Gartner Research

The Role of Managers in Contextualizing the Return-to-the Workplace Strategy

Published: 08 June 2021


Managers play a critical role in communicating return-to-the-workplace decisions and plans to employees. HR leaders should enable managers to contextualize the change for employees, articulating why they must return, and personalize such discussions for their direct reports.

With vaccination rollouts taking place across the globe and easing of lockdown restrictions, organizations are looking to define a future way of working that balances organizational, client and employee needs. For most, this means adopting a hybrid working model with the view of starting to reopen — or expanding the reopening of — the workplace in 2H21 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Expected Date of Reopening Closed Facilities and Bringing Employees Back

Having worked remotely for so long, employees have a lot of questions around what the reopening strategy means for them, as organizationwide strategies often leave employees unsure of how to translate down to their day-to-day work. Managers — not only HR — must play a critical role in communicating the return to the workplace to employees as impersonal communications will almost certainly lead to employee confusion and frustration.

There are two key misconceptions when it comes to the manager’s role in the return to the workplace. First, communicating the “what” of the return alone will be sufficient, and second, the return will have a one-size-fits-all approach. Many organizations are opting to share communications around the return to the workplace via virtual one-way channels because they can reach a large audience at the same time.

However, one-way channels often seem impersonal and fail to contextualize what will ultimately be a change effort for organizations. The return to the workplace, for many, is not a return to normal, therefore employees need to understand the reasons behind the change to buy into it.

To combat these common misconceptions during the return-to-the-workplace transition, managers must:

HR leaders must provide clear guidance to managers around their importance in return communications, alongside relevant information to help guide clear, consistent and empathetic discussions with their direct reports. HR must empower managers with the tools and knowledge to have personalized discussions with their employees, outlining the “why” of the return, not only the “what” of organizational strategies.

Many managers anticipate a one-size-fits-all “return to normal” as organizations reopen the workplace. The return to the workplace, however, is a complex transition that will fluctuate depending upon a variety of factors, such as vaccine rollout, confirmed COVID-19 cases and changes to local regulations. Most organizations have created cross-functional project teams to determine and communicate their return strategies, alongside their future way of working model. These strategies are then customized at a local level. Yet, many managers continue to position this reopening as a return to normal — the way work has been done for decades.

For employees, this isn’t a return to normal. Normality today for a large proportion of the workforce has become working remotely. Managers should be conscious that they must approach the return-to-the-workplace discussion as they would any other change, communicating the details of the changes that will take place and the reasons why effectively.

HR leaders recognize clear communications will be critical to driving a positive return to the workplace experience (see Figure 2). For this reason, HR must ensure managers have clarity on what messages they will need to deliver, why these decisions have been made and when exceptions may apply.

Figure 2: Opinions on Most Important Drivers of a Positive Return-to-the-Workplace Experience

As a starting point, HR must ensure managers understand the proposed “end state” for future ways of working, so employees understand whether truly it is a return to normal, a hybrid model or something else, both in the long and short term. Clarity around the future state early on will help employees adjust to the change over time.

In turn, managers should feel comfortable explaining which of their direct reports will be expected to return to the workplace for what percentage of their time, safety protocols in place, alongside directing them to any training resources. In addition to clearly communicating the what (i.e., the who and when of the return to the workplace), managers must also communicate the why. Our research has found employees do not need to see a personal benefit to buy into a change, but they must have a clear understanding of the reasons for it.

To drive a positive return experience, managers must provide clarity on why employees are being asked to return. Managers should understand the criteria used to define future ways of working, and the return-to-workplace sequencing, to help them explain why certain team members are being asked to return within a proposed time frame, demonstrating a clear business case for why certain workflows are better suited to an on-site environment. We recommend evaluating work tasks against two common criteria to determine the suitability of a task for remote work:

  • Portability can be defined by the dependence of task completion on access to equipment and technology and the portability of said equipment or technology across work locations.

  • Feasibility can be defined by a clearly agreed definition of task and outcomes and the interdependency on co-workers to achieve them.

This evaluation will help managers provide employees with clarity around why certain roles, workflows or tasks should be completed in office.

Managers often fail to grasp the importance of their role in personalizing return-to-the-workplace discussions, assuming a one-size-fits-all approach for their teams. The return to the workplace, however, is not one centralized process. It will be a transition over time and impact employee segments, and even individuals, in different ways. Our research has found when faced with such incremental, day-to-day changes, many employees experience negative moods, stress and exhaustion. Failure to support individual employees through these changes leads to lower commitment to stay with the organization. Therefore, centralized communications alone or a one-size-fits-all approach to team discussions will not be sufficient in managing the return to the workplace.

HR must encourage managers to engage employees in frequent dialogue around the return to the workplace. Providing managers with communications tools, such as an FAQ document or a conversation template that encourages active listening, will likely increase the uptake and success of such discussions. These tools should enable managers to engage employees in discussion around how comfortable they feel about the return and any barriers which may prevent them from doing so, such as concerns around the commute, personal health conditions, caregiver responsibilities and so on. HR should also advise managers on how to identify key behavioural indicators of change resistance or fatigue at this time and the degree to which employee and manager preference can factor into return-to-the-workplace plans.

Managers are uniquely positioned to focus on what the return to the workplace will mean personally to their employees and to support them throughout the entire transition. Managers will need to empathize with their employees, for some of whom, the return to the workplace may be unwelcome. They should provide employees with a safe space to provide feedback without fear of retaliation. Engaging in a dialogue with each employee about the return as well as how it will impact them will boost their understanding of it.

We also recommend managers use common behavioural indicators to help in identifying employee fatigue — and potential resistance — when it comes to the return to the workplace. For example, managers at Medtronic use a mix of objective (e.g., skipping meetings or events, number of improvement ideas proposed) and subjective indicators (e.g., appearing to be in a bad/negative mood) to provide the most reliable picture of thechange impact on employee mental energy (see Figure 3). Managers should be very intentional around scheduling additional informal discussions with their direct reports, as needed.

Figure 3. Observable Leading Indicators of Small Change Impact

As part of these discussions, managers must understand the extent to which employee feedback has, can or will feed into future ways of working and the return-to-the-workplace sequencing for the team. Especially when direct reports are demonstrating signs of resistance and fatigue. Although it will depend on the organization’s stance, we recommend localized decision making around future ways of working.

In these contexts, managers can feel empowered to influence how their own team returns based upon personal circumstances, preferences and team needs, involving employees in the decision. Managers are also a critical conduit for sharing employee sentiment with HR, which can then be used to inform organizationwide strategies if localized decisions are not possible.

Many organizations are determining their return-to-workplace strategies, and, specifically, communications, with a goal of reopening sites in 2H21. For many employees, this is a drastic change in the way they have been working for more than a year. Therefore, managers must play a critical role in discussing the return to the workplace, clearly demonstrating why employees are being asked to return and contextualizing the change for each of their direct reports.

by Rachael Marshall

Recommended by the Authors


2020 Gartner Employee Change Impact Model.


Human Resources Research Team

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