Return to Office – Getting Employee Communications right

September 28, 2021

Returning to the office.  It’s happening in different ways, depending on company needs and approaches.  There are challenges to overcome, not least maintaining and growing the workplace culture, and using the best engagement and communication strategies to ensure employee buy-in, trust, clarity and safety.

Verity London’s Managing Partner Debra Sobel was joined by three workplace experts to discuss.  If you missed the webinar, you can catch up by watching the recording – or read this short blog for some key takeouts.

Return to Office Experts 

Joining Debra on our webinar was Emma Parker, Internal Head of Communications at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, Gerda Stelpstra, Associate Partner, Global Occupier Services and Workplace Strategy Consultant at property company Cushman and Wakefield; and Bera Kalhan, Chief People Office at fast-growing fin-tech start up Zilch.

Key Challenges

There’s a lot of information out there, but a one size fits all strategy won’t work – as every company’s experience of returning to the office will be different. Debra Sobel explained how organisations will have to adapt to localise information, empathise with employees and their different ways of experiencing the prospect of returning to the office. Structures have to be put in place for peace of mind, and crucially, we have to ensure that those still working from home – fully or partially – are fully included in the office culture and don’t miss out on communications and work experiences.

A top down communications approach has been important for Emma Parker, as lockdown co incided with a change of CEO at Herbert Smith Freehills.  Staff changes during remote working could be seen as a challenge, but by adopting an approach as a communications champion, Emma was able to leverage this change and their new CEO embraced communication requirements of the firm. Emma recognised the different expectations of employees at this time, and the challenge of managing that.  Some are gungho about returning to the office.  Others very nervous. The firm set clear expectations around a 60% office presence to help with clarity, but with the caveat that they continue to keep talking and doing surveys to check in on how people are feeling and how they are managing.

Other challenges included the different approaches within a global company.  Gerda Stelpstra described radically different processes across different countries, adapted to cultural needs to ensure everybody feels safe. Within an overarching ‘6ft office’ concept to take social distancing beyond the height of the Covid era, she considered how that would impact offices of the future during this transformation stage.

Whilst at Zilch, 92% growth within six months has meant all current employees have been onboarded remotely.  An initial standard approach to comms has now led to a responsible, cautious approach to engage teams who have never worked together in person.  Although not mandatory, all staff now work in the office, and identifying concerns beforehand and addressing them through Q&As, with a human approach has encouraged everybody to share experiences and feel supported in – not returning to their desks, but discovering them for the first time

Engaging Employees – wherever they are working

Clarity on guidelines and etiquette were key to Debra Sobel to enable new workplace and office structures feed into the culture of any company.  A mix of formal and informal comms can set out reasoning behind guidelines, whilst a bottom up approach complimenting leadership comms ensures employees are being listened to and championed during this process of change.

Bera Kalhan described how much Zilch’s people wanted to share experiences and work collaboratively, which encouraged on the job learning and coaching, with personal reassurances given to teams during this process of change.  They ensured there was no difference between remote or in person boarding programmes, and that all meetings always have dial in options.  Fairness is key wherever somebody is working

It’s important to really understand how people are feeling at this time.  For Emma Parker, using comms to build trust is important.  Keeping things human sets the tone, and they ensure that vulnerability isn’t seen as a negative thing as they navigate a return to work process .  Herbert Smith Freehills survey results show how much employees appreciate the open dialogue, and how that has instilled confidence around safety as people return.

Leadership and empathy is also a priority for Cushman and Wakefield.  Although Gerda Stelpstra flagged a warning that the risk of emotion in messaging is that it can be interpreted differently by your employees.  What can be seen as a positive message about returning to the office to one person may be seen as a risk for another, or something less appealing to somebody who has enjoyed working from home.  She encourages conversations to avoid individual concerns from escalating.

Maintaining and Growing your workplace culture

When a daily, well meaning check in can feel like a check in on if people are working, evolving transitional rituals and workplace behaviour that have developed during lockdown can help ensure workplace culture thrives within a hybrid model.  Gerda Stelpstra talked about ‘designed thinking’ – defining the needs of different audiences and creating shared experiences to keep people involved.  For her, hybrid working leads to a whole realm of possibilities and opportunities rather than a risk.

Incorporating working practices across a week and encouraging staff to plan events too is important at Zilch.  Bera Kalhan also stressed communicating values and ensuring they underpin culture to everybody can identify to them.  As people start working together in person, individuality is still key, with a people first approach that recognises achievement through communications

Emma Parker described how the traditional cascade approach to comms wouldn’t work any more.  As we return to the office, fully or in part, culture will change and evolve.  It would be important to stay vigilant to ensure everything stays on track, and to remind people that we can’t go back to the way things were.

Communicating as a responsible business

A return to office strategy should tie in with your company’s unique purpose and values.  With a cohesive approach that ensures processes aren’t communicated in silo.  Debra Sobel wrapped up with the reassurance that, although there must be clarity and authenticity in these comms, we don’t have to have all the answers right now as return to office actions develop and evolve.  With a final reminder to ensure outbound comms to customers and clients also reflect where you are with your return to office approach.  That they all know your structure and responsible business approach to delivering and communicating – however you’re actioning a return to the office 

Top Tips for Return to Office Comms

Remember that return to office means different things to different people.  Great news for one, but less positive for another.  Consider that in all communications to recognise different reactions.

Personalise your comms to ensure all voices and concerns are heard, and there isn’t a one size fits all approach to any return

Ensure all communications and meetings are equally accessible to all – whether they are in the office or working from elsewhere – and that any opportunities and news are communicated widely.

Consider this return to office as part of your responsible business approach to employee needs, underpinned by your values and purpose as a business.  Listen to feedback, and be prepared to evolve processes if required.

Think about individual responses based on personality and culture.  Different people and countries have different ways to respond to new and changing rules.  

Empathetic leadership comms should be mixed with bottom up initiatives to keep communications open.  Conversations are important to balance a more emotional approach that could feel like its putting people under pressure.  Keep talking and evolving as we test out our return to office strategies.

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