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Return-to-Work communication can be tricky. Here’s how to avoid the pitfalls.

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

As we begin to move to the other side of this global pandemic, companies are deciding what work will look like for their employees going forward. In fact, all of my clients – from large global organizations to smaller local businesses – are facing the challenge of communicating the new normal to their employees in a post-COVID world.

While every company is approaching this differently based on their business, geographic presence, culture and more, there are some universal tips to follow to ensure return to work messaging resonates with employees. Whether you expect them to return to the office, stay virtual, or embrace a hybrid arrangement, it’s essential that you clearly communicate your decision and the rationale for it. And, do it now to mitigate speculation and misinformation.

Be sure to:

  • Ask for feedback. Ensure your employees feel like valued stakeholders in your decision. Some of my clients are surveying employees to ask whether they prefer to stay home, come back to the office, or a combination of the two. Even if you can’t offer your people that level of input, find ways to ask about their concerns and needs—and then incorporate what you learn into the plan. This could be formally through a survey or feedback tool, in a town hall Q&A, or during conversations with managers. Then, importantly, make sure employees know how their feedback is being used and act on what you can.

  • Ensure cultural alignment. Regardless of your decision, make sure you can tie it to your values and culture. The same is true for how you go about communicating it. For instance, if your values include collaboration and performance and you’re expecting employees to return to the office, you can tie your messaging to the benefits of in-person interactions on relationships and results.

  • Make your expectations clear. Right now, it can feel like there are more questions about the future than answers. You can help your people feel more secure and comfortable by ensuring you’re clear about what you expect. For example, make sure you have set expectations about mask wearing for those returning to the office, as the CDC’s recently updated guidance on mask wearing may create confusion. Additionally, communicate any other steps employees need to take to enter the office, like answering questions about their exposure, temperature checks, and the like.

  • Favor transparency. The companies I’ve worked with who have been most successful at communicating throughout the pandemic have been those that have chosen to be as open and forthright with employees as possible, even when the message is a difficult one. Remember, sometimes the answer is that you’re still working on the answer. And that’s okay as long as your message is authentic, you share what you can, and you keep the lines of communication open.

  • Keep what’s been working. While the past year has challenged us all, it’s also pushed us to be creative and innovative. When you’re gathering feedback, be sure to ask your employees what’s been working better since the pandemic and should be preserved. This may include more check-ins with their teams, virtual training and meeting options, and other tools that have made their lives easier.

  • Don’t forget the outliers. It’s unlikely all of your employees will be in the office or at home permanently. There are bound to be at least a small group of employees who deviate from the typical working environment. Make sure those people still feel included and engaged. For instance, when a large group of people in a meeting are in a room together and only a few are attending virtually, it can be challenging for virtual participants to feel heard. To show you value the voices and opinions of employees who aren’t in the office, you could consider implementing some meetings that are purely virtual to level the playing field and give everyone the same opportunity to contribute.

  • Consider those still in crisis. Remember that not everyone is on the other side of the pandemic. This is particularly essential if you are a global organization, as countries like India battle a new wave of COVID-19. But it’s also important to consider independent of geographic scope, as some employees may still be struggling personally from something that happened to them during the pandemic, like losing a family member or a spouse who lost their job. When communicating to your employees, be sure your communications are culturally relevant and sensitive to what they and others may be experiencing.

If you’ve incorporated these tips into your plan and communications, you’ll know you’re not only doing what’s best for your organization but also ensuring your people feel heard, respected, supported, and informed as you return to work – in whatever form that takes.

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