Corona communication #6: how do you involve employees in returning to the workplace?

Bauke van der Loo | Senior Consultant

April 23, 2020

The coronavirus has had a major impact on our daily lives for quite some time now and we still don’t know when the uncertainty will end. After Prime Minister Rutte’s call to start considering 1.5 meter scenarios, the moment is approaching that employees can be (partially) physically present at work again. At the same time, you’ve likely also heard that working from home has become the new normal with video calling and intense social media use with colleagues. Employees may want to work from home more often in the future, but in what form is this possible? In any case, we must prepare for the “new normal”. But, how do you approach this (partial) return to the workplace and keep your employees involved? Three themes are important here.

Internal communication checklist for a successful return to the workplace

1. Think in scenarios: create the “1.5 meter workplace”

  1. Start with preliminary research. Every sector is currently drawing up protocols to return to a 1.5 meter society. Many sectors already have general information available on this topic. Start now with a tailor-made plan for your own organization. Think about the layout of the workplace, the organization of work processes, making clear agreements on how a return to the 1.5 meter society is possible when done in the right way. Do not forget agreements about seemingly trivial things like getting coffee, visiting the toilet, etc. where the risk of contamination is high.
  2. Think in scenarios. What does a full return to the workplace look like? Or a partial return with, for example, only important meetings or only some of the employees active in the workplace. What challenges does this pose? Brainstorm in advance with a small group of employees from different layers in the organization (sounding board) about working with split teams, varying with working days or working hours. It is important to find a good balance between what is possible, but certainly also what employees want and can do.
  3. In this context, discuss with the teams what options there may be to perform work in places other than the office and where possible give them the freedom to decide for themselves. New ways of working are currently taking shape at many companies and for many people this means that they may prefer to continue working partly at home. If your organization allows this, think along with employees and do not oblige them to work only at home or only in the office which would work counterproductively.

2. Activate middle management

  1. So many people, so many wishes, so many situations and preferences. Especially now, managers need to be, and stay, well informed. There are many questions, expectations or reservations about returning to the workplace. Consider, for example, the combination of work with other obligations such as childcare, school and/or elderly care). Avoid too much top-down communication and instead make sure that managers really listen to what is going on and let them provide everyone with the best possible information.
  2. The middle and team managers must also be well informed about the desired timeline, what is and is not possible within their own organization and how certain policy choices have been made. After all, they will be that ones that make the translation of the plans to their team members and thus play a crucial, mediating role. It is important that your managers are easily approachable and available for questions and concerns. Managers should communicate clearly how and when employees can best reach them.
  3. These are uncertain times, also for team managers, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Show leadership and ensure internal support by including employees (or a delegation thereof) in the decisions. Dare to be vulnerable.

3. Communicate in a cadence: provide frequent updates and be clear about agreements

  1. Keep in touch with your employees, even after the rollout of your plan. They remain central to all decision. Also keep communicating practically and clearly about agreements on when you may or may not return to the workplace and with what symptoms should you stay at home and/or work at home. Be sure to communicate about acquired insights about work agreements and adjustments.
  2. RIVM or WHO remain your main advisers, follow them closely as they provide up-to-date guidelines and protocols to prevent the further spread of the virus. Refer to these sources in your communication.
  3. Finally, stay true to yourself in the tone of voice of your internal communication. Use the organizational values ​​as a reference when communicating and making decisions. Be open and honest and explain how certain choices were made. Also use the members of your sounding board to share agreements and explanations about decisions as this accelerates support. One thing we are learning is that this crisis situation creates solidarity and often encourages a joint, refreshing drive to come out of this even better.

useful overview


Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.