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Return to Office: Dos and Don’ts

With the vaccine rollout underway, employees are already pondering when a return to office may happen. For some, it is already happening and for others, the plans have just begun. There is a lot to consider, so here are some key do’s and don’ts I would recommend thinking about. Whether you are leading a team or responsible for HR and return to office communications, you can use these to create a better experience for employees:

Do: 

  1. Start early. Creating awareness will increase comfort and let change sink in. If you haven’t started sharing or planning, it is time. Not saying anything is saying something. Whether it says you do not care, it’s not a priority or worse – you don’t know what to do. Even if the details are still being worked out, it’s better to acknowledge that changes are coming and set expectations for when internal updates will be shared.

  2. Make it fun. Welcome the team back in a celebratory way. Creating buzz creates desire. There will be mixed emotions about returning to the office – encourage energy around the positive. Balloons, welcome signs, hot coffee at the door – people are your most valuable resources so make it a moment to show you are excited to see them. This could be done enterprise-wide and managers can get creative within their smaller teams. Create a campaign – a play on “zoom-ing” back to the office, “the great welcome”, or a “go viral” play on getting the vaccine – there are so many creative ways to make it fun.

  3. Give details. Part of feeling comfortable is just knowing what to expect. Make sure to send details – such as when to come back (date, time), anything they should do differently than before to enter (temperature checks, sanitizer requirement upon entry), how working with co-workers will differ (seating changes, staying 6 feet apart requirements, wearing a mask indoors). Even think about communicating how basics like eating lunch will change (food availability, seating limitations, shared spaces with fridges and microwaves). There is a line between too much detail and too little (how it is presented matters too) – so imagine you are inviting someone to a party at your house. What info would they need (where to show up, when, what to bring, etc.)

  4. Be flexible. Over the past year, schedules have been upended, schools closed, places reopened only to re-close. Keep this in mind – some still may have their children at home because they chose to keep distance learning for the remainder of the school year, others are re-adjusting to getting kids out the door or spouses heading back to work that can no longer help. Asking them to come back to work 5 days a week with little notice will be stressful, at best, and likely disruptive. Think about your return to office policy thoughtfully and thoroughly – can you ease people into it? Can you offer some flexibility or a phased-in approach?

  5. Think hybrid. I have talked to so many communicators lately that say “I’ll never go back to the office full time.” While this has yet to be seen, there has been a shift in people’s mindsets about where they can work. Since we all work differently in different settings, a hybrid approach may be the best solution. The office is perfect for collaboration, innovation and team-building but there is significant convenience, safety and focused productivity (for many) at home.

  6. Employee decision making. Give employees information and let them make some decisions on vaccines and return to office. When employees have a say, they will be much more likely to make changes on their own.

Don’t:

  1. Require people to return until they can meet. What’s the point of forcing people to come in if they can’t collaborate?

  2. Forced stagger. For those who have enjoyed working from home, they will find it frustrating to commute to do the same work in a different place. They shouldn’t be the first ones in. Any phased in approach should start with volunteers (those that want to be there).

  3. Add to the burn out. Many people have been overstretched over the past year – and productivity has actually been higher according to many clients. Recognize that shifting things may mean productivity changes. If employees feel they need to maintain their increased productivity plus add a commute to work every day, it will create angst and negativity around work.

  4. Make blanket requirements. Returning-to-office and vaccines may seem “no brainer” to some, but not everyone will agree. If someone has been doing their job remotely for a year and it has been going well, they may want to keep their arrangement. Others may have fear about a new vaccine. Err on the side of providing facts and sharing benefits to encourage adoption. Consult with legal on the boundaries.

  5. Conflict with your culture and values. Be true to your company culture and err on the side of being supportive and flexible.

  6. Hurt your reputation. If word on the street is that you forced people to work during the pandemic, it is clear you don’t value or respect your team. The long term impact: People won’t want to work for you.

The majority of these tips are directed at headquarters and desk employees, but it is important to think through your entire audience and how their experience will differ – from supply chain and manufacturing to site locations and distribution.

As we all make the great migration back to the office – or some version of it, it’s important to recognize personal differences. Empathy and acceptance has been a focus throughout the world – and acknowledging diversity should apply to how you approach this important interaction with your team. Some are weary, some cautious, some can’t wait to get back and see everyone. And some feel all of those feelings – excited one day and afraid the next.

The universal truth is that there have been highs and lows for all of us during the pandemic. Focus on what is good, what brings your team together and what they have to look forward to. Internal communications and HR have a great opportunity to handle this transition with grace and redefine the future of work.

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