Clear is kind: How to refine your return-to-office plan

The adage “clear is kind” has never been truer than now in our crazy, in-between, almost-post-COVID world.

If you’ve been working in internal communications during the past three years, give yourself a pat on the back. COVID taxed all of us to the max.

And even now, with mandates and regulations winding down, many communications leaders still have the granddaddy of all unprecedented challenges to manage: telling people that their office presence is … expected? Required? Hybrid? Optional? Dependent on their role?

Not an easy message, whichever one you need to deliver.

If you’re in the middle of the tangled return-to-office process and things aren’t going as well as you anticipated, or if your teams haven’t begun the migration, here are a few steps that may smooth your path.

1. Look back.

When looking back, look all the way back to the beginning. Find and review every email, newsletter, and video you shared back in 2020 when your company sent people to work from home. What language did you use? What promises did you make? Is there room for interpretation about what “return” would entail?

Even if you forgot what you said way back when, there’s a chunk of your employees who most certainly did not. If your requirements for return-to-office now are not congruent with what you said then, you’ll need to add a layer of comms to acknowledge the gap and explain it.

2. Survey says…

Did you field an employee survey that asked about remote work/return to offices? If you did, review the results again. Did company leadership publicly share results, address concerns and telegraph how feedback would be used? Does the return plan specifically address employee perspectives from the survey?

If not, you have a problem. There’s no faster way to open a breach of trust and dissatisfaction in a process than to ask people what they think and not use the information they gave you.

Here’s another wrinkle: If the company used the data but didn’t tell anyone, that’s almost as bad. Evolving your comms strategy from merely sharing what the return looks like to explaining how the plan was formulated based on survey results brings an element of collaboration and camaraderie that a policy pushed down from on high can’t achieve.

3. Prep your leaders.

If employee chatter about returning to the office is negative, it doesn’t matter how perfectly you write or present your internal comms. Before you communicate a return plan, do everything in your power to align leaders and prepare them to support and amplify your messaging. Confirm that executives are fully bought in and ready to be public about it. Push out “communication before the communication” to managers and mid-level leaders that allows them to play devil’s advocate and ask questions.

If you empower leaders to manage grapevine conversations taking place in places you don’t see (hello, private Slack messages!), you’ll help the firm speak with a single confident voice.

4. Separate COVID remote work from “normal” remote work.

Unless your business physically requires employees to be present, you likely have a percentage of people who will be remote forever. But having the needs of that population muddled up with people who are home solely because of COVID creates confusion. Think about all the policy back-and-forth over the past three years:

We’re coming back!
No, wait, stay home.
It’ll happen in two months!
No, it’ll be three….four….five…

The recurring uncertainty and anxiety often make return-to-office policy decisions seem arbitrary and unfair. You can stop this cycle by removing the concept of “COVID remote work” and crafting a formal telecommuting policy that has nothing to do with COVID-19. Creating an application process to work from home, with specific criteria and a requirement for supervisor approval, gives an “escape hatch” to individuals who need or prefer remote work to potentially continue as they are, or know clearly why they can’t, without pandemic baggage dragging on the conversation.

The adage “clear is kind” has never been truer than in our crazy, in-between, almost-post-COVID world. Ensuring that your messages create a consistent vision, amplify trust, and draw a bright line between “remote for the pandemic” and “remote for a business reason” will help get your company moving in a positive new rhythm for a (hopefully) calmer future.

Debra Helwig is the senior internal communications manager for K·Coe Isom.

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