We’re burned out; we’re lonely; we’ve all gotten weird as hell, and we’re so done with talking about remote work. So, with vaccine rollouts starting to accelerate, we’re ready (and excited) to start talking about what a post-pandemic return to the office might look like. But because companies are still, a year later, dealing with the logistical challenges of the sudden shift to remote work, many haven’t yet focused on the post-pandemic change management exercise of returning all—or parts—of their workforce to office hubs.
Heading back is going to be much more complex than telling everyone to stay home for quarantine. Not only have most office spaces been closed for a year, many have also been closed and sold off. Equipment might need to be brought back into offices from homes, and new health protocols along with physical organization plans need to be established.
Don't forget that your returning workforce might look drastically different than the one that hurriedly packed up 13 months ago. The entire employee base is going to need custom information, and confusion is going to be a factor. The big reopening event isn’t just a change management exercise—it’s an internal communications one. Here’s how to be as prepared as possible.
Managing office return expectations
It's important to get feedback from the entire workforce before you set a timeline for returning to the office. Many employees who’ve previously worked in office hubs may be reticent to return, or have moved to full-time remote status, while others are ready to be back in an office tomorrow.
Did you use a survey to gauge people’s feelings on return to work policies last year? Now is the perfect time to issue another survey (or put out your first one) to get an accurate and up to date idea of how people are feeling.
Ask specifically what would keep people from returning to an office, and if they haven’t moved to full-time remote status, how frequently they’d like to be in an office. Ask these questions even if you’re planning to make a return to the office mandatory for those within commuting distance, as you’ll need them to help formulate your roadmap.
What to include in your office return roadmap
What should your reopening roadmap look like? Make sure it includes answers to the following questions, informed by feedback from your workforce:
- What are the milestones to hit before the office will reopen?
- What is the timeframe for reopening once those milestones are hit?
- What are the expectations for how often people should be in an office?
- Will the reopening happen in stages?
- Will there be a pilot program?
- Will you expect people to come in 1 or 2 days a week to start, leading up to 3 or more later in the year?
- Will full-time remote work be considered for those who are uncomfortable returning?
- If not, what is the timeframe for them having to make a decision to move on? Will you give them 3 months to evaluate? 6 months? A year?
- If someone who was previously hub-based has moved outside of commuting distance, will they be expected to travel to a hub on any sort of frequency?
- What are the milestones to hit before that travel will be required?
Office return policies to document
Once a roadmap has been established and communicated (preferably widely and with multiple feedback methods), you’ll need to clearly spell out your policies for the post-return office environment:
- Will people have dedicated desks?
- Is this dependent on how frequently they’re in the office?
- Will any equipment need to be returned to an office?
- How soon after the reopening will equipment need to be returned?
- What do you need to KNOW about your office?
Keeping a newfound balance
It's not just about physical policies. The return to the office will require cultural changes as well.
For multi-office companies, remote work has been a great equalizer; everyone has had the same kind of communications and interactions. No conversations have been able to happen organically in the hallways, and employees in satellite offices might have actually felt more in-the-know in the last year than ever before.
Office cliques have been broken up, and teams have had to over-communicate by default. Keep in mind that anyone who has onboarded in the last 12 months has likely only experienced your company culture remotely. A “return” to the office might seriously challenge their idea of what that culture really is.
So how can you keep the positive parts of remote-first culture while also “getting back to normal”?
Here’s what to consider when creating and implementing internal communications and culture guidance:
- What do communications best practices look like in a hybrid or office-based environment?
- Have chat guidelines changed?
- How soon should a conversation move from informal (impromptu spark or brainstorm) to formal (kickoff with stakeholders)?
- Where should information be documented?
- What kind of information should be documented?
- How culture and communication practices have changed from the pre-pandemic normal.
- Should teams plan to be in on the same day?
- Are you getting rid of bulk snacks?
- When should you stay home?
- This is important to codify and communicate. Pre-pandemic, people would come to work sick. “The office flu” was an expectation every winter. How will you be making sure this doesn’t persist going forward?
Adapt as necessary
It’s OK if you don’t get it all perfect from the start. Take everything here and treat it as a test—but make sure there are open lines of communication both from management and to management. Be empathetic. It’s OK to say “I’m tired of sharing a home office with my husband and can’t wait to be back in our open plan, but you may never be ready to go back. Let’s figure out what options we have.”
The best thing you can do is make it easy to get feedback and create an incentive for people to give it.
Learn how to maximize employee engagement in a post-pandemic environment from our friends at Bonusly.