Reopening of the economy has introduced a new internal communications challenge – how to talk about returning to work in the office. Communication won’t be as simple as telling your workers when to report back to the office.
As employers already are discovering, a significant percentage of employees able to work remotely during the pandemic lockdown wants to continue to work remotely, at least some of the time. It will take more than pleas about camaraderie, collaboration and Zoom meeting fatigue to convince them. Employers need something substantive to say.
The stakes for employers are huge. Do they still need spacious, expensive office space? How can they ensure workforce productivity? Will continued remote work stifle innovation? Will the lack of remote work options drive key employees out the door? The answers to those questions will hinge on how many workers agree to return to the office and under what conditions. Engaging employees, rather than issuing orders, is more likely to produce a pleasant and profitable outcome.
Return-to-work communications must address employee concerns directly, creatively and transparently. For example, will COVID-19 vaccination be required to return to the office and, if not, how will vaccinated and unvaccinated workers interact on the job, especially in team settings? Employees also will want to know about enhanced safety and health measures, expected work hours and revamped workspaces.
Workers who have been providing at-home childcare during the pandemic will want to know what accommodations employers have made or are willing to make for childcare assistance when – and if – they come back to the office.
Talking to employees about returning to the office some or all the time should have a conversational tone, not a dictatorial one. As employers are discovering, some employees will quit rather than fall back to an old unsatisfying rut.
Since workers in a wide range of economic sectors have worked remotely for more than a year, employers would be wise to identify and retain practices that worked. Employers with multiple offices may want to integrate virtual team meetings into their “office” routine to sustain team familiarity and collaboration that didn’t exist pre-pandemic. Another accommodation might be relaxed dress requirements, perhaps not as far as allowing pajamas and no pants, but far enough to make working from the office or home seem less far apart.
Many workers have grown accustomed to avoiding lengthy commutes. Employers might consider staggering office schedules to help workers bypass traffic and maintain a better home/work balance. Offsite meetups could be another option.
A useful idea would be to ask employees what they liked when working remotely and what they missed. Personal conversations would be best, but even in a large organization a well-worded survey would suffice. The information would be more relevant to an employer’s workplace than third-party data or advice. Survey responses also could be used to customize a hybrid home/office routine for an employee with special needs or circumstances.
Employers shouldn’t totally be surprised to learn some of their employees, especially ones with families or outdoor hobbies, have moved from big cities to smaller ones to purchase larger houses with yards that they can afford. Depending on the distances involved, employers might consider paying for air or train travel like they would a city transit pass. For a business with key employees spread out over wide distances, a different kind of office arrangement might be the ticket, with flexible workspace located nearby affordable overnight accommodations.
Talking to employees about returning to the office some or all the time should have a conversational tone, not a dictatorial one. As employers are discovering, some employees will quit rather than fall back to an old unsatisfying rut. Employers should see these conversations as opportunities rather than headaches. Don’t farm them out to HR or a consultant. Take a personal interest, look for ways to innovate and be open to fresh ideas. See this as a rare chance to earn loyalty from workers by putting their individual and collective interests in the forefront rather than a new office floorplan.
The bottom line is to be flexible. Some remote work ideas may be impractical and unworkable. Don’t start there. Start instead by genuinely looking for ways to get jobs done by workers with less anxiety and more productive time.