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Returning to the Workplace

By any measure, the scramble to set up employees to work at home, or at safer distances on site where essential, was a fire drill. We did the best we could to arm employees with the necessary technology, guide them through adapting to new circumstances and new realities (anyone else working full time and looking after children?), and help them feel supported by their employers and colleagues.


A new report from the Institute for Public Relations and Peppercomm suggests that we are succeeding in some areas, but there’s work to be done in others. In this three-part series, we explore and offer insight on what senior communication executives say about employee engagement, productivity, diversity and inclusion (D&I) and returning parts of the workforce on site, as well as what this means for both human resources and employee communication leaders.

Engagement, Collaboration and Productivity

Choosing Connection
According to the survey, more than half of communication executives said employee engagement and collaboration have increased since shelter-in-place and physical distancing became the new normal. It’s not surprising, even with all the challenges that these requirements have brought with them. There is a shared sense that we are facing this pandemic together, and a greater collective valuing of the things — and people — we have taken for granted. There’s a wonderful quote from child psychologist Emily W. King, Ph.D., making its rounds on social media that talks about how difficult it is to be all things to all people and to perform multiple roles at once. She says, “When you have to pick, because at some point you will, choose connection.”

Many companies reported that this connection begins at the top of their organizations. CEOs and other senior leaders should be more visible than ever, fostering transparent communications even as they face huge question marks on everything from supply chains to shareholders. From the survey, 90% of senior communicators said their leadership has handled the COVID-19 crisis effectively, and three-quarters of respondents said the CEO was “very involved” with internal communications. Being a visible and thoughtful leader right now can go a long way in helping employees feel comforted, reassured and, most important, valued.

Leaders are also providing employees the time and tools they need to connect with each other. Communication technology has advanced over the past two years, enabling real-time collaboration, creation and problem solving. With the onset of shelter-in-place orders, the technology is advancing almost daily. How many times have you gone onto Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Webex this month and seen a whole new set of functions? Perhaps equally important, it’s allowing people to connect as humans. This is more than just being kind to one another; it’s a way of easing suffering and managing through fear and grief.

That collaboration and engagement among employees is stronger at the moment and will likely have sustained benefits for employers. At the same time, employers need to recognize that, just as in a cubicle or bench environment where people have struggled to create headspace, we need to create “video space,” too. As Chris Hood said in a recent WorkPlace Insights article, “One person’s collaboration is another’s interruption.” So, even with kids and animals in the background, finding the balance between collaboration and execution or thinking time remains important. Recognizing this, some companies are allowing employees to use the “Do Not Disturb” function on their Zoom, Teams and phones.

“Never has a time been so critical as now for employees to give their employees mental health resources, as two-thirds in our survey are,” said Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D., president and CEO, Institute for Public Relations. “This is one of the first times in history that everyone around the world is experiencing the same crisis — routines are disrupted, people are isolated, kids are home, people are still trying to work if they haven’t already been furloughed. With all that, it looks like we will have a long road to recovery, both psychologically and economically. 

Redefining Productivity
Even as senior communicators said engagement and collaboration were on the rise, a significant percentage (40%) felt productivity had declined. It’s a little curious as to why, but we can surmise some probable factors. Naturally, people are now spread thin with child care, elder care, household responsibilities, work, homeschooling, etc. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to replicate the old way of working. And perhaps, managers themselves are feeling less productive than before, so they assume their direct reports must be as well. Trust may also be a factor in a productivity assumption: If I can’t always see you, you may not always be delivering.

Perhaps in light of the crisis, we need a new definition of productivity — surely it can’t just be about output or measurable results? We’d argue that there’s no better way to be productive right now than to connect with people on an emotional level and be of service. Nothing bad or unproductive will ever come from taking the time to ask a colleague or client how they are doing — and then give them a call or some space to breathe. Listening is a true gift and can have amazing healing powers, particularly now when people need it most.

But the pressure to get back to on-site work is increasing as the economy declines. As we discuss later in this series, a return to business locations will certainly come with other changes as we endeavor to establish a new environment of physical safety. How will six feet apart affect productivity in manufacturing, retail, office and other settings? And, what about other disruptions to productivity, such as child-care challenges if kids are still unable to go to school or camp, or spikes in virus outbreaks cause temporary shelter-in-place orders again?

