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How to plan your office return

It’s not often you get to hear hot-off-the-press I/C strategy and planning tips direct from a leading internal communications expert.

So a recent knowledge sharing session led by Collinson’s Global Internal Communications Manager Andrea Ann Mattis and hosted by our very own Internal Comms Director Carly Murray was an insightful treat too valuable for internal comms professionals to miss.

It gave everyone tuning in a real heads up, and a head start on how to build their critical post-COVID-19 back to the office plans.

Andrea is all things employee engagement and wellbeing as well as leading on diversity and inclusion at the global customer benefits and loyalty company, Collinson.

Their clients include American Express, Mastercard, VISA and Cathay Pacific, and they have 2,000 employees around the world.

She’s been involved in COVID-19 comms response and planning since January, so as you might imagine, she is well placed to understand the worries, conflicts, concerns and issues about how workplaces are going to open and operate now that global lockdowns are easing.

Of course, it’s not just about effectively managing the physical return to the office space; it’s about understanding how employees are going to feel about it and react to it.

For some I/C professionals, the pandemic has been the most challenging times of their careers. Now that we’re having to think about taking those baby steps back into office life, there are going to be plenty more challenges in the weeks and months to come.

In no rush

“The coronavirus and return to work planning have been the last six months of my life at full capacity, and it’s had its ups and downs as you can imagine, just because we haven’t known what’s going to happen next,” Andrea said.

“It’s been scary, and sometimes in internal comms we’ve just had to lead.”

Back to the office planning for Andrea began in earnest in April she says, but dealing with the internal comms needs of the pandemic kicked off in January as it already had a foothold in the company’s APAC zone (Asian-Pacific) by then.

“We immediately set up an emergency response team which I’m part of. We are very fortunate to have Dr Simon Worrell, our Global Medical Director, onboard alongside the Director of People and Culture, the Director of Risk and Compliance, Director of Marketing and Regional Leads among others,” she said.

“Simon gave us a lot of reassurance and advice about the virus and what our business could potentially expect. But at the time we didn’t know what we didn’t know!

For Collinson, getting people back into the office isn’t about trust and needing to see them at their desks working. We’re putting people first.

“Before COVID-19 we had a flexible work from home policy”  she said.

“Obviously, since COVID-19 everyone’s been working from home. Only a few people globally have gone back to the office where the rules locally allow it and we’ve made it safe to do that.

“We’re in no rush to get people back into the office – the reality is I might not get back into the office until September or October. If it wasn’t until the end of the year, that wouldn’t be a problem.

“We want to respect people if they have childcare issues or vulnerable or elderly relatives, or if they don’t feel safe about travelling in.”

Decisions about returning to work are carefully thought through using a decision tree; a set of questions determining the need and whether it’s right for people.

The decision tree asks whether it’s critical if the role in question is office-based, whether it needs to be office based right now and what’s required to support the role in the office.

It will ask whether any return is permanent and if there any financial implications. Crucially and most importantly, it covers whether the employee is happy about being back their desk.

“We’ve created a decision tree for two purposes; to help our people know that if any members of the team are deciding to come back into the office if they can, then that decision has gone through a stage by stage process,” Andrea said.

“It builds trust – and it shows if people are being asked to go back in, it’s gone through the proper thought process. That sits with the committee and with regional leads and the people manager.

“If it goes through the decision tree and there’s no reason for them to go back to work, then they don’t back to work, it’s as simple as that.

“It also makes it easier for people to make those decisions; it creates consistency and stops micromanagement where pockets of people might be asked to come in.”

Collinson’s APAC offices are slowly starting to see people back at their desks and enjoying socially distanced water cooler moments, Andrea said.

“People who have gone back under the terms of the decision tree are happy about being back, and it’s working.”

The wider plan

The decision tree protocol applies to the broader back to the office plan too. Those involved with the plan meet twice a week and connect with the facilities lead who manages our global facility teams. .

“We’re discussing things like signage with the facilities teams because the time to think it is right now before people are back,” Andrea said.

“It’s about clear communications on practical issues such as toilet protocols. They need to be thought through and communicated ahead of time while making sure it’s clear that people are trusted to do the right thing.

“It’s so important to have all your coronavirus information in one place, whether that’s your intranet or somewhere else. For us, that has been Workplace.

“We have a group called Coronavirus Guidance; everyone can join that group, and they know that’s where all the official guidance, FAQs and advice will be. It keeps it transparent because it’s all there.

“It’s vital for consistency, too; one message is being shared and can be seen by everyone.

“We also have a dedicated coronavirus email address where people can ask about any concerns they might have. Of course, ensuring it’s monitored and emails are answered promptly is vital,” Andrea added.

“If people are worried about a decision made through the decision tree, they can contact us directly via that dedicated email separately in confidence.

“Our people managers have had extra support and training on remote working, and now a return to office training plan is in place outlining all the things people will need to know before they return.

“Training has to be completed before people come back in; it’s about social distancing, hand washing and health and safety. It’s mandatory and applies globally,” Andrea added.

Mental Health Awareness week was another way in to check in on how people are doing.

“We sent out a pulse survey just so that people could check where their head is at,” she said. “It was a red, green and amber system, offering support in each region. It’s about saying to your people we care about you, you are our priority.”

Some employees have said they want to get back into the office sooner rather than later.

“For them being back in the office gives them a sense of normality and some have said they miss people and they miss their teams. We’ve not had a backlash though; people understand what we’re having to do,” Andrea said.

“We’ve been consistent, and the messages around this started early, which has helped.

“You might have to remind people that we are still in a pandemic. Businesses shouldn’t feel under pressure to allow people back in; explain it’s for their safety.

“If it happens too early and people come back in, and someone gets coronavirus, then people will get scared, especially if we get a second wave. It’s better to be transparent; it’s for everyone’s safety.

“If you’ve had teams who have been in the office and everyone else is coming in to join them, and it’s a worry for them, perhaps allow them to keep their own space. It’s about doing what you can to put them at ease, changing office layouts if you can.”

Don’t forget to look after yourself

It’s so important that you as I/C professionals who have been at the heart of your organisation’s response to the crisis look after yourselves as well as your people.

“It’s been a rollercoaster over the past six months, up and down and I don’t even like theme parks! I’m sure all internal communicators have had days when they’ve just gone ‘urrrrgh’ I need a G&T!” Andrea said.

“I personally get really annoyed with bad experiences. In I/C we can create great experience and do our best to communicate things well even if it’s bad news.

“To all internal comms professionals reading this – just keep doing what you’re doing, you are amazing!”

Listen to Andrea’s back to the office comms planning advice…