How to communicate when your workforce returns to the office

Be prepared to evolve your culture, consistently collect feedback, and remember that how you act now will profoundly influence employees’ perception of your company.

How to communicate office returns

I strongly believe that when we all come back to the office (and I think it will happen soon), employees will need to be educated and retrained to understand the new normal protocols.

However, this isn’t a “welcome back, now get back to work” situation, and the communication will need to be more than just sending an email blast with instructions on returning properly. It’s more nuanced and will require more empathy than a set of instructions.

Here’s what you should keep in mind when preparing to bring the team back to the office.

Embrace consistent communication and an evolving culture

Little communication during this time will only cause more issues. The pandemic requires communicators to be thoughtful as they inform employees of new expectations while being open to evolving the company culture based on the uncertain landscape.

Here’s the best way to communicate with your team prior to a full recovery:

  • Consistent communication and feedback — Every leader should be providing regular updates and continue to ask for ideas and suggestions on the proper way to come back. Every employee is concerned about their employment and safety, and it’s the duty of the leadership team to communicate how employees will work together to be productive while staying safe. This also includes communicating the financial well-being of the company.
  • Continue to focus on your values and purpose — Yes, you still need to sell your products and services. But that should never come at the expense of your values and purpose. How leaders act during this time will be remembered.
  • Evolve your culture — The team isn’t returning after a long holiday break. It’s more than that. The place we “return” to will likely feel and look different. Even if your team is excited about going back to the office, it’s important to provide flexibility around returning to the office. Be prepared to evolve your culture. Don’t wait until everything goes back to normal.

Think about the experience

Practicing empathy for everyone’s journey back to the office will go a long way. Every individual had their own experience with the lockdown, and many won’t be able to just jump back into the office as if nothing happened.

Here are a few things you can do immediately:

  • Social distancing flexibility — This is obviously something we’ve never had to think about before. Mandatory work-from-office days or strict work-from-home schedules need to be communicated. Since everyone feels differently, and the data and science is still inconclusive, companies need to define what is mandatory, what isn’t and why
    • Think about how you will interact with people while maintaining social distancing. Is it really that urgent to come back to the office? Is it optional, but implied? Can there be varied schedules, such as 20% of the office comes in on Mondays or comes to the office two days a week?
    • Are you thinking about their safety and comfort? Are you sending people back to the office even though they are clearly not comfortable with a full return?
    • Extra flexibility and accommodation for parents of school-aged children will need to be considered. Not everyone is returning to a normal schedule, and many employees will be on a case-by-case basis, which means flexibility needs to be built-in.
  • Wellness — Employees have had more time for themselves and time to be active. Organizations should reconsider how they treat the wellness of their employees, and not just as an afterthought. I’d like to see more wellness programs that give each employee an opportunity to be healthier every day.
  • Define when business travel is needed — This will be a sensitive subject for many. Some are ready to travel for business, and some don’t want to touch an airport or airplane until the pandemic has cleared, which might not be for another 18 months. Define and discuss what is and isn’t essential for business travel. Meet with your team to learn who is comfortable traveling and determine ways to accommodate them.

Create a dedicated office response team 

Imagine onboarding a new employee. Now imagine onboarding every single employee at the same time. That’s what this is going to be like.

I highly recommend creating a dedicated response team that includes key leadership, HR, individual contribution teams, operations team, and building managers. Every aspect of returning should be handled by one central group that can plan and respond quickly.

You have to make sure employees are front and center, so come at it from a human perspective. The future looks different for everyone. Consider all outlets you have for communicating.

  • Create a formal feedback forum — Whether this is through focus groups, feedback surveys, etc., leaders should think about how to make employees feel comfortable and safe. Make sure there are open lines of communication and the opportunity to voice concerns.
  • Consider creating welcome back packets — A welcome message from the CEO on each employee’s desk can go a long way. The welcome message should address the realities of the situation, and what’s expected of every team member going forward.
  • Create a new supply cabinet — You know that empty cabinet you have with random things? Use this area to provide your team with everything they need to be safe and sanitary in the office. This includes hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, etc.

Be agile and forever changing

How will you handle the first COVID-19 case at your company after everyone is back? Are you prepared? This is one of the many things that might happen during the reopening of business. We all went through this together. How you act now and treat everyone will affect how employees feel about your company.

I hope these tips will be helpful in creating a better and more productive working environment in the near future.

Michael DesRochers is the CEO of PoliteMail, an email intelligence platform for Outlook. This article is in partnership with PoliteMail.

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