May 12, 2020

Four Imperatives for Communicating about a Return to the Office

As states across the country begin to reduce restrictions, companies and non-profits who have transitioned much of their workforce to home are preparing for their “return to the office” communications.  Even as it remains unclear when the return may be and what government restrictions could exist, there are four imperatives (and some caveats) for all communications on this topic:


  1. Purpose: Why am I returning to the office? Even as many employees are craving a return to the traditional office environment, they also want to be sure it has purpose and value to do so (polls show that MA residents want to do their part to limit public health and personal health risk; is a return to work worth even an incremental increase in risk?).  What will I accomplish in the office that I can’t do at home? How will the company facilitate that (particularly if the answer is better interaction across teams) in a changed office environment? Will a return to the office offer improved services to our customers, community and partners?  If you can answer those questions well and in the affirmative, the transition will be greeted with more enthusiasm.


Note: If you haven’t polled your employees or conducted informal focus groups to determine what your employees want, it’s not too late to do so.  Even if it doesn’t change the fundamentals of your return to the office strategy, it may have implications for your planning, priorities and communications.


  1. Safety: How are you going to keep me safe and support public health goals? Commercial property owners are aggressively preparing for a return to work, planning for social distancing in lobbies and public spaces, additional cleanings and supplies.  You may want to have a conversation with your landlord (if they haven’t communicated with you) about which aspects of your office are building responsibility vs. tenant responsibility.  From there, you can then communicate that you are putting in place policies around shared spaces, open work plans, cleaning of high touch surfaces, availability of supplies.  This is also the right time to let people know how you will approach mask use in the office.


Note: Many offices are considering A/B schedules, return to work phasing, and other models to create physical distance in offices that were designed for collaboration, team communication and efficient space use.  Talk to peer organizations (and perhaps your architect) to discuss ways to adjust your workflow and office space to current environments. 


  1. Efficiency: One of the biggest unknowns going forward is transportation. Will it be a hassle to get to and from the office and waste my time? If you are considering alternative schedules to limit the transportation challenges, changing parking options or other solutions to assure that commuting time doesn’t make getting to work time intensive, offer early insights to your team (recognizing that this is an issue that may evolve over time).  Consider other barriers that will impact efficiency and consider how to address them.


Note: though going virtual was out of our control, there is a certain efficiency that comes from everyone working from home simultaneously; how will that be overcome if a phased return to work has some people in the office and others virtual?    


  1. Process: Clarity around process at all levels is likely to create confidence that the return to the office protocol is well-thought out. This includes the process for developing the return to the office protocols, step-by-step outlines of how the return to the office will work, reminders about sick leave, and a process for addressing issues/concerns that emerge in this still evolving situation.  Also, the phasing of both government dictates and your own protocols may require equally detailed communications at each phase.


Note:  It goes without saying that your employees will be monitoring the public health news; continue to address timely topics and how they impact your office environment.


Finally, expect bumps in the road.  The return to the office simply won’t be the same.  Even simple things like removing the office coffee maker (a high touch, hard to clean surface) or that everyone’s favorite lunch spot has closed permanently may hit your teams hard. And there are a lot of public health unknowns. 

You’ve been having weekly zoom check ins and small group meetings, right? Don’t let that newly structured approach to ongoing internal communication fall to the wayside during this period, particularly if not all of your team is back in the office at the same time. Continuing to foster a team spirit will take work, but it will assure that there is a collective commitment to working though challenges together.