A Communicator’s Guide to Reopening The Office

The coronavirus has proved one of Yogi Berra’s maxims: "It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future." On the other hand, it’s easy to predict reopened offices will involve more than a few changes to protocol.

Still, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over life and work at the moment. Most crises have endings. The pandemic’s an unusual crisis in that its ending seems unclear. On Wednesday, POTUS asserted that the novel coronavirus is "fading away" and promised that the country is in "great shape…we won't be closing the country again."

Uncertainty Reigns

Yet cases are rising in more than 20 states, not to mention overseas. On June 16, six states reported record rises in cases. Yesterday, 10 states reported posted increases.

In addition to the uncertainty from a health standpoint, it’s unclear how many PR pros will report back to an office and when. Will employers compel staff to work in the office? In a soon-to-be-released survey from PRNEWS of 200 PR executives:

  • 59 percent said their employer will continue to let them work from home once the pandemic-related lockdowns are over
  • 7 percent said they wouldn’t be permitted to work from home
  • 6 percent said they prefer to work in an office
  • 28 percent said they were unsure

Adjust, Don't Switch

In addition, the basics of living and working during the pandemic remain unclear. "There are a lot of questions, but not a lot of answers," says Laura Ryan, EVP, corporate communications, Ruder Finn. As a result, she urges companies to think of reopening as a dial, which can be adjusted, not a switch that’s turned on and off. "Be ready to be flexible," she says. "A decision made today may be changed tomorrow."

All communicators we spoke with for this article confirmed that their directives around reopening include scenarios for quick closings of operations too. In addition to plants closing after reopening, several restaurants are closing after reopening.

Adding to the confusion, reopened restaurants are not required to close in many states and localities after discovering an employee has tested positive. Restaurant owners who've closed are doing so out of an abundance of caution, the Washington Post reports. "It's the Wild West out here," Erica Knight, spokeswoman for Hash Kitchen, a brunch spot in AZ that closed after reopening, tells the Post.

Reopening = PR Business

Most of the time, confusing situations are like catnip to communicators. Using clear, concise language, PR pros are trained to clarify difficult moments. Indeed, several communicators say they are busy advising companies about reopening. APCO Worldwide is using a 2-step approach. First, it's advising companies about practical planning and preparation for reopening. In addition, it is working to help companies "come back stronger," says Kelly Stepno, APCO senior director, N. America practice lead, crisis management and litigation communication, in an interview with PRNEWS sister publication Crisis Insider.

"We’re all going to live in a state of disruption for the foreseeable future," she says. Similar to Ryan, Stepno believes flexibility will be paramount. "From a crisis standpoint, how do you prepare [for a state of disruption]? And how can you make sure that you are nimble, that you adjust accordingly and make sure that you’re doing it in a way that makes sense?"

Assuming a return to offices is ahead, the internal communicator’s task is significant. The amount of information required to communicate reopening to employees is likely to be vast, ranging from the seemingly obvious to the esoteric.

No Detail Too Small

A key for communicators is to remember that when it comes to health, no detail is too small. "People are scared. They’re looking for answers and want to know that their employer is going to protect them…there’s a need for leadership and reassurance," says Dan Rene, managing director, kglobal.

It is also important to ensure PR pros, and employees in all industries, feel safe enough to speak up and ask questions. It's important to create conditions where staff can say they don’t feel safe, says Elizabeth Harrison, CEO and co-founder of Harrison & Shriftman. "Be as transparent as possible in letting employees know what you're doing to reopen offices and that it’s a conversation around reopening, not a command," she adds.

The Best Way to Communicate Reopening?

Since each organization is different, there is no one best way to communicate reopening. "It could be signs, internal communication, meetings and virtual meetings," add Rene. "Communication in these times is like money. You can never have too much of it. Over-communicate."

And you should communicate with empathy, he says. Make sure you’re communicating [not only] the facts and the expectations.

For Harrison, a best practice is sending out anonymous surveys to gauge interest and comfort about returning to the office. One-on-one meetings with staff also are useful. Another best practice is providing updates during virtual staff meetings. She also recommends using meetings to field questions and concerns. In addition, Harrison suggests an employee resources site that lays out your phased reopening approach. It should include FAQs, new office etiquette and local health guidelines.

And now is the time to start communicating plans, Harrison says. This will allow employees to make preparations for what they will need to do if they decide to return to the office.

Handling Misinformation

The only entity spreading faster than the virus is misinformation about it. Making things more difficult, for communicators and everyone else, is that since the virus is new, scientific information is changing rapidly. For instance, though there's no evidence yet of the virus spreading via cooling systems, that could change.

Dave Yonkman, president, DYS Media, recognizing the irony in his statement, says, "In short, communicators will need to craft messages about anything and everything that employees can expect when they come back."

At a minimum, Yonkman says, companies will need to create policies and then communicate them about wearing masks and social distancing. He also brings up the question of legal implications. Will employees, he asks, need to sign legal documents waiving claims against their company and/or owners of office buildings where they work?  Those may appear straightforward issues, but the devil is in the details.

Below is a comprehensive list of questions communicators will likely want to explore as they gather, adjust and disseminate information to employees and outside stakeholders.

Question Mark #1: Masks

White House guidelines "strongly urge" use of masks in public spaces. In addition, studies show masks can slow or stop the virus’ spread. Still, mask wearing is controversial and Americans are split on the issue. For the most part, the communicator in chief (President Trump) and Vice President Pence, who heads the White House Coronavirus Task Force, refuse to wear masks.

Will it be mandatory for PR pros to wear masks? And will they need to be worn all day, or just upon entering/leaving the office and when meeting with other employees? If masks are mandatory, will the company supply them? Can employees bring masks from home? If an employee has her own office, does she need to keep a mask on while nobody else is in that space? How about mask regulations for staffers who work in cubes? Visitors?

And do PR pros need to wear a mask in the office after hours, when just a few people are on the premises?

Question Mark #2: Social Distancing

Again, this seems clear, but again details are crucial.  For example, will the company put limits on the number of employees in common areas, such as kitchens, copier rooms or conference rooms? What’s the policy about number of employees in elevators?

In order to reduce crowding, will attendance be staggered? By day? By week? Who will set the schedule? Does the company intend to put down tape to mark off six feet?

Question Mark #3: Health and Travel

Are employees on their honor to take their temperature at home regularly, or will there be a set-up at the front desk? Will there be a policy on visitors to the office? What about travel to the office? Will employees be urged to avoid public transit?

Question Mark #4: Dining Options

What's the plan for in-office food? How about catered functions in the office? What will you do about breakfast and lunch meetings in the office or in restaurants? Will employees be permitted to bring lunch from local eateries, or will they be limited to brown bag fare? Are you going to require employees to wipe common surfaces, in the kitchen, for example, after using them? What about those who fail to do so? Will you have anyone monitoring safety?

Question Mark #5: Benefits

In addition, what’s the policy regarding vacations and other benefits? Do you need to discuss federal benefits that some returning employees are receiving? Will hiring freezes be lifted? How about salary freezes? Is the company willing to continue to offer gym memberships? And speaking of liability nightmares, will the company sponsored childcare center reopen?

With the emphasis on internal communication, don't forget about your customers. "They should be aware of new offerings, the ability to schedule virtual meetings and whether they can expect you to personally visit their premises to fix problems and any precautions you’re taking," Yonkman says.

As with many things PR, communication around reopening comes down to authenticity and clarity. "If you’re out there communicating clearly and not trying to hide anything, you’ll succeed," Rene says.