3 minute read

The global workforce has experienced significant disruption in 2020 related to COVID-19: many companies switched abruptly to a work-from-home protocol, while others had to quickly adapt to new health safety guidelines to keep essential workers safe. Additionally, the external economic, social, and political climate has added even more uncertainty to people’s lives.

With promising vaccines and treatments on the horizon, many organizations are beginning to plan to bring remote employees back to the workplace. And while some workers may be eager to return, many also have legitimate fears and concerns. Without a doubt, a smooth and safe transition will depend on effective communication with employees.

Here are two central ideas to consider to ensure your return-to-work communications are informed by best change management and employee engagement practices.

Communicate What You Know

No one has a crystal ball – and uncertainty can make communicators hesitate when they don’t have all the information or it’s likely to evolve. But employees adapt more quickly to change when three essential questions are answered: Why are we changing? What are we changing to? How will it impact me?

Communicators can use this “Change Management 101” approach to overcome hesitation. Share what you do know as soon as possible to set high-level expectations and meet employees’ basic needs for information. For example, you may not know specifics, but you can share:

  • Workspaces will look different – new space/office/desk configurations are likely
  • Security protocols may look different – frequent health screenings or forms may be required before coming onsite
  • PPE may be required – masks must be worn  
  • The way colleagues interact with one another will need to adapt – no hand-shaking or close gatherings in common areas

Empathy is the New Engagement

With today’s pervasive uncertainty, employees simply may not have the capacity for engagement they once had. Even if traditional markers for engagement are met – finding meaning/purpose in work, having a sense of autonomy, and feeling valued – employers may need to dial back their expectations around the level of discretionary action their workforce is able to muster amid volatility, stress and fear.

Beyond the operational aspects that must be communicated to ensure a smooth and safe transition back to the workplace, it will also be critical for companies to demonstrate human-centricity throughout the process. For now, organizations may do well by replacing engagement tactics with empathy instead. Through gestures large and small, from your organization’s senior-most leaders to front-line managers, emphasizing appreciation, solidarity and grace as part of return-to-workplace messaging will address a human need. In turn, this is likely to garner enthusiasm, commitment, and active contributions to culture in the longer term, once employees feel greater stability and psychological safety.   

No matter your timeline for returning, the time is now to begin planning for how your organization will adequately inform, prepare and support your workforce for the changed environment.

Ready to put together your return-to-workplace employee comms plan? We’d love to help. Contact Meg Marra to get started.