With Return to Office Policies in Place, Staff Must Communicate the Why

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In April 2023, Real Chemistry, an agency with 2,000 employees and seven offices, implemented its first return-to-office action since going fully remote in the early days of the pandemic.

The program, called HART (hybrid and regional teams), focused on flexibility, the evolution of RTO (return to office) and gave employees a say in the creation of the environment in which they wanted to work. Over 20 years ago, founders created the agency with flexibility in mind, so it includes fully remote and office-based workers.

Real Chemistry is not alone. According to a recent poll conducted by the PR Power Poll 100, 60 percent of PR firms are managing a hybrid of office and work from home employees. Aside from the PR industry, we are seeing financial firms, as well as famous names like Amazon, Google and Starbucks implement strict RTO policies—many of which are not sitting well with employees.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to consider and implement RTO policies. The example of Real Chemistry, which does not mandate any of its policies for staff, but instead, works with staff to determine what makes the best fit, showcases a progressive and proactive relationship with employees. It develops a solid reputation for employee care, something that many organizations will be struggling with after a faulty rollout of RTO.

The Workplace Evolution

The HART approach encourages employees who work near their seven offices to come into the office two days a week—chosen by employees on days that work for them. For those employees working outside of those metropolitan areas, there is a leader in each region, who brings the team together quarterly, infusing connection and a cultural piece to their remote work life.

Real Chemistry’s Chief Communications, Culture and Purpose Officer Wendy Carhart, is one of those regional employees and explained the shift from fully remote to HART, and the goals the organization kept in mind during its roll-out.

“We rolled out HART to continue enabling flexibility for people,” Carhart says. “People want to be able to manage their lives in the way that works best for them. But we also want to drive business forward and be intentional in the ways we come together. In some ways, being in person is helpful for collaboration.”

Lisa Vasquez-Fedrizzi, SVP, People + Culture, Lippe Taylor, says flexibility is a must for current and potential employees when considering RTO.

“For the last several years, employees have been able to manage their work/life balance, doctor’s appointments, school events for their children, etc.,” Vasquez-Fedrizzi says. “Flexibility is also a huge benefit that employees and candidates are looking for. If you take that away, there is a good chance they will begin to look [elsewhere] for an agency that offers that.”

She also says it’s important to not revert to the old ways of working in an office with an RTO.

“Think about the productivity levels of working in a hybrid environment and how that will benefit the office. A University of California study found it takes 23 minutes to get re-engaged in a task you are working on after interruptions.”

Communicating the Why

Many employees may experience anxiety regarding a looming RTO—especially if they’ve been in a beneficial remote routine for the past several years. A strong, clear internal communication strategy can help navigate that.

“It’s very important to be clear on the why,” says Lottie Bazley, Senior Strategic Internal Communications Adviser, Staffbase. “If the purpose of a return-to-office policy is to bring back that human connection and culture of belonging to an organization, communicate this early. Getting everyone on the same page well in advance of the change taking place is crucial.”

Carhart agrees and says office occupancy numbers have gone up because of clarity and intention.

“We’re trying to be intentional about it–doing things within offices to make it a draw for people to come in,” she says. “In New York we have after-work activities like game nights, and we host events as well as meetings for learning and development. We are trying to make it worthwhile to come into the office–day-to-day, heads-down work doesn’t always need to be collaborating with people.”

Challenging Employees

No, not everyone is going to be happy about RTO policies, but it can be a softer blow if companies pay close attention to details.

Bazley says utilizing technology and being aware of generational needs and differences is essential for a communications strategy.

“Many Gen Z workers may not have worked in an office environment before,” Bazley says. “They went from graduating college to a remote working environment due to the pandemic. Tailoring your internal communications to meet each individual’s needs is crucial for employee acceptance of change as well as retention.”

Technology, she says, is also key for helping business leaders connect with employees and get their buy-in, especially as the workforce is asked to return to the office for hybrid or full-time work.

“One way to improve employee experience at times like this is by integrating a platform for strategic communication and engagement,” she says. “This will not only help to ensure that the correct corporate information is reaching all employees by providing a unified place to find updates and resources, but it also allows companies to create a ‘community feel’ within the workforce."

Carhart says the agency’s flexibility is a competitive advantage for recruitment, and takes any RTO employee concerns seriously. They do this by working in close partnership with the human resources team, as well as allowing employees to work very closely with their manager on extenuating circumstances.

Real Chemistry also created a competition for employees to have a say in creating the future workforce they desired. More than 100 teams got together and submitted ideas for what the Real Chemistry Workspace should look like.

“The winning group put out a proposal of what we turned into the HART approach,” Carhart says. “It’s an example of how we listen to people. And our CEO says our best ideas come from our people.”

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