Re-opening your workplace: how to talk to staff about returning
Tips for internal communications in preparation for re-opening your organization’s workplaces
Recommendation: Be sensitive to the fact that every one of your employees has been living through traumatic circumstances and be open to their fears and reactions. Use your communications to build a sense of security as they return to a transformed workplace.
As countries take steps to open their economies again, more spaces will be welcoming back a workforce who have undergone a very destabilizing experience. Organizations need to be mindful that normal as we once knew it longer exists, and that they need to communicate clearly and empathetically about the new future the organization is stepping into, including the precautions they are taking for their employees’ health.
Prepare for new people
Every person returning to work has experienced this pandemic in profound, distinct ways and that will likely result in them returning to your workplace as slightly changed people. Many will have experienced personal difficulties or tragedies, or some form of collective grief. Due to health concerns, others may return with a new and acute fear of the very buildings and colleagues they previously cherished. And others will have thrived in a remote working environment setting and be reluctant to return to ways of working that they feel are inferior. Many people will be a mixture of the above.
Ensure you are prepared for this new environment, and let your employees know that you are open to listening to their ideas, concerns and new requirements. Prepare a strategy for how you will facilitate and convey this to staff, as well as introducing new innovations such as more remote working or an employee mental health support hotline to support those dealing with grief. 106 Communications has produced a useful internal communications guide on supporting colleagues at this time. Your organization stands to benefit from a happier, more productive working environment if your staff know you respect them and are willing to alter your organization to accommodate their development and circumstances.
The new normal
Further to recognising the changes to staff, we also need to acknowledge and prepare for changes that will affect our workplaces for the mid-to-long term. Much initial coronavirus communications focussed on the stay-at-home measures as if they would allow us to spring back to regular life immediately after, building growing resentment as we discover that we are a long way from normal. As Charlie Warzel writes for the New York Times:
The resentment I’m worried about is distrust in authorities. Months into the pandemic, some people feel as if the goal posts have been moved. You said to flatten the curve! We made sacrifices! Now you’re saying it’s not enough?
To avoid this resentment, set your employees’ expectations in advance as to what their workplace will be like, and that these measures will be in place for the foreseeable future. You can build trust further by bringing employees themselves into the conversation about how to manage this best.
Have open discussions about best working practises and encourage the raising of concerns. People will appreciate your flexibility, and showing recognition and validation of their concerns makes people feel less fearful and alone.
If you are re-opening places of work, you will not only need to take steps to ensure that you are providing a safe environment for employees to return to, you need to communicate this to them in advance of their return. Anticipatory guidance gives people time to adjust, question and understand what is expected of them.
Employ the 3 C's:
- Clarity - Ensure that new distancing and cleanliness rules are understood and adhered to
- Care - make sure your communications demonstrate that you have considered employee safety and provide psychological safety for those nervous about returning
- Consistency - make sure your messages are non-contradictory and frequently reinforced. You’re asking people to adjust from habits of a lifetime so they won’t be able to switch based on one message alone
Be transparent with staff about steps you have taken to ensure their safety - for example office cleans, COVID-19 risk assessments or additional hygiene considerations such as hand sanitizer stations. Clearly explain how you have optimized the workplace to allow as much as possible for physical distancing, and the steps you will implement if a colleague becomes infected.
If your organization requires staff to interact with the public, ensure that you have provided your employees with clear guidelines on how to do this safely, how you will convey these rules to customers and how you will support staff to ensure they stay safe in this environment.
Communicating about the return to workspaces is not a one time event. In order to keep your place of work safe for employees, you will likely need visual guides to keep safety at the forefront of peoples’ minds.
Use the principles of good coronavirus design to prevent information overload:
- Have one clear message per poster
- Ensure that your instruction is placed in an area relevant to the action needing to be taken
- Provide clear step-by-step instructions for more complex actions
Don’t be cute. Choosing substance over style has never been more important. Although the tendency may be to create a series of visually appealing signs that fit with the general mood of your office, this will actually be counterproductive. Directives about something as serious as coronavirus want to be abrasive: they need to stand out and demand attention. As Tim Fendley of informational design consultancy Applied Wayfinding told Quartz:
Some businesses want to create a pleasant environment, but this is a crisis. It’s not about being nice. This isn’t about advertising slogans… The quality of the information needs to be as unambiguous as possible. It needs to be as consistent as we can get it, so we’re teaching one language to everybody.
Finally, be responsive to how effective your design is. If a particular message or poster is prompting a great deal of questions, your message isn’t clear enough and should be re-worked. If a message isn’t getting through, consider a brief training course with staff to ensure they understand how essential certain actions are.
The last word
Ensuring both physical and psychological safety for returning employees should be a key consideration when re-opening your workspace. Ensure that this is clearly communicated both through your in-workplace design and your prior communications. Bring your employees into the conversation about how improvements could be made.