An Open Letter re: Returning to the Workplace
COVID has been rough, hasn’t it? The questions keep coming. The answers? We’re just hoping we get credit for trying. Some of us have been working to provide weekly updates, and yes, there are many weeks where we had to admit there is really nothing new to report. Others of us have been pounding our heads against brick walls because our colleagues don’t want to say anything until final decisions are made about when and how teams will return to the workplace. And frankly, this crazy in-between is probably not ending any time soon.
We see you. We get you. And the good news is that we’ve all learned a lot in the past year that will help guide us forward. We get a lot of questions about what next steps may look like. Here’s what’s rising to the surface for our team…
- We can’t afford to wait for the big “return to the workplace” reveal to offer support to team members currently working remotely. Virtual work has been hard, and there are a lot of people feeling overworked and under-supported. People are lonely. People are stretched. Emotions are running high. Actually getting work done feels like the second shift we pull when the videoconferences have finally ended. We need to help our teams NOW, and even small gestures from leaders to streamline priorities, reduce and/or shorten meetings, flex the workday or just reach out as fellow humans can make a big difference. There is tremendous opportunity to start building these skills and opening minds to doing things differently both to keep our top talent through this next phase and to be ready whenever we get to return to in-person meetings and/or being in the office at least most of the time. And yes, doing those regular pulse checks, providing updates on what’s being considered and what we’re learning, and looking for the silver linings is important
- We have to remember how people across the country and around the world are experiencing COVID differently. While the shared experience of dealing with a global pandemic has brought us together in many ways, the realities and implications of our differences are more pointed than ever. And let’s face it: Most of the leaders driving the COVID response have had it pretty good by comparison. These people often sit in developed countries, where healthcare is accessible and COVID vaccines are being distributed. The personal experience of this group – and thus, the response – is, in many instances, trailing the needs of team members in other parts of the world or even harder-hit U.S. communities. They may be working remotely, even though much of the workforce has been onsite throughout the pandemic. Most companies need to bring more people into working groups to ensure strategies represent the needs of all team members and communications land as intended across the company’s footprint. As much as we want to be consistent, this is NOT one size fits all.
- No matter what decision is made about flexible work arrangements, a lot of explanation and support will be necessary. Many of our conversations begin with an underlying assumption that employers will offer more flexibility – most notably, the opportunity to work remotely at least part of the time – for office-based staff. This is not a new idea born of COVID. In fact, many companies have tried to offer widespread flexible work options only to reverse the trend in short order. Others have found success. The truth is: Managing a hybrid workforce (one that has some employees working onsite and others working remotely) is hard. It can be more difficult to train remote workers, to keep them focused and to spark creativity. Connection may be lost. Productivity may start to decline. And inequity may drive a wedge in your culture. That’s not to say the whole idea should be abandoned. We’ve learned a lot in the past year, incorporated new technologies and have a greater appreciation for each other’s humanity, which should make hybrid work easier. But it’s likely not the right choice for all companies and roles. The best strategy for roles that require high levels of collaboration, innovation and human connection may very well be to rip off the band aid as soon as it’s safe to bring people together again, strongly encouraging, incentivizing and potentially even requiring people get back to an office ASAP. We firmly believe that, more often than not, people will remember why they liked being together as soon as they experience it again, and there are things we as communicators can do to help that process along. There also is a lot we will need to do to launch any flexible work policies that are offered, define the terms and conditions, and ensure experiences are equitable (even if the opportunities aren’t equal across all roles and functions). Managing expectations at the start can save a lot of pain further into the process.
- We’re going to be doing this with theoretical data re: what employees really want, and it will take time to get them to a final answer. To be clear, we love data and strongly encourage all employers to listen to and learn from their people. Misperceptions That said, the input we’re gathering now is, in part, based on a skewed sense of reality because, as soon as any critical mass of employees starts to show up onsite, the whole game changes. Maybe it’s a last-minute happy hour that gives onsite employees extra time with the boss. Maybe it’s an unconscious bias toward choosing the person you see in front of you for a new assignment or an impromptu conversation in the kitchen that unlocks an opportunity. There are a million ways employees working virtually can be left behind, and those inequities may either prompt them to come back to the office or to leave for a company that is better able to deliver the experience they want. The trend may also work in reverse: If every meeting and interaction is optimized for remote workers, those who choose to return initially may quickly discontinue the commute. It is our job as communicators to be as clear as possible about the benefits and potential trade-offs associated with any choice an employee is given – and to keep iterating as people adjust to the new reality.
- Knowing where to start can be the hardest part. If you’re like us, you like to bring order to chaos. You’re trained to link initiatives to the big picture. You want to inspire people to move forward and share progress along the way. 2020 did not create a lot of these types of opportunities, but 2021 could as vaccines become more readily available, government lockdowns are lifted, schools re-open and our companies define the next “normal.” How do you even start to plan for that, while still keeping up with the day-to-day shifts we’ve been managing through for the past year? Our best advice is to begin by acknowledging – and then letting go – of the things you can’t control (like all the external drivers of timing and the possibility that the virus will mutate) in order to drive the discussion toward the company decisions that will inform messaging and strategy whenever we’re able to move toward full recovery. For us, that includes conversations around what purpose the physical workplace is intended to serve and why anyone would want to be there, how the company will need to evolve to stay competitive strategically and operationally, what role technology and automation plays in those strategies and how work gets done in a future state. There is no proven playbook, so we just need to be sure we keep listening and addressing the issues that are most important to our people.
So, that’s the initial list… not all-encompassing but a start. And here’s the most important part: We’re all in this together. We’re here for you as you confront this new reality, and we hope you’ll reach out to share your thoughts, as well.
Your Friends at FTI Consulting