Dear CEOs: Here Are the Do's and Don'ts for Announcing Return-to-Work Plans

August 09, 2021

Contributor: Jackie Wiles

CEOs have announced return-to-workplace plans to mixed reception. Learn from their mistakes.

When COVID-19 vaccines sparked talk of a return to prepandemic norms, CEOs may not have realized how few people wanted to "return." The mixed reviews for their public statements about return-to-work plans show just how contentious the issue has become. To set yourself up for a positive reaction from employees and customers, whether your organization adopts a fully remote, hybrid or in-person work approach, follow a few simple guidelines.

“You may not make everyone happy, but you can make sure to reduce the likelihood of backlash and, in some instances, use the moment to improve your company’s reputation,” says LK Klein, Director, Research, Gartner. 

Watch now: Seize This Unique Opportunity for the Future of Work

3 sets of do’s and don'ts for communicating return-to-work plans

The Gartner Communications Research team reviewed 20 recent CEO and company statements on return-to-work plans and have distilled the key take-aways into three sets of do’s and don’ts. Learn these lessons, and you’ll save days or weeks of damage control. 

No 1: Start by communicating with employees

  • Don’t communicate with external audiences before communicating to employees. 
  • Do communicate policies externally so customers and potential employees understand your approach.

Few employees enjoy hearing news about their company from external sources before they’ve been informed by their own employer. Premature external communications put managers in the difficult position of managing reactions from frontline staff without support from leadership. 

Instead, announce your intentions to employees, then share that same information through external channels. Transparency helps customers and prospective employees understand your approach, but business continuity takes priority. Support managers and employees by following announcements with additional detail via FAQs or Q&A sessions to ensure that all concerns are addressed.

Vast majority of HR leaders agree that clear internal communication with employees to set expectations is critical to a positive return-to-workplace experience.

No. 2: Don’t make it personal

  • Don’t bring your bias into it. 
  • Do openly discuss the benefits and challenges of different working models and how the company considers those trade-offs in the context of the company’s identity.

It’s a messaging misstep for executives to voice their individual perspectives, rather than focusing on job requirements, to determine return-to-work plans. Before the pandemic, some leaders thought nothing of saying they saw remote work as a “career-ending” move. Now, with more than a year of large-scale remote or hybrid work in place, it’s become clear that hybrid organizations can be profitable, flexible and engaging, creating a win-win for organizations and employees. It’s harder — or at least ill-informed — to wholeheartedly denounce a work model that seems to be effective.

“ It’s a messaging misstep for executives to voice their individual perspectives, rather than focusing on job requirements, to determine return-to-work plans. ”

Successful messages about the future of work honestly and empathetically address the dynamics of different working approaches and how the executive team weighs those dynamics in the context of the brand’s purpose to determine the best approach going forward. 

Make sure to leverage your organization’s identity — your purpose, brand, values and history — as the context behind your return-to-workplace plans. Audiences are receptive to decisions that are consistent with the experience they have with the organization.

No. 3: Evaluate policy before you speak

  • Don’t force rigidity for the sake of consistency. 
  • Do evaluate where it is possible to introduce flexibility into different types of roles.

The final messaging misstep is rooted in a policy problem, rather than a messaging problem. Organizations have faced backlash when adopting overly rigid policies before first evaluating whether flexibility was even possible. 

Most organizations leverage a variety of employment models, and the differing experience of employee types (e.g., contract, union, gig, full-time) was already starting to surface before COVID-19. The pandemic highlighted other inequities, too. It’s easier, for example, to offer flexibility to knowledge workers than to service-sector employees, but there are still ways to give options to previously location-centric roles, such as customer service reps

Executives face the ongoing challenge of ensuring equity and community across different work models and roles. To succeed, you and your leadership team first need to evaluate how roles — and the activities within roles — relate to different employment models and how important they are in driving organizational goals. Then you can work to create equal access to flexibility in and across employment models.

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