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Second Quarter 2021




Returning to the Office Requires Planning, Clear Communications

Who could have imagined a year ago that most of us would still be working from home offices, kitchen tables, or dining rooms?

By Susan Beach


We’ve boosted our wi-fi connections, learned how to put island-themed backgrounds on our video calls, and figured out how to keep our pandemic puppies at bay during Zoom Board of Director’s meetings.

The increasing availability of COVID vaccines is a hopeful sign, prompting business leaders to plan for when, how, and possibly even if employees will return to the office. Each company means a unique situation. At recent MPL Association meetings, leaders have been sharing their perspectives on the challenges of coming up with a plan for returning to work. Some employees are anxious to return to the office; others are comfortable with remote work and may not need or want to come into the office every weekday. Company leaders are creating phased plans to get back to full in-person staff or are giving up office space for good.

But getting back to normal—or whatever will pass for normal—may be easier said than done. There are a few steps leaders should consider when moving to the next phase.

Companies should create a clear, systematic, and consistent plan to bring people back to the office. A steering committee of internal stakeholders from across the company can be very helpful in managing how employees return to work. This kind of dedicated group also can be convened quickly if circumstances change. Employee surveys can offer valuable insights; however, it’s best not to completely rely on the results to create the return-to-work plan, but rather to use it as one of the points of information to consider.

Organizations should be prepared for a more flexible work environment. With the rapid adoption of technological infrastructure and tools, particularly the collaboration tools with which we’ve become so accustomed, employees will expect more flexibility in the future. It’s possible to leverage the lessons you’ve learned from the pandemic in this area.

A 2020 survey of 350 employees in Wuhan, China, explored what employees saw as important as they returned to work. Researchers reported in “Returning to Work After Lockdown: Lessons from Wuhan” (Harvard Business Review, Dec. 11, 2020) that engagement and performance were highest when employees had mentally prepared for their return to work and their managers showed a commitment to promoting workplace health and safety.

The lockdowns have been very disruptive to people’s work, making it difficult for people to just jump right back into the daily office routine. Surveys showed that it was helpful for employees to spend time reviewing past progress, setting new priorities, and creating short- and long-term task lists before returning to work.

At the same time, coming back to work knowing that new waves of infection are possible could be a source of stress for employees. Company leaders can mitigate people’s concern by promoting and enforcing workplace health and safety. This means making sure everyone understands and follows protocols and procedures. That means communicating guidelines (use of masks, daily temperature checks, and others) and enforcing these guidelines.

As with all employee issues, communication is key to the success of any new plan. Companies must articulate their plans in a way that all employees in all locations understand.

The pandemic has meant numerous surprises. But with thoughtful planning and clear communications, companies can successfully adjust to the changing workplace circumstances and evolve as the need arises in the months to come.



Susan Beach is Vice President of Marketing & Communications at the MPL Association.