The reality is, our previous pace of — and emphasis on — doing and busy-ness and multitasking and productivity may need rethinking — not just now but over the longer term. Of course, this is a larger sociological and cultural conversation, but the implications are significant for HR and employee communication leaders as they review performance metrics, employee experience and beyond. For those who can find a few spare moments to contemplate these shifts now, there will also be opportunities.

Maintaining a Focus on D&I for Better Business Performance
When communication executives were asked about current D&I activities, it was clear that it was not necessarily a priority for most companies. Only 19% of companies reported they are communicating information focused on D&I to their employees.

The sentiment seemed to be that D&I is a priority — just not now when companies are trying to keep the lights on. But as our D&I colleagues would tell us, that is missing the point. D&I goes beyond cultivating an inclusive and equitable workplace for people with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. It recognizes people’s different needs and ways of life and provides a supportive environment through resources such as employee resource groups.

As D&I professionals point out:

  • Women are most likely being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 because they comprise the majority of health-care workers, plus they also often play the primary caregiver role in their families.
  • Minorities may struggle more with working from home (WFH) for the same reason. Their difficulties are compounded by the fact that they often do not have the proper set-up at home (dedicated working space, proper equipment, etc.) to successfully sustain WFH over the long term.
  • Millennials and Gen Z may find it more difficult to sustain in this working environment compared to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers because they’ve been wired to work in more in-person collaborative environments.
  • There are indications that socioeconomic disparities among certain populations is adding to the stressors on black and brown communities, the elderly and persons struggling with mental health issues.

These D&I leaders say that ideally, people would like to see the importance of this topic right now — particularly executives — but they may see it as a separate initiative. This makes education and encouragement to expand their definitions all the more important.

It’s not easy to recommend to a beleaguered executive that they focus on what are often thought of as soft skills and programs, but research from Great Place to Work (GPW) could help you make your case. GPW studied company performance during the Great Recession, drawing on data from nearly 4 million employees across a wide range of demographics. They found that the experiences of certain employee groups predicted when a company sank, survived and, in some cases, actually thrived. The employment experience of those who are often marginalized turned out to be the greatest indicator of performance, particularly:

  •  Women
  •  People of color
  •  Front-line workers
  •  Hourly male workers
  •  Long-tenured employees.

These employee groups are often the first to feel the effects of an economic decline. They also tend to be the people playing some of the most vital roles. As the GPW study reported, companies tend to overlook how these most vulnerable, most important employee groups are faring and fail to solicit ideas from them. But those that do gain better insight on customers and operations and make adjustments that improve their business performance. In the S&P 500 companies that GPW surveyed, those who listened to their employee groups saw a 14.4% gain in stock performance. 

Looking Ahead

Reboarding and Returning to Culture
Millions of employees have been working away from the office, either locked down at home or furloughed. In the coming months, they’ll begin their return: likely in waves, in smaller groups, and perhaps at intervals as virus incidents ebb and flow. ​


After weeks or even months away, reentry will require care and flexibility. It will require multiple touchpoints and adjustments. It will require a plan.

To date, most leaders have not considered the importance of the reboarding process, as the Peppercomm/ IPR report indicates. When the study was completed in mid-April, only 10% of communication executives reported that their businesses had done extensive planning, while 60% had not started planning for the return or did not know about return-to-work preparations for their employees.

To be sure, deciding when to allow at least certain parts of the workforce back on site is difficult, and sentiment changes almost daily as we continue to learn about this mystifying virus. When you do begin to plan, there are the logistical and physical considerations that come with the need to maintain distance, and social and emotional considerations as well. Incorporating ways to address these last two can mean the difference between a relatively smooth, positive transition and a painful one.


