When We Return to the Office, Internal Communication will Rise Again

In spite of potential delays owing to the Delta variant's rise, a return to the office (RTO) will come. Slightly more than half (52 percent) of C-suites advocate employees work in the office four or more days per week, a McKinsey survey of 500+ senior executives in 8 industries says.

As was the case during much of the pandemic, internal communicators again will be center stage. As they did prior to the pandemic, they now will need to focus on engaging employees as staff transition away from WFH.

Done well, RTO can be harmonious, with clear expectations about timelines and available resources.

On the other hand, leaving employees guessing about details, especially at this uncertain moment, will have long-term consequences: decreased morale and increased turnover and tension between in-person and hybrid workers.

Here are some ideas internal communicators can consider as they develop content around the return:

Be Cognizant of Differences

While the pandemic touched all employees, experiences and perceptions varied.  For example, women perceived their company’s pandemic communication more negatively than men, a survey of 1,000 full-time employees found.

  • 73 percent of men said their company was transparent about its return-to-work policy, only 63 percent of women agree.
  • 61 percent of men say company leaders communicated effectively with employees, while 55 percent of female employees agreed.

At the same time, we know the pandemic took a heavy toll on working women around the world. McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace Study shows women are feeling more exhausted, burned out and under pressure than men.  And women are more likely to consider leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers.

As employees have received dozens of messages throughout the pandemic, it’s easy to become dismayed when leadership is not speaking with more empathy. It’s important to think about how women and other employee groups may have a harder time returning to work, just as they did shifting to a remote work environment at the pandemic's start.

During the RTO, organizations need to prioritize empathy in communication and lean on the right mediums to do so.

Transparency Needed

Remove guesswork about questions like how many days or hours per week are expected in the office vs. remote work.  Or whether senior leaders will enjoy more flexibility than line employees. Instead, plan for these questions. Have answers ready in Q&A format where all employees can access it.

Tune into Employee Needs

While it's always important to survey employees, McKinsey believes regular surveys to get a sense of staffers' readiness to return to work are critical. For employees with heightened concerns, due to circumstances like childcare or high-risk medical status, provide 1-on-1 support. Prompt conversations about what they’ll need to feel comfortable.

Align Communication Strategies

How many emails from the executive leadership or corporate team have your employees received since the beginning of the pandemic? For most, it’s hard to count. Consider other options for reaching employees: meet in real-time, share a video employees can watch on-demand or update staff with a quick Slack or Microsoft Teams message.

Whichever channel you choose, be consistent. In addition, avoid inundating employees with the same message across multiple platforms.

Don’t Tiptoe

As internal communicators, we sometimes fall into the trap of using verbose language and being overly careful to avoid offending. During the RTO period, it’s important to acknowledge what employees are experiencing. When possible, mention in your messages difficulties like childcare, transportation and the social adjustment of returning.

Culture and the Hybrid Workforce

We know 'remote work is here to stay,' but what does that mean for company culture? How will organizations keep a culture alive when some employees are remote and others are at the office? Along with leadership and HR, internal communicators will play an important role in culture creation and maintenance.

An area of concern is employees who are hired remotely. How will you make them and/or hybrid employees feel connected?  One possibility is using video bios. Hearing new employees talk about their lives outside of work makes them more relatable and can humanize the on-boarding process.

Another idea is allowing new employees to introduce themselves using slides with photos and fun facts.

For those internal communicators with the skill, offer to train staff on creating successful hybrid meetings. A key, of course, is configuring hybrid sessions in a way that includes all participants. This includes having 1:1 device-to-participant use, or setting up conference room cameras to make all participants visible.

While it's impossible to know precisely how work arrangements will evolve, it seems clear internal communication will be a key ingredient in fostering a smooth, successful return.

Stacy Adams is head of marketing at Vyond