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Four ways communications can engage employees on the return to workplace journey

Talk the walk, and walk the talk.
Aaron De Smet

Delivers growth, innovation, and organizational agility and is an expert on culture change, leadership development, team effectiveness, capability building, and transformation

Bonnie Dowling

Partners with clients to achieve and sustain their strategic priorities through a focus on their people and building the skills, capabilities, and culture needed today and in the future

Joe Spratt

Partners with clients to create impact and drive organizational change through strategic communications and stakeholder engagement

In addition to its impact on lives and livelihoods, COVID-19 disrupted our sense of place. Familiar out-and-about spaces—stores, restaurants, places of worship, gyms, schools, and offices—made themselves comfortable in our homes. As we shopped online and ordered delivery, gathered around laptops for religious services and yoga sessions, and turned our dining rooms into classrooms, the line between work and home all but dissolved. As we reimagine what’s next, we are also re-evaluating how and where we want to work and even the relationship between employers and employees.

The return to the workplace will not be a throwback to the way things once were. Employees want flexibility: 64 percent prefer a hybrid model rather than fully onsite (17 percent) or completely remote (19 percent). Furthermore, 29 percent say they will look for a different job if required to return fully onsite. Nor will it be a concrete “new” normal. Rather, it will be a “next” normal that will evolve over time as leaders and employees work together to “learn into” what works. While many organizations have announced a general intent to embrace hybrid work going forward, employees say too few have expressed a clear post-pandemic vision.

How can employers get this right? Communication is key. Leaders must create a thoughtful, open, ongoing, and two-way dialogue with employees, partnering to shape the solution from the onset. The return to the workplace is not about a swift, single decision, but the start of a journey to define what’s next. Employers should share their broad direction, aspiration, and key principles now, then continue to listen, discuss, and act in partnership with their employees as answers emerge and evolve.

With this in mind, here are four principles leaders can incorporate into communication efforts:

  1. Listen. Workplace issues are both universal and individual, so employees deserve and expect to be heard. To gauge employee concerns, use interactive or “reverse town halls,” or skip-level meetings. Get first-hand perspective on how people are really doing, personally and professionally, during social events. Measure changes in sentiment with simple, frequently recurring pulse surveys, by gauging absenteeism, and monitoring publicly posted comments. Use this collective input to inform and guide communications efforts.
  2. Inspire. Many leaders face the post-pandemic challenge of re-energizing a burned-out workforce. Present a compelling, aspirational vision of what the future workplace could look like and how it enables your organizational goals and purpose. Acknowledge that the vision will evolve, and invite employees to join the journey to define it. Tap into both logical and emotional benefits. Test it with a sample group of employees to ensure that it resonates with frontline perspectives.
  3. Engage. Create forums that focus on two-way dialogue for employees to help ideate, problem solve, test, and learn. Crowdsourced ideas and learnings provide involvement, create a spirit of agency, and facilitate continued listening. Remember that not everything needs to be driven by central management. Create opportunities for dialogue across the organization. Management can analyze learnings and amplify what’s working.
  4. Guide. Like any significant change, return-to-workplace practices will morph and evolve, but that shouldn’t stop employers from providing guardrails or principles for what’s next. A global pharmaceutical company, for example, defined a clear set of guiding principles to shape the future model while maintaining flexibility. This enabled them to provide insight into what they did know, like how decisions would be made or impact monitored, giving employees something to plan around.

As your next normal starts to take shape, strive to share more with employees, including your uncertainty about the future and its evolution. Invite them to “learn into” the journey with you. Employees don’t expect their leaders to know all the answers, but they do want to be included in the process, and they expect leaders to help make sense of organizational decisions in periods of volatile change. Embracing these four communications principles can help.

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