According to Tara Lilien, Peppercomm’s chief talent officer, HR leaders and internal communicators may wish to consider the following as part of their re-boarding efforts:

  • Phasing in: Some people may be anxious to get back to the office and work alongside their peers, while others may be hesitant to climb back on buses or trains, enter elevators or restrooms, or even touch office door handles. Of course, much depends on the type of job and industry you’re in, but perhaps there will be an opportunity for reticent employees to phase in and reenter as they feel ready, allowing some leeway for each person to do what feels best. One cautionary note on this: Before states, counties and cities put mandatory rules into effect, some businesses had employed this voluntary policy, But we learned anecdotally that a number of managers put pressure on — and even shamed — employees to show up. If a voluntary policy is part of your solution, it’s essential to enforce a no-shaming requirement.
  • Physical space: When people return, does their physical space still work? Will open plans be a thing of the past? When we greet visitors, will we tap feet, nod to one another or put our arms across our chest instead of shake hands? People may want to keep their six-foot distance for a while and companies should try to accommodate. It may also be that employees return to workplaces but are required by government mandate to maintain distance. Companies such as Ford Motor Co. are testing wearable technologies that will alert factory workers as they approach the six-foot/three-meter threshold. Others are reconfiguring office space and planning to stagger employees on different days to accommodate the necessary distance.
  • Body/mind balance: As a coping strategy, many companies have offered or recommended wellness regimens to employees. Will this acute focus on mental and physical health all go away once we are back in the grind of rush-hour traffic and away from our homes for most of the daylight hours? Employees who have incorporated walks, cycling, yoga and meditation in their days — often as a family — may yearn to continue their wellness efforts. Moreover, they may expect employers to provide flexibility and even encouragement to continue incorporating mind/body activities during the workday. There was plenty of research before the pandemic on the benefits of company-supported wellness programs, including rewards systems and apps. Our hope is that one positive from this pandemic will be greater emphasis on mind/body balance.
  • Emotional recovery: Some employees got sick, while some got healthier. Some lost family members or friends. Some became caregivers. Some spent more time with their children than they had since they were born. Some did not get to see their children graduate from college. For most, however close the virus came, this experience has had a profound emotional impact. As businesses crank up on-site operations, the emphasis will be on a return to productivity to recoup lost revenue. Employees will be expected to do their part. That will be easier if they can express their feelings and be encouraged to seek support. Go beyond quick reminders of your employee assistance programs (EAPs) to actively encourage tapping into yours if you have one. If not, consider working with outside consultants. Either way, make an effort, despite what will no doubt be a hectic time, to meet one-on-one with employees to find out how they really are — and be flexible to a changed workforce when you finally all come together.
  • Autonomy: Millions who have transitioned to WFH have had to quickly adapt to arranging their own schedule and managing their own time. For some, this has been a difficult transition, particularly with the distractions of home and family. But for others, it’s provided a sense of freedom to work how it makes most sense to them. As employees return to the workplace — perhaps back to a controlling boss — they will likely bristle at being more closely managed. We may be ushering in a new style of management, and HR leaders will need to provide guidance.
  • Co-creating reboarding: When it comes to reentry and reboarding, it’s important to consider employees’ voices and invite them into the process of determining what is right for your company. Consider pulse checking your staff for their sentiment on returning to the office. You may find many who have been isolating alone or struggling with WFH are anxious to get back in the office or that some have home limitations that will make their return a true struggle. They may have some excellent ideas your CEO and HR team haven’t yet thought about. If you are building a reboarding task force, consider not only your CEO, HR and operations leads and departments heads, but also employees across all levels, locations and life stages. And, be sure your leaders listen to what they have to say.

According to Stacey Jones, head of corporate communications at Accenture, when it comes to returning to work, the safety and well-being of the company’s more than 500,000 people is a top priority. “As we were moving much of our workforce to remote working, we also started talking about what will be needed for a smooth return to the office,” Jones said. “Because we’re global, it’s a complex, multistep transition, which will involve direction from various governments and health authorities in the more than 120 countries where we serve clients. But in every communication from day one, and I think it’s really anchored us, we have been transparent with our people on where things stand. We will only return to the office when we are comfortable that we have the right protocols and safety measures.”

About the Authors

Ann Barlow is a senior partner and president of Peppercomm's West Coast. Courtney Ellul is a senior vice president and partner in London.  

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