Businesses are calling on remote workers to return to the office. Even though the pandemic is showing no signs of going away anytime soon, business leaders think it’s time to get the workplace back to normal. So, how should you communicate your company’s return-to-the office requirement to employees? Very carefully, if you want cooperation from a pandemic-weary labor force that’s preferring the work from home (WFH) arrangement in growing numbers. One thing is certain: COVID-19 has upturned the way scores of employees perform their jobs. Unlike essential workers, whose have required onsite duties, those who could WFH due to the pandemic are returning to a workplace that’s not the same. And this could make communicating the come-back to employees challenging, especially for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). A one-time, blanket announcement may not be enough to get remote workers to want to return to the office. You may need multiple messages, along with in-person or virtual meetups, for a smoother return.
Employees who are ready to return to the office won’t need much coaxing. But others will have concerns that businesses should address in their communications, such as:
A chief concern is employees’ growing preference for full-time or hybrid WFH options. A Pew Research Center study showed that as workplaces reopen, 61% of employees chose not to return to the worksite in January 2022, compared to just 36% who felt the same in October 2020, when the pandemic became full blown. David Ciccarelli, founder and CEO of Voices, a voice over and creative services firm, thinks businesses should have an employment agreement that requires workers to be onsite whenever they ask them to do so. “If the agreement states the company's right to require employees to be present from time to time at their manager’s request, then their resistance or refusal to return shouldn't be an issue,” Ciccarelli told TriNet in an email interview.
The National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM) reported that 50% of workers in a 2020 study said they were fearful about returning to the worksite because of COVID-19. Now businesses are reopening, municipalities are dropping mask mandates and venues are allowing people to congregate publicly while COVID-19 rages on and even mutates. Workers will want to know how your company plans to keep them safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has guidance for workplaces and businesses on lowering the risks of contracting the virus in the workplace.
While employment laws protect workers’ rights under certain conditions, businesses, especially at-will employers, have the right to set policies as they see fit. This includes requiring employees to be vaccinated before returning to the office. If COVID-19 vaccinations are a condition of employment at your company, your communications should state that employees’ refusal to get their shots could end in termination.
The return to the office requires workplace policies on:
Describing your organization’s health and safety protocols can help ensure workers that returning to the office has minimal risks.
Multiple studies cite most employees’ preference for more flexibility in their work and personal lives, which WFH can offer. But only 37% of jobs can reasonably be done at home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labors Statistics. Companies may need to cover how it plans to give all workers — both remote and essential — the flexibility most want, or risk facing claims of unfair treatment.
WFH may have allowed working parents and the sandwich generation more time and flexibility to care for home-bound children and aging parents. But these workers will need time to make other care-taking arrangements before returning to the office. Giving employees enough time to readjust the plans and schedules they’ve adopted during the pandemic is central to a smooth transition back to the office for employees with caregiving responsibilities. Voices communicates its return to work policy 30 days before it kicks in. “A month is more than enough time for employees to coordinate personal calendars, arrange for childcare, and ensure that they and their partners don’t have overlapping commitments,” Ciccarelli noted.
The pandemic has heightened the stress and burnout that workers normally experience, according to a 2021 LexisNexis legal insight. The American Psychology Association (APA) predicts that the emotional fallout from the pandemic will last long after the virus subsides. You can expect workers to return to the office still reeling emotionally from the pandemic. Addressing workers’ mental health needs in your communication shows your company’s concern for their well-being. The CDC and Mercer, a firm specializing in employee benefits and communication, offer employers recommendations on helping workers cope with COVID-19-related mental health issues.
Employees who want to return to the office will come back willingly. But other employees will need convincing on the advantages of working onsite, whether full time or on a hybrid schedule. Your communication can promote the advantages. Srikrishnan “Sri” Ganesan, CEO of Rocketlane, a customer onboarding software company, sees the celebration of employees and focus on the human element in the workplace as advantages to returning to the office. He believes that virtual meetings can’t capture human interactions the way in-person contact can. Therefore, he thinks the return to the worksite is necessary. “Shared experiences, celebrations, relationships are just not the same via Zoom,” Ganesan commented in an email to TriNet. “hese relationships matter when it comes to a workforce’s level of trust amongst coworkers, especially during the pandemic.” Ganesan also commented that working remotely makes it more difficult for people to address interpersonal issues on the spot, such as resolving misunderstandings or giving each other the benefit of the doubt when tensions arise.
At Voices, camaraderie among employees is a chief advantage of returning to the office, which your communication can promote. The company is planning an in-person, all-hands meeting it calls The Rally. “The purpose is not only to share information, but more importantly, to celebrate each other,” said Ciccarelli. “Celebrations are best done in person. When was the last time you held a remote birthday party? Most likely, it was awkward at best. Likewise, celebrations of your company’s achievements and those of individuals and their milestones are best done in person.”
Acknowledging employees’ concerns upfront is a good first step in communicating the call back to the office. “We're leading with, ‘While we've heard the challenges that some of you are facing in returning to the office, this hands-on meeting is a special time to celebrate the achievements of your colleagues,’” Ciccarelli noted. Michael Alexis, CEO at teambuilding.com, told TriNet via email that his organization has developed templates for employee communication. He recommends this 3-step outline for the return-to-work message:
Teambuilding.com’s 3-step communication plan is a straightforward, no-frills approach by design. “The reason for this communication is that no-one wants to be bamboozled,” Alexis explained. “If you give off a sense that you are doing something that employees won't enjoy or benefit from, and are trying to hide it, your people will know. Instead, confront the issue right now and make it transparent and easy to understand.”
Like teambuilding.com, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) also recommends stating your return-to-the-office message in plainly written, easy to understand language. Also, SHRM suggests making these preliminary steps part of your overall communication plan:
SHRM also suggests that you begin communicating to employees before you require them to return to the office, and continue communicating with them to address issues and concerns as they arise. Although you’ll want to tailor the content of your messages to meet your organization’s needs, values, culture, and mission, these tips from SHRM on how to present your content may help ease employees’ transition back to the office:
Expect and be ready for some resistance from employees — communicating major work-altering changes can be challenging. As you plan your communication strategy for getting employees to return to the office, either full time or on a hybrid schedule, keep these basics in mind: