Are We There Yet? Returning to the Workplace Post-pandemic

Strategies, approaches and implications for communicators.

We’ve all been comparing notes on these as we ponder company return-to-workplace plans, which we’ve been thinking about as frequently as we’ve been talking about the weather. I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s words: “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” 

We’re all acutely aware that external conditions will continuously change – and so will our plans – but company values and philosophy should remain a constant. 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown, shared experiences created a “we’re in this together” mentality for most people at most organizations. But the return and re-opening of the workplace is proving to elicit a much different sentiment. Instead of a sense of commonality, we’re seeing varying attitudes and approaches that shed light on the differences in employee needs, wants, and conditions both at work and at home.  

Companies are grappling with an onslaught of strategic questions including: Should masking or vaccination policies be mandatory or voluntary? What will my customer experience look like going forward and what role does “place” play in my company culture? Many organizations also are facing an interesting challenge between flexibility and equitability among its workforce because some employees need to be in a physical workplace while others have the option to work-where-you-wish. Supervisors will need to create a blended work environment that can be maintained. 

These decisions aren’t just operational – they symbolize a transformation – and will have implications that reach well beyond the pandemic. 

For leaders, communicating with clarity is ideal – but it’s OK to admit when you don’t know or don’t have all the answers. In that case, lean on candor. Admit that you’re a lousy one-person focus group and take the time to listen to your stakeholders. They want their ideas to be heard, and by taking their perspectives into consideration, you’ll be able to communicate with more empathy, and truly understand the diverse work and home environments of your employees. 

With that being said – you’ll never please everyone. Understand where your stakeholders are coming from and anticipate, acknowledge and address the criticisms. Set expectations that you have a general re-entry plan, but also preface it with the fact that things may need to shift. Recognize that “return to the workplace” may not look the same for your entire employee base – some may have returned part-time or full-time almost immediately, some can’t wait to get back, while others aren’t going back at all, and new employees who joined your organization during the pandemic have never stepped foot in the office. Communicate the underlying values guiding your decisions and include ethos, pathos and logos in your messaging to make the case for your version of transformation. 

Early in the pandemic, employers showed an abundance of flexibility for employees, but it’s not necessarily sustainable for the business long-term. As you prepare a re-entry plan, assess key criteria to determine the right timing and sequence for a transition back to the workplace. Align those considerations with the company’s guiding principles and values – and make a conscious decision about which operations will revert to their original state and which are permanently changed. 

These steps inform the communications content and connection strategy necessary to build the right understanding, appreciation and action by stakeholders:

From how to structure transition teams to key considerations for functional areas and critical workstreams, a well-executed return-to-workplace approach can help any organization come together after the pandemic – connected and with renewed purpose.

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This post was originally published by PRWeek.

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