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Preparing Employees for a Return to the Workplace

April 27, 2020
By Paul Vosloo

It’s work Jim, but not as we know it.

As governments around the world begin easing restrictions, a return to the workplace is top of mind for communicators. This phase requires active management of employee expectations and providing clarity and direction when they return to work – addressing organizational, health and safety, and emotional challenges during the process.

There is no precedent or playbook for how this will look. What we do know is the process must be carefully choreographed. Returning to work will be non-linear, phased, and will vary by region, city-by-city, business sector and employee health risk profiles.

Most importantly, organizations need to start communicating now and align messaging to ensure a successful, seamless and safe return to work.

What do we need to do now?

While there is no playbook, the good news is the fundamentals of crisis communications are still effective and relevant.

  • Listen to and create opportunities for dialogue with employees
  • Clearly define what the company is doing to manage the crisis today, and set expectations for the future
  • Plan scenarios that anticipate employee concerns and issues at each phase of the crisis
  • Fully understand employee sentiment through research and follow-up with regular Pulse Surveys
  • Provide the right information to employees at the right time

At the beginning of the crisis, employees needed to know about new operational guidelines regarding such things as working from home, paid time off and benefits. As the situation evolved, organizations focused on employee health and wellness, and maintaining morale and productivity.

What do employees want now?

As we prepare for a return to the workplace and the reopening of facilities, many organizations will rely on the government and the media to lead the way. That’s a mistake. A recent briefing document from McKinsey revealed 63% of employees consider their employer as the most credible source of information on COVID-19, while 58% trust government, and only 51% trust the media.

Employees are looking for leaders to provide them with:

  • Clear, simple messages consistently communicated by all senior leaders
  • The facts – not sugar coating or vague “inspirational” speeches
  • A dialogue with leadership and subject matter experts on a regular basis and through different channels
  • Empathy and knowing that leadership is sharing their pain

Before communicating around a return to the workspace, it’s critical to know what employees are currently thinking. Savvy communicators have set up weekly Pulse Surveys to track employee sentiment and gauge how ready their employees are, what their concerns are and what they want to hear from employers.

And while it might seem employees are getting too much information, and may be in danger of communications fatigue, the same McKinsey briefing document showed 63% of employees want daily updates from their company with 20% wanting updates 2-3 times a day.

Employees will also want organizations to address the psychological implications. Aside from health and safety and logistical issues, employees will struggle with debilitating psychological disorders and survivor guilt – seriously impeding an organization’s ability to bounce back. According to one study, mental well-being issues can lead to a 25% drop in performance.

The need for ongoing therapy for employees will be essential and internal communicators will need to support HR and corporate to understand the need to both memorialize employees who have passed, and provide opportunities to grieve and heal.

What do employees want next?

Post crisis, employees will want leadership to help make sense of what just happened, lay out a new vision for the company, and to reconnect with employees and rebuild culture based on a new understanding of shared values, behavior and purpose.

Smart leaders will recognize the importance of involving every employee in shaping the new narrative, helping them to heal and readjust, and reimagine a new shared culture and values.

Leaders can shape a meaningful story for the organization, invoking common culture and values as touchstones for healing. In their messaging, they need to underscore a shared sense of purpose, rally the organization and chart new paths to the future.

Societal values are also radically changing as a result of the pandemic. Global research from FleishmanHillard’s TRUE Global Intelligence group, reveals 73% of consumers say the pandemic has changed how they see the world. Strategy and operations will surely continue to be a competitive advantage, but in a post-pandemic world, there is an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine the organization to reflect this shift in values and expectations.

At present those changes are being led by senior leadership. Often through necessity. The biggest challenge facing internal communicators is enabling employees to be a part of the debate on the future of the workplace and the organization itself. It will be critical to provide them with a voice in the discussion. Without this dialogue, organizations will find it difficult to implement changes without employee buy-in and ownership.

Additional Considerations

Implications for the Office Workspace

Clearly having everyone come back to the office on day one is not realistic. As with our experience in Hong Kong and China, the return will be a gradual phased process.

Businesses are implementing A and B teams working different days, so everyone doesn’t return at once. This also takes some of the pressure off the need to completely redesign office floor plans and furniture. Employees fill out daily health-check surveys online before work and enter through a single entrance. Temperature checks are becoming routine.

Most employees wear their masks when walking the floor and in public spaces, with hand sanitizers everywhere. Elevator buttons are covered in plastic and disinfected once an hour, and offices are deep disinfected once a week.

Ironically, the whole point of modern open plan offices and kinetic furniture was to bring people together. Now the emphasis is to keep people apart. The post-pandemic office will look radically different. A conference room intended for 12 might be repurposed as a meeting room for six. Desks and chairs on casters will allow people to roll a safe distance from colleagues. New technology will provide access to rooms and elevators without employees having to touch a handle or press a button. We’ll see signs everywhere reminding people to wash their hands and far more daily communications on adopting healthy habits.

The move to “hot-desking” may be put on pause – it might not be wise to have people switching desks every day. There will be understandable reluctance to use a phone used by someone else the day before. Instead we may see more lounges, cafes and other gathering spaces to make collaborative work easier as employees do more work from home and commute in for meetings. Even when people do come back to the office, meetings will be limited and large gatherings a thing of the past.

Implications for the Factory Workspace

U.S. health and safety guidelines for factory floor workers are broad and unclear, leaving many companies to set up their own internal safety procedures. Many never closed down their manufacturing facilities and introduced measures piecemeal, while others planning to reopen factories are looking to completely revamp operations.

Organizations are taking steps to reassure workers the facility is safe, including:

  • Highlighting regular, often daily, deep cleaning of workspaces, the restriction of visitors, nurses on site and the wide availability of hand sanitizers and protective clothing
  • Daily health screenings before entering the facility, requiring employees to line up single file at a single entrance. Some companies are building testing capacity so employees can test themselves before they come to work
  • Reducing personal interaction between shifts by either staggering shifts or using separate exits to keep departing workers away from others coming on shift
  • Restructuring assembly lines to find ways to ensure workers can operate at safe distances without slowing lines and maintaining productivity
  • Establishing workspaces to be 6 feet apart with one-way walkways to keep employees from brushing past each other
  • Closing cafeterias and break rooms and providing boxed lunches and vending machines, or restricting the number of employees in a cafeteria at any one time
  • Actively monitoring social distancing, with some companies experimenting with wearable devices that alert employees if they come within six feet of each other
  • Procedure changes at factories including workers no longer passing materials to each other by hand, setting them down instead
  • Taking actions when a worker tests positive, from shutting down an entire plant or warehouse to interviewing sick workers, identifying where they worked recently and targeting those areas for deep cleaning