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A Thoughtful Return to the Office

Stream Realty Partners exec Jessica Leak shares lessons she's learned from her "former life" in corporate communications.

The Roaring 20s, The New Normal, A Post-Pandemic Life. Whatever you call it, it’s still messy and uncertain, especially for employers and their offices.

Jessica Leak, Stream Realty Partners
Jessica Leak, Stream Realty Partners

After more than a year of working remotely, many employers are navigating how to bring employees back to the office in a safe, thoughtful way. To complicate things further, we’ve seen headlines lately in which executives were called out by employees for seemingly insensitive messaging only to later apologize publicly; or in perhaps the most public example of employee pushback, a published letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook from around 80 employees voicing their concern for lack of flexibility in the return to work plan (three days a week, beginning in September).

In my former life, I managed employee relations and communications for large, publicly traded companies. At the heart of all this conflict, I see one familiar theme: lack of dialogue between employees and leadership. Put simply; employees don’t feel heard.

To be clear, my work is now in office real estate, so I’m certainly not unbiased on the topic, but what I can offer is some lessons learned in employee communication to create a smoother path forward.

Empathize and Acknowledge the Past Year

Last year was rough. There is no way around that, and it looked different for everyone. Perhaps you had to make layoffs or furlough employees at your company. Or withhold bonuses or pay raises. Some of your employees might have experienced this while subsequently experiencing it through a partner or other co-dependent.

Or maybe you had a banner year! But employees worked through that banner year while juggling virtual homeschooling, health concerns, Zoom fatigue, and a loss of boundary between home and everything else.

“Remember the “we’re all in this together” messaging in March 2020? Dust it off and reimagine it for today.”

Remember the “we’re all in this together” messaging in March 2020? Dust it off and reimagine it for today. Thank employees for all their hard work, provide awards or catch-up bonuses if you’re able to. Use newsletters and employee channels to celebrate milestones that were otherwise missed due to our collective unusual year.

Bottom line: don’t expect employees to flip a switch simply. Acknowledge it’s been a tough year and that you appreciate all that was accomplished with the shared support from households.

Understand Employee Concerns, Then Address Them Directly

Engage your human resources and employee communications teams to listen to what employees are concerned about and address those concerns specifically. This is where a true dialogue is most important.

Is it public safety? Flexibility in the schedule? Transportation? Childcare?

Ask your department leaders to communicate with their teams and help you create, and then communicate your plan. Recognize that it may not be a one-size-fits-all across the company or even within departments. Empower your team leaders to voice employee concerns and offer solutions.

Win employee buy-in on the front end for a smoother transition.

Communicate, But Be Specific

Don’t assume all communication is good. Long-winded messaging to simply say you are still figuring things out only frustrates and confuses employees.

Let employees know the specific measures you are taking to understand needs and think through the right approach. Communicate goals and timelines so employees can make arrangements and set expectations.

Create FOMO

Why is it that you value employees being back in the office? Repeatedly, executives are proclaiming better productivity, which is being perceived as tone-deaf about all the accomplishments from employees this past year despite being remote. In short, employees have largely proven they can get their work done virtually anywhere (pun intended).

Create the value of those in-person touchpoints that are difficult to do remotely.

Hold in-person town halls with public recognition and team building. Offer lunch or breakfast to all employees or surprise teams individually. Work with your HR team to create and foster a mentor program to pair leaders and young employees together with group meetings and outings. Hold Friday morning raffles with big and small prizes, like an extra day of vacation, airline tickets, or tech gifts.

In short, use this time to build on or improve any events and other touchpoints.

Finally, Exercise Patience and an Open Dialogue

If communication and plans have already gone sideways, be open and transparent that messaging could have been better. Be clear that you want to create solutions that are appealing to employees and empowers them to be part of the conversation.

Be willing to acknowledge that returning to the office may take some time and be willing to listen to why people are back and who is more resistant. Empower employees to share why they are happy to be back and encourage others to do so.

If there are new policies that emerged from this past year, communicate them. Maybe it’s a more relaxed dress code or less required travel for sales positions. Don’t underestimate the lessons learned and what you plan to implement moving forward, and how those small wins can add up.

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