We initially thought about giving this article a title like, “10 Things to Consider As Your Company Returns to the Office.”
But I think we’re all experiencing checklist fatigue at this point. There’s lots of great ideas, guidance, and research to help businesses plan out how they’re going to start getting back to normal – or something reasonably close.
But here’s the reality: There’s so much uncertainty. We don’t know when workers who were fortunate enough to be able to work from home these past couple of months will go back. Will it be a phased return? Will we all wear masks? How will we social distance? Will we have to leave once more if the pandemic rears its ugly head again?
We. Don’t. Know.
The workplace is likely going to be far different than what we left. Many employees are sure to have concerns about the idea of returning in the first place. I was struck by something that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said recently on the CBS news show Face the Nation. “If you think of it as an employer, you have a bunch of employees, some of whom are dying to get back to the office, and some people who are afraid that if they go to the office, they will die,” Schmidt said.
Yet leaders have to prepare for this “new abnormal.” As they reimagine their workplaces, communicators and HR professionals must share messages about how they’ll transition from putting out fires to getting back up to speed.
We recently hosted a webinar, “How to Build the Bridge to Recovery After COVID-19,” with an absolute rock star panel of Edelman’s Cydney Roach, W2O’s Gary Grates, and FleishmanHillard’s Josh Rogers. Their agencies are advising some of the biggest names in business during the crisis – and emphasizing the critical role of communication. I strongly encourage you to listen to the full recording.
If there were one theme I took away from our conversation, it’s that the road back won’t be easy. There’s no playbook we can follow. We’ll need a mindset of embracing the volatility that we’re about to enter.
So, here are some of the things on my mind after listening to Roach, Grates, and Rogers. It’s not a checklist. It’s more like food for thought.
Returning to Work Might Be a Cycle
Back to the office probably won’t be a one-time event. The coronavirus (COVID-19) is controlling the timeline. If there are waves to the pandemic, as some experts predict, the workplace front door could be a revolving one.
“This is messy stuff,” said Rogers, Senior Vice President & Partner at FleishmanHillard. “It’s not linear. It’s not a singular event. We’re going to have enter and exit and re-enter phases – sometimes multiple times. As we do that, your people have to be at the center of everything you do. Foundational to everything is keeping your people informed, engaged, aligned, and making sure they feel valued and appreciated through all of this. That’s easier said than done.”
Importance of Empathy
At Dynamic Signal, our CEO Eric Brown recently stressed at an all-hands Zoom meeting that employee health and wellness come first, and nobody will return to company offices until we’re sure we can do it safely.
Roach, Global Chair, Employee Experience at Edelman, said most organizations have put “people before profits” during this crisis. Leaders have shown a new vulnerability and level of compassion, even when there have been painful job reductions. That’s crucial, she added, because research from Edelman and Stanford University shows that empathy “literally closes the distance between people – especially when we’re all working remotely.”
That has to continue as organizations adjust to working onsite during the pandemic, Roach said.
Regaining Our Swagger
One significant impact of the pandemic is on “organizational confidence,” said Grates, Principal at W2O. Businesses – and their employees – understood how to work and succeed. The pandemic has shaken that self-assurance.
“There’s never going to be a normal anymore,” Grates said. “But whatever that normal is, the confidence of the organization needs to be examined. You can make-believe that it’s like a spigot that you turn on and off. But the reality is we’re going to have to pay close attention to the way people are acting, our policies going forward, and an environment where all the expectations have changed.”
He also added that it’s essential to remember lessons learned during this crisis. That includes how organizations broke down internal silos just to maintain business continuity.
“A lot of that is going to be muscle memory,” Grates said. “If we can apply them when we get back to some level of normalcy, we can maintain this new level of collaboration. But what happens with human beings is that we quickly forget and go back to what we were comfortable with before.”
Inequity Among the Workforce
People now working remotely might have a choice about returning to the office. But frontline workers don’t get to choose. They never did as they continued to work – at hospitals, grocery stores, factories, making deliveries, and so on – throughout the pandemic. Employees might be equals, but they may not feel that way.
“There absolutely is no silver bullet,” Rogers said. “Listening is always important. But in a time like this, listening is more important. You need to do surveys to find out what’s concerning your people. What’s keeping them up at night? That should be happening now. That will give organizations and managers a better understanding of the unique needs and challenges that those team members face.”
Reassessing Company Culture
Grates said every business would need to examine if it maintained what makes the organization special during the pandemic. Or if it ever really had a company culture in the first place.
“If we’ve learned nothing else from COVID, it’s that culture is nothing more than the human dimension of an organization,” he said. “It’s the way people think and interact and believe and trust. Those elements are what make one organization different from another.”
Did it survive or shatter under pressure?
Renewed Focus on Mental Health
All three panelists highlighted the importance of compassion – starting with Roach’s focus on empathy. Rogers said he’s seeing a trend toward paying closer attention to mental health. Instead of lip service to Employee Assistance Programs and 1-800 numbers, there will be greater emphasis on the well-being of people, Rogers said.
Added Grates: “We have to be very empathetic to people because of their different situations. They may have a medical condition or are taking care of an elderly parent or their children because school is still out. There need to be policies in place so people can feel good about what they’re doing.”
Avoiding a Dystopian Workplace
Roach made me stop with one observation.
“I’m a little concerned about the dystopian future,” she said. “If people are observed when they’re working from home. … Or when they’re returning to a workplace, they might have plexiglass between desks in an open workspace.”
She makes a great point. How do we maintain a welcoming, vibrant workplace that keeps employees engaged and happy without looking like a science fiction set? Oh, and this article is another interesting look at how office life could be very different in the near future.
When I was an internal communicator at SAS, there were times where we had to advise our leadership on delivering difficult messages to employees. When there were more questions than answers, I would try to be as transparent as possible. We would tell people to keep going. We know it’s challenging. But this isn’t the place to stop and rest. Or we’ll get stuck here.
At those moments, the most important thing you could do was ask people to look within themselves and to their colleagues as we work to get through this together.
That’s a message that feels appropriate right now.
Credit: Becky Graebe, Dynamic Signal