Leveraging Internal Communications in the Move Back to the Office

In just over a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to immense change in the way we work. Many companies have shuttered their offices, save for any spaces occupied by essential workers, and are essentially operating without a home base. As vaccinations pick up across the country, employers must begin to make plans for the “new new normal” work model. Throughout the past year, employees have adjusted to the remote work model that once felt foreign to many. For employers looking to make further workflow adjustments, a thorough internal communications plan is critical.

What Are We Up Against?

At the start of the pandemic, many organizations were concerned about the toll that remote work would take on productivity and company morale. However, as workers grew accustomed to their new reality, these apprehensions began to subside. A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey found that by June, nearly half of employers and nearly one third of employees reported that they were more productive working remotely than they were before the pandemic – and both of those numbers grew in a December follow-up[1].

While the growing comfort with remote work is a sign that improved flexibility may be on the horizon, it also means that employees may be reluctant to return to the office full-time. If an individual feels they can be just as productive within the comfort of their home as they can be in an office, they may not see any reason to deviate from the current status quo.

Even if employees are eager to return to the office, there remains the issue of health and safety in the workplace. With input from organizations like the CDC and OSHA, employers carry the responsibility of making their employees feel comfortable upon returning to a group work setting. And of course, different companies will have different policies regarding in-person and remote work. While some organizations may prefer to move toward a return to pre-COVID operations, many employers (including MacDougall!) are embracing a more flexible split between in-office and remote work going forward.

These issues can be particularly complicated for life sciences companies, many of whom have continued to operate in-person for essential laboratory staff. Working in the wake of COVID is certain to bring many challenges, but any company preparing to resume in-person operations in the near future should take advantage of internal communications to streamline this process.

To Create A Safe Workplace Post-COVID,
Communication is Key

By utilizing a strategy of direct, transparent, and consistent internal communication, employers can ease employee concerns and confusion about returning to the office.

Many employees will be justifiably concerned about the safety of returning to a shared office space; CDC guidelines recommend that, even after vaccination, office-dwellers should still take precautionary measures like wearing face coverings and remaining six feet apart[2]. Employers should anticipate an influx of questions regarding health and safety compliance, and plan detailed answers that give employees specific information on COVID protocols. Transparent communication ensures that employers and employees are on the same page and promotes ease of mind[3].

In fact, companies will need to plan for employee questions before the transition back to the office begins – many employees have reported a desire for a slower return-to-office process than that of their employers, and there is no clear consensus on how to split time between working from home and at the office[1]. Employers may benefit from organizing virtual town halls, where they can field employee questions on the rationale behind the reopening plan. Cognitive dissonance can be eased if employers identify concrete reasons for returning to the office – and perks don’t hurt, either. Working from home offers benefits like increased family time, no commute, and the ability to work at one’s own pace. Maintaining an open channel of communication with employees on how to fill the void of these benefits upon returning to work will likely reduce some resistance to working in-office.

Of course, some managers agree with their employees on the benefits of remote work, and their plans to move forward will put less emphasis on the importance of working in-person. In this case, internal communications plans will need to account for the many different environments in which employees are working and focus on bringing people together – virtually. Luckily, virtual communication tools like Slack and Zoom have flourished during the pandemic, and they allow companies to establish the cadence of communication required to maintain office culture[4]. This will be crucial for companies hiring new employees, who haven’t had the benefit of absorbing company culture in an office environment.

In addition to employees, companies must communicate with other parties like clients and vendors who will be impacted by the reopening process. A strong internal communications strategy will take into account not only operations within the office, but the entire work experience that affects employees. Keeping external parties on the same page as employees will be essential in transitioning a company back to the office at a time when much is uncertain.

Moving Forward

With all of the above in mind, it is important to recognize that there is not one correct plan for resuming in-person operations. The pandemic has thrust us all into the experiment of mandatory remote work, and the “new new normal” will likely be just as unpredictable. Above all, companies will need to regularly assess how these transitions are going, and make updates to their plans as needed.

COVID-19’s impact on the world may never disappear fully, but there is hope in sight. As of April 23, over 89 million Americans have been fully vaccinated[5], indicating that the country may be able to resume many in-person activities relatively soon. There will be some growing pains, and we may accidentally show up to the office in our pajamas, but workplaces across the country will find a way to create a home base for their employees safely.

Looking for strategic communications, IR or PR counsel? Contact our team to learn more about how MacDougall might be able to help.

References

[1] PricewaterhouseCoopers. (2021, January 12). It’s time to reimagine where and how work will get done. PWC.
https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html?WT.mc_id=CT1-PL52-DM1-TR1-LS4-ND30-PR2-CN_RemoteWorkSurveyII-TWOrganic

[2] Centers for Disease Control. (2021, March 25). Workplace Vaccination Program. CDC.
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations/essentialworker/workplace-vaccination-program.html

[3] PricewaterhouseCoopers. (2021). Returning to the workplace after COVID-19: What boards should be thinking about. PWC.
https://www.pwc.com/us/en/services/governance-insights-center/library/covid-19-returning-workplace-boards.html

[4] Knight, Rebecca M. (2021, April). New clothes, new hours, and other expert advice. The Boston Globe.
https://apps.bostonglobe.com/ideas/graphics/2021/04/the-future-of-work/articles/new-clothes-new-hours-and-other-expert-advice/

[5] KCarlsen, Audrey; Huang, Pien; Levitt, Zach; Wood, Daniel. (2021, April 23). How Is The COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign Going In Your State? NPR.
https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/01/28/960901166/how-is-the-covid-19-vaccination-campaign-going-in-your-state

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