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Communication best practices for returning to the office after COVID-19

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to returning to the office after COVID-19. Getting back in is one step, but making sure all your people know what to expect and understand the guidelines for interacting with the new space is a completely different animal.

When stay-at-home orders have expired and child-care options re-open, employee apprehension will remain. How will you address that apprehension? What new policies and channels of communication can you craft in response that will positively impact employee experience?

We outlined best practices for change management and change communication to consider as you develop a return plan.

Want to talk through your return-to-office strategy with a workplace expert? Schedule time today.

Communicating the return to office plan 

In order to experience a smooth transition back into the workplace, your people need the peace of mind that comes from a structured and well-communicated re-entry. The best-laid plans, in cases such as this, are often the best-shared plans.

  • Communicate what your return to office phases will look like with the caveat that safety comes first. Incorporate the best available information from the federal and local levels into your projections as a basis for your planning. 
  • Hear concerns with compassion. While the timeline is ultimately a product of discussion between stakeholders (internal and external), creating a space for staff to have meaningful conversations about the return-to-work plan is important for morale. 
  • Understand and support difference: While some workers may be ready and even excited to move back in, others with health concerns or who care for vulnerable individuals may be less enthusiastic. Alleviate concerns where you can, and consider alternative arrangements where appropriate. 

Addressing in-office changes

The office will feel like a much different place as staff settles into the “new normal” of working life. Prepare and communicate policies ahead of time that support and define the changes to working life necessary for health and comfort.

Physical distancing in the office

The days of gathering around the conference room table to brainstorm are most likely behind us for some time. As you craft your back-to-work plan and communications, distancing will play a major role in the new policies you adopt.

Creating guidelines

  • Set clear directives for collaboration and gatherings— determining capacity in meeting rooms based on good social distance, being explicit about keeping meeting times to their reasonable minimum, and establishing post-meeting cleaning practices to help keep spaces ready for the next occupants.
  • Similarly, set protocols for informal gathering areas within your office: seating areas, break and coffee rooms, kitchens, and other social spaces. Make sure your people know to avoid common areas just for socializing and the importance of keeping areas clean.

Office layout changes

While this may be difficult to achieve from home, addressing space and seating issues within the office in advance of your return can help reduce the first-week jitters about getting into others’ personal space. If you have a map of your office, look for ways to use the space to create more distance. While space is always at a premium in offices, look for opportunities to create distance, such as:

Social customs (shaking hands, sharing food, etc)

As social creatures, it can feel unusual and even disrespectful to avoid the social customs we’ve been brought up with. While setting a “no handshake policy” sounds a little harsh, crafting communications about changes in employee behavior can both reinforce the need for distance, and ease the awkward feelings associated with avoiding contact.

  • Acknowledge the reality that these changes feel uncomfortable. Assure your people that this feeling is universal, as is the need to keep everyone safe. Reiterate that it’s okay to skip the typical handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps of office life.
  • Set expectations around catering and snacks. Catered breakfast and lunches may need to stay on hold for the foreseeable future, but communication around snacks and beverage service needs to be clear as well. For instance:
  • Washing hands before taking snacks, getting a beverage, or making coffee/tea (if they’re even available).
  • Wiping down surfaces after use (such as making a cup or pot of coffee, using the microwave, etc.) 
  • Refraining from bringing in treats and snacks from home to share.  
  • Using only single-use cups, plates, and cutlery for the near future Personal mugs and plates (and the shared sink situation) can spread germs.

Presenteeism

Presenteeism definition
Discouraging a culture that rewards presenteeism will be essential for employee health and safety.

Being clear about expectations around sick days will be among the most important communications you’ll have with your people. Where once the seasonal coughs and sniffles were considered one of the necessary evils of office life, these days, it could cause significant stress. Changing the perception that it’s acceptable or expected to work while “under the weather” is very important (for both physical health and peace of mind).

  • Have a clear, compassionate policy for absence due to illness. It should communicate the importance of staying home while making it clear that doing so will not impact that employee negatively.
  • Where possible, encourage working from home when an employee is unwell (or even unsure). Set the expectation that absences for illness are normal, and create support channels so that work can still be completed when someone has to remain at home.

Embracing remote culture

While many businesses had to quickly move to a work-from-home model to meet health and safety standards or stay-at-home orders, many employers are now seeing the value in remote work, and may even be preparing to adopt remote work (in part or in full) after the pandemic has eased. If this is the sentiment in your organization, this time at home can be an excellent opportunity to formalize the systems, technology, and policies that will support remote work once the world goes back to work.

  • Send out an employee survey to understand what percentage of work can be done at home.
  • Can people choose to work remotely full-time? Will certain roles or teams have this availability?
  • For employees that must perform part of their roles in person, is there a middle-ground of balancing remote and in-person time?
  • Create a work-from-home or remote policy that thoroughly outlines:
  • How and when people can work from home.
  • What the communication expectations are for scheduling remote time.
  • How work-progress and deliverables will be communicated/transmitted for remote workers.
  • What metrics will be used to measure and review the success of employees working remotely.
  • How remote workers will remain socially connected and engaged with the main office.
  • What technology and tools will be used to achieve the above communication and accountability goals
  • Create a solid communication plan for the changes and policies you plan to make:
  • Identify champions and support to get the word out.
  • Establish channels of communication and feedback that engage your staff.
  • Be open to adjustments and assessment as plans progress. 
  • Create positive outbound communication and employee branding that show your external audiences the changes you’re making, and how you’re achieving them together.

The sensible approach for your post-COVID-19 office

When considering the return to work and how it will affect your staff and working life, a gradual, phased approach seems to be the most popular model. Make it clear what people can expect as your company moves through those reopening phases and clarify how they're expected to interact with the workplace and each other during each.

Adopt the policies that are essential, or will most immediately benefit your company and alleviate pain-points. Work in other policies as time and comfort level allow. While this pandemic has changed our perceptions in an instant, how we build the next version of work is entirely in our hands.

Want to talk through your return-to-office strategy with a workplace expert? Schedule time today.