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COVID return to work

It has been more than a year since the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and remote work became the norm for millions of people. With the arrival and continued successful dissemination of vaccines, and the subsequent hope among many that we may be seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, many businesses are now looking more closely at possible reopening scenarios and remote work strategies. 

Some companies, particularly large organizations, have announced a 100% remote policy. According to FlexJobs, Dropbox announced all employees can work from home permanently. Twitter has said employees can work from home indefinitely and Facebook is allowing up to half of its employees to permanently work remotely.

Organizations of all sizes and industries will be facing decisions encompassing a wide array of physical and emotional challenges that affect virtually all employees, no matter what their positions or responsibilities. As a result, a comprehensive communications plan will be an essential tool to help guide this process, and what follows are nine tips designed to help everyone, from leadership on down, prepare for the intricacies of reentry.

1. Make sure to focus on personal as well as professional considerations. The structure and environment of people’s workdays have undergone enormous transformations during the past year, and any communications plan concerning transition back to the office must put employees’ well-being front and center. A recent Gartner survey of 5,000+ employees found that 29% described themselves as depressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And a global study of 2700+ employees from Qualtrics and SAP found that 67% of people reported higher stress, 57% reported greater anxiety, and 53% said they were emotionally exhausted. When formulating and delivering messages, make sure it is not just about logistics; you have to deal with what is in everyone’s heads and hearts as well.

2. No plan can be created in a vacuum. When putting a team together to formulate strategy and messaging, make sure a communications executive is involved throughout the process. Circumstances are in constant flux, with news and recommendations updated frequently, and it is important to have a unified voice for internal and external constituencies.

3. In a pandemic, there is no such thing as too much communication. The more employees, clients, customers and other audiences hear about your plans for returning to the office, the more included they will feel in the entire process.

4. Encourage feedback. As a corollary to the above point, it is important to encourage people to express their opinions, worries and suggestions, which can also help assure them they are being heard. One way to do this is through an internal survey, which is a great way to gauge employee sentiment, and some people feel more comfortable expressing their feelings in an anonymous way. The results of this will provide invaluable information to the communications department as it continues to craft messaging.

5. Different circumstances can mean different mindsets. Throughout the country there are wide differences in the way employees travel to and engage with their work environments. For example, people in urban environments tend to take crowded public transportation, while those outside of cities can rely on cars which provide a more private and safer space. The availability of vaccines can also differ widely between different geographic areas and disparate populations. All of which is to say that it is important to keep in mind that that there is no “one size fits all” way to communicate to employees, and that no plan is set in stone. Situations and priorities are fluid, and your communications plan must be too.

6. Safety first. The offices that people return to will not, and should not, look like the ones they left in 2020. People continue to be wary and scared, and your communications plan needs to include key messages to reassure employees that attention has been paid to ensuring that their physical work environments are safe and viable. This information should reflect not only your organization’s actual workspace but surrounding protocols being taken by your office building, such as elevator guidelines and visitor procedures.

7. Hybrid is here to stay. A recent PwC Remote Work Survey found that 83% of employers believe the shift to remote work has been successful for their organization, and that 55% of employees want to work remotely at least three days a week once pandemic worries lessen. There is no going back to the “old normal,” and internal and external communications need to reflect this new reality.

Think about it as a sports analogy: Are you playing an individual or team sport? Every organization needs to consider not only individual productivity, which might be easier to accomplish in a work from home environment, but also workflows within and across teams, the importance of formal and informal collaboration. Once it has been determined what mix makes the most sense, the communications team should then let employees know what has been decided to enable them to put in their best performance. It is also important to keep in mind that measures of productivity and employee satisfaction, and how we communicate them, need to adapt along with the new ways we will be working. 

8. What is the media saying? Paying close attention to what is trending in the news and making sure you know how to separate accurate information from mis/disinformation, will be invaluable to helping formulate what you say and how and when you say it.

9. Transparency, transparency, transparency. This must be a through line of all communications. If messaging and conversations do not reflect honesty, accuracy and compassion, meaning and credibility will be lost.

The broad goal of any return-to-work communications plan should be to achieve a comfort level among employees that everything that can be done has been done each step of the way to affirm their safety. It is also integral to assure them that plans take into account their viewpoints, needs and concerns throughout the reentry process, no matter what that may look like for you. With so much out of our control in this challenging time, a well thought-out communications plan can help ensure that all employees are prepared to enter a healthy and productive future.

Linda Thomas Brooks is CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).