challenges in managing talent and keeping up with economic recovery.

Retaining, motivating and inspiring employees; maintaining trust; and offering a compelling employee value proposition have become more critical at a time when people are feeling increasingly burned out and more workers are quitting their jobs than at any time in at least two decades – often without an alternative role lined up.

Facing this unexpected new reality requires nurturing the employee-employer relationship with greater transparency, sensitivity and consistent communication. BCW’s corporate team has been working with companies throughout the pandemic on their Return to Office (RTO) plans. The team has identified the following 10 communications imperatives:

  1. Communicate early and often.
  • Communicate from the CEO down, both regularly and consistently. The voice of senior leadership, and their example in modelling behaviors, is critical to building trust and credibility with employees.
  • Any change (including a return to former policies or practices) is difficult and can often result in resistance. Frequent communications can help mitigate the risks of pushback or discomfort.

2. Communicate with empathy.

  • Employees have been through a lot in the past 18 months. The impact of Covid-19 pandemic has meant that leaders are increasingly required – and expected to – demonstrate more empathy and emotional sensitivity than perhaps at any other time in recent memory.

3. Ensure that the rationale for RTO is clearly articulated.

  • Articulate why you are pushing ahead with RTO and not staying remote indefinitely. What’s the business case for asking employees to return to a designated workplace?
  • Clarify what RTO means and for whom (e.g., will it be five days a week? At the same location as before? Will it apply for everyone? Are there exceptions?)
  • Set up a dedicated, well-organized and mobile-accessible “single source of truth” for RTO materials, where all RTO-related communications and content can live (e.g., a SharePoint site or hub on your intranet). Include overarching guidance about the company’s RTO plans, as well as regularly updated FAQs and an easy, anonymous feedback mechanism for employees to direct questions.

4. Double down on your organization’s purpose, values and expected behaviors.

  • Reiterate your employee value proposition. What do you expect of employees? What should they expect of you? How will you demonstrate your ability to make this a “great place to work?”
  • Push hard to recognize employees who are embodying desired behaviors.

5. Be flexible and ready for changing realities.

  • Employers that communicate flexibility, open-mindedness and a willingness to work together will build speedy and enduring employee loyalty.
  • Offer a gradual RTO timeline to make unplanned schedule changes easier. Remember that employee opinions aren’t fixed, and neither are public health guidelines.

6. Consider the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) impacts of RTO.

  • RTO may have an outsized impact on certain employee groups, for example employees with disabilities, or with childcare or elder-care responsibilities. With this in mind, approach RTO as an opportunity to craft more flexible and adaptable policies. Communicate thoughtfully with different employee groups to understand their needs around transitioning to new ways of working. And remain sensitive to the social and cultural norms that start taking shape to ensure that new workplace expectations don’t negatively impact those with different or unique needs.
  • Actively include employee resource groups (ERGs) and underrepresented employees to ensure that activities and plans are inclusive of different races/ethnicities, LGBTQIA+, genders, etc. This may lead, for example, to additional transition options for parents and caregivers, an expansion of flexible work arrangements – with an encouragement for all eligible employees to use them – or resources to adjust to the challenges of in-person working again.

7. Treat people managers and HR leads as key message holders.

  • Ensure that managers are equipped and well prepared with appropriate toolkits and messaging to help them communicate effectively with their teams.
  • Do not leave room for assumptions, speculation or rumors when it comes to delivering important decisions or updates.

8. Treat RTO as though you are “onboarding” every employee. And expect “back to the office blues.”

  • Consider forming a “welcoming committee” of diverse, engaged employees to facilitate an easy transition and to make returning a moment of connection.
  • Engage ERGs to ensure the onboarding plans are inclusive and consider developing intentional events to support the transition for ERG members.
  • Create welcome packets as people re-enter the office that outline new policies, articulate expected behaviors and include an FAQ and important materials (e.g., hand sanitizer, rules regarding face masks).
  • Re-entering the office environment will be difficult for some employees. Some will find the transition hard from a psychological perspective. Motivation may become an issue for others. For all, keep wellness (emotional, physical, mental) front of mind, and let people know what they can count on—such as those things that are familiar and not going to change.

9. Ensure remote workers are not left out in a “hybrid” work environment.

  • Ensure that remote workers remain involved and engaged in every part of the employee experience (e.g., in selecting people for new assignments, team development, scheduling, recognition, performance reviews, onboarding). Actively reinforce this with managers and update policies and processes where possible.
  • Provide clear guidance to ensure remote workers are fully included in meetings.

10. Ask for input regularly. Listen to employee feedback and adapt policies based on what’s working/what’s not working.

  • Throughout this process, employees will expect to be consulted. Let employees voice what they care about during transition so they become part of the process and feel supported.
  • Continue encouraging and acting on employee feedback and ideas, as certain impacts of a hybrid environment (both positive and negative) will only become clear with practical experience. Make sure to be clear that you are actively listening

Want more insights? One of our crisis experts, Michael Estevez, recently discussed some of the potential blind spots organizations may face when returning to office. Listen to the conversation on the BCW/Kroll Podcast: Inside the War Room.

Mike Harris is an SVP in BCW’s Corporate Practice in New York. He helps organizations across a range of industries connect corporate strategy and internal communications to manage change and drive reputation.

Neil Barman is an SVP in BCW’s Corporate Practice in New York and leads change and communication efforts spanning Organizational Culture, DE&I Strategy and Business Transformation.

Mike and Neil jointly lead our Business Transformation and Employee Engagement team in the U.S.