Communication is the key to success as leaders navigate the unsteady return-to-office phase. We recommend that leaders have a thoughtful, open, and two-way dialogue with employees to help collectively shape the solution, but there’s more to it. While leaders are starting to have these conversations, we have also seen return-to-office announcements that entirely missed the mark.
Many announcements to date have been rule based, inflexible, and have treated remote work as a perk, rather than a pandemic necessity that proved to be quite successful for many. The rigidity of communications anchored in policies can feel highly transactional and undermine employees’ sense of being valued—one of the primary factors driving 40 percent of employees to report being at least somewhat likely to leave their current positions in the next 3-6 months. Indeed, we heard from several executives that, within a couple weeks of their announcements, they were seeing increasing rates of attrition, particularly amongst new parents and BIPOC employees.
Fortunately, there is still time for leaders to get it right. We’ve seen the following five strategies work effectively when determining and communicating return-to-office plans:
- One size does not fit all. An overarching policy that expects everyone to return to the office for the exact same amount of time signals to the organization that leaders are trying to go back to old ways of working, rather than adapt to the “new normal.” When determining return-to-office policies, leaders should adopt a mindset of purposeful presence. They should embrace nuance and focus on the type of work and collaboration (e.g., individuals, small groups, within your shift) when determining where work needs to happen.
- Get clear on why. It’s insufficient to say that employees need to return to the office “for the culture.” Rather, leaders should be more specific about why a hybrid working model is needed and how a periodic in-person presence fits into the broader vision and strategy of the organization. One retailer defined what tasks can be performed remotely and launched a hybrid policy with clarity around when and for what reasons employees needed to be in person.
- Acknowledge the impact on work-life. Whether working in the office or remotely, employees still have the same work-life responsibilities, including childcare, elder care, etc. Leaders must acknowledge the impact that the return to office has on work-life and go one step further to highlight what the organization will do to support employees in navigating both. Take, for example, a financial services company that, upon returning to the office, started providing “back-up care” at several of its locations, or the retailer that started a fund for single parents to offset childcare costs.
- Treat it as engagement, not communication. Return-to-office announcements shouldn’t just be memos shared one time by the CEO. Instead, leaders at all levels of the organization (e.g., senior leaders, middle managers) need to actively engage their teams in two-way dialogue, both to share information and create an upward channel for employees to discuss what it means for them and voice any suggestions, thoughts, or concerns surrounding new ways of working. To do this, one professional services firm created a monthly, hour-long “Ask me anything” where employees could ask questions and connect with senior executives.
- Consider it a living document, not a commandment. Leaders should acknowledge that return-to-office plans are likely to evolve and become comfortable with admitting when earlier plans did not achieve the desired effect or had to be changed. With the future course of COVID-19 uncertain and leaders learning in real time what operating models work best for their organization, return-to-office plans and announcements need to be living documents that are constantly evaluated, refreshed, and re-communicated.
While there is no singular right way to communicate return-to-office announcements, there are many wrong ways. By leveraging these five strategies, leaders are more likely to land on a better answer that will inspire and engage their people throughout the process—emphasizing the relational, rather than the transactional, aspect of working together.