One of the biggest communications challenges around COVID-19 is rapidly becoming how we talk about going back to office life.
Over the past few weeks, CEOs and companies have been quick to set dates and other expectations for when employees are expected to get back to their offices and cubicles, as cities like New York and Los Angeles announce opening plans.
It’s little wonder. Business leaders rightfully are seizing the chance to return to some semblance of normal. In most cases, that’s a relief. For too long, employees have had to wear many hats, juggling Zoom calls with home-schooling duty, losing the natural separation between work and life. It’s not just working from home. It’s living from work. And most business leaders know that isn’t sustainable for the long term.
But, as companies communicate their plans, they’ve hit some messaging potholes. Recently, Cathy Merrill, the CEO of the Washingtonian Magazine, caused a furor among her own employees when she suggested in an op-ed in The Washington Post that people who wanted to continue to work from home might face a reclassification as a part-time employee or contractor. Other CEOs have been criticized for setting a firm date in some cities where there’s continued uncertainty around safety rules and restrictions.
How you communicate your office plans requires careful thinking and sensitivity so you don’t turn what should be a positive milestone for your organization into a potential public relations crisis. Here are some considerations:
Focus on the Why
Most CEOs are eager to get teams back into the office -- not simply to increase profitability or sales, but rather to preserve culture. Many businesses found ways to maintain productivity even with a dispersed workforce. But, given the distractions of home and fatigue with constant Zoom calls, there are real risks that employees will feel a sense of isolation.
While human resources departments have likely done yeomen’s work in trying to promote positive culture while workers operate from home, there’s no substitute for the camaraderie and fellowship that offices and direct physical contact (with safety protocols, obviously) can provide.
Position your communications through the lens of positive culture. If you have reasons that go beyond culture, be transparent about them. Surveys have been mixed about the eagerness of workers to return to regular offices, so you will need both honesty and transparency in your communications to put them at ease.
Honor the Worker
If your company has weathered this pandemic well, you have your employees to thank. As a business leader, there’s no doubt that you have done that throughout the COVID saga. Don’t stop now. You should make sure that any communications about office re-openings comes from a similar place of gratitude.
American workers have been through a lot, and the blurring of work and home, coupled with the real vulnerability people feel about their health and future, have no doubt changed people’s attitudes and outlooks. Recognize that. Be sensitive to that. Honor that in your communications.
It’s tempting to set a specific date and time and compel people back in the office. Yet, to the extent possible, try to be collaborative about the decision. Some companies have been surveying workers to get their thoughts on the right model for work environments. Some are using town halls to hear feedback.
Remember that effective communication is as much about listening as speaking. An added benefit is that incorporating wider feedback gives your team buy-in into the decision. This dialogue shouldn’t stop on the day your offices are opened. You should have an ongoing conversation with your teams as you ease them back into office environments.
It’s a blessing that we are even having this conversation. As vaccines become more prevalent and cases diminish, particularly in cities, the ability to open your office doors and go back to something approaching a pre-2020 normal is an important milestone for your company and your team. Take the time to make sure that you’re sending the right message to keep everyone engaged and enthusiastic.