Back to Work: How to Communicate Reopening Offices and Businesses

man in mask walking into office

Vaccination cards fill social media timelines. Grandparents are planning reunions with grandchildren. Schools have reopened. Major League Baseball just began its season with fans. And friends are making plans to enjoy their first meals inside restaurants in more than a year. 

You can feel the reopening energy building with every vaccine distributed. Many employers are planning how to return staffs to office life, albeit with safety precautions. However, the personality and perception of how we work has changed with the success of home offices and flexible hours. Employers may find a challenge with messaging that it’s necessary, and safe, to return to the office. 

The New York Times reported that more than 80 percent of companies will enact a hybrid office model. Large corporations seem to be leading the way for a new standard of workplace. PwC told its 22,000-member staff that it can begin and end the day at their discretion, part of the company’s new “empowered day” ruling. Spotify, the digital music behemoth, introduced a “work from anywhere” policy.

So while things may never look the way they did pre-COVID-19, employers still share a responsibility to distribute clear, empathetic and timely information to staff, particularly when reopening physical offices. Much of this can, and will, fall to internal communicators.

Logistics and safety guidelines "can be handled by HR or facilities or internal comms,” said Andy Gilman, president and CEO of CommCore Consulting Group. “But if that is all each company/non profit/agency does, they are missing out on a big opportunity to build trust with employees, who have been out of the office for [more than] a year.” 

The Current State of Work

A recent study conducted by Capstone Hill Search, a global recruiting and staffing consultancy specializing in marketing, communication and PR, looked at the impact of COVID-19 on employment. Needless to say, the process of how and where we complete work has changed, and the stats prove it. 

The majority of businesses plan a return for Q1 2021, but as many as 15 percent of businesses expect to never return fully. And for those businesses returning, just 10 percent will include 100 percent of staff on-site, while 34 percent expect a return to include fewer than 50 percent of employees in the office full-time.

This seems to mesh with the opinions of employees. Fewer than 1 percent of workers indicated that they would like to return to an office environment full time, according to the study. Nearly half (48 percent) said they prefer a 50/50 split of remote and office work time. Another 39 percent opted for three-quarters of the week at home and one-quarter in the office. Just 10 percent preferred to spend the balance of their week in the office—three-quarters of their time in the office and one-quarter of their time at home.

And companies have taken notice. Only 4 percent intended to discontinue remote working entirely, while a whopping 78 percent intend to “either maintain current arrangement or indeed expand their remote working programs.” 

M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment North America recently merged its Los Angeles and New York offices, and made a decision in Fall 2020 to move from a shared pre-pandemic space to a 5,500-square-foot space in NY's Soho neighborhood. However, Steph Lund, the newly appointed CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment North America, said the organization will continue to evaluate and listen to employees' needs. 

Our communication to our staff thus far is that we will continue to be flexible throughout this year,” Lund said. “Our office will reopen after Labor Day and it will not be mandatory for our NY-area employees to return to the office full time, 5 days a week. We are evaluating and developing a hybrid remote-in-person plan that will be rolled out shortly. We recognize that ‘one size does not fit all,’ and [we want to] ensure that all our staff feels supported in their return to work plan.”

Communicating Change

Whether you are part of a PR team working on reopening messaging for a client, or part of the internal communication or executive team of an office, bringing people back after this traumatic year may be tricky. Understanding employees will play a large role. 

“Recognize some employees don’t necessarily want to come back to the office,” Gilman said. “With a commute of one hour each way, as well as some data showing you are more productive [at home] do you convince employees you are more productive in-office than working remotely? ”

Gilman said creating an open dialogue between employees and office representatives is essential. 

“Make it a two-way dialogue so you get inputs from different types of employees about coming back, including suggestions for workspaces and common spaces,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to say, 'We are starting our plans, you will get information from HR and internal comms, but in the meantime let’s talk about what went on this past year...let’s share some perspectives.'”

Cat Colella-Graham, founder and chief employee experience officer at Cheer Partners, an agency that focuses on internal communication and employee experience, said facts go hand-in-hand with empathy.

“Similar to the vaccine communications we do, there is a dichotomy of fear and envy,” Colella-Graham said. “And when you look at the multiple stakeholders who are your employees (and look at geography, role, seniority, parents, affinity groups) it requires an empathetic touch.”

Colella-Graham said most clients are implementing flexible work arrangements and phased approaches because 2020 revealed the enhancement of productivity, culture and engagement through remote work. However, some teams, such as sales, want a return to face-to-face interaction, as well as those who enjoy office culture. Information and messaging remain powerful tools, especially as employees will have many questions regarding safety protocols, vaccination and more.

“It’s important to empower your first line, your supervisors, with the right information to help communicate to their direct reports,” she said. “We have been doing AMAs for supervisors and AMAs for employees, and we have also been putting together FAQs and guidance documents so there is clarity.”

Lisa Nickerson, CEO and founder at Nickerson, who works with many restaurants and outward-facing clients, agrees.

“When reopening, a company should remember to phrase everything positively and emphasize that they are excited to see their customers and clients again in a healthy, safe environment,” Nickerson said.

Nickerson also sees media relations playing a role in establishing trust.

“When engaging with local media, remember to give them pertinent details about your business, how your industry has been affected over the past year and the importance of your business in the coming months,” she said. “Industry statistics are always helpful in making a case for a featured story.” 

While office and business reopening practices will continue to evolve, it’s important to keep some simple key points in mind. 

“Internal comms needs to provide the reason to believe, an empathetic ear, employee programs that allow employees to be heard and seen, and clarity,” Colella-Graham said.

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal