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The COVID-19 crisis put the spotlight on senior leaders in unprecedented ways. Leaders faced challenges not seen in our lifetimes — among them, transforming entire business lines into remote workforces. The best leaders acted with urgency, communicated plainly and responded immediately with their workforce. This behavior needs to continue as the pandemic changes and businesses slowly open up.

Although the pandemic continues to affect our daily lives, leaders need to think and plan now about what a return to the office will look like for their organization. Not every employee will want to go back in, and there will be jobs where converting positions to full-time remote work will be possible. Now is the time when executive leaders should reexamine and codify decisions they may have enacted ad hoc during the early stages of the pandemic, especially around announcing any new policies. Organizations that can successfully strategize and effectively communicate the return to work situation will win over their employees.

You Wouldn’t Put an Office Plan in the Team Chat

With most office workers working out of closets or spare bedrooms over the past year, one of the first things leaders need to consider is how the office will change. The oft-maligned but still ubiquitous open office floor plan may be the first thing to go. Indoor capacity limits will affect physical office locations. Leaders will need to plan how to accommodate their employees in offices that may only have room for 25% to 50% of the previous occupancy.

But how to plan what the office redesign will be? In recent years, technology-forward companies have increased their use of digital collaboration tools such as email, videoconferencing, chat channels and intranets. These digital resources have allowed many employees to do their jobs from home while maintaining if not exceeding productivity levels that they would achieve by coming into the office. They will also be crucial in having the conversations and soliciting stakeholders’ feedback on how the office will change. The proper channels will be critical, too — just as formal discussions don’t belong on team chats, office plan strategies require too much collaboration to be left in an email thread.

Your Work Culture Changed Whether or Not You Wanted It To

Leaders also need to consider how the return to the office will affect their workplace culture. Nearly every organization’s culture has been altered with the move to remote work.. Leaders had to adapt their communications for a virtual world — whether that meant team meetings over Zoom, Slack channels to replace water-cooler conversations, or virtual company-wide town halls that kept employees updated. Once employees return to the office, leaders must consider how to keep virtual activities afloat to engage their remote work population. As people slowly trickle back to the office, it makes sense to continue using these new tools (whether intranets, chat apps or video calls) to ensure people feel comfortable as they go back into the office.

Although…

Do employees even want to be in the office? Initial opinions are encouraging; 75% of employees want to go back, according to one study. Yet other research suggests that as many as a third of employees don’t want to return — preferring instead to work from home. Whatever the number, it’s clear that a minority of workers want their remote situation to be permanent. Leaders will need to decide how to include them in company culture — and how to communicate with remote workers, so they aren’t out of mind when they’re out of sight.

Leaders Are Now Caretakers Beyond the Office Walls

Leaders’ roles changed during the pandemic and will continue to develop as the world slowly returns to an approximation of its former self. The global pandemic pushed soft skills such as flexibility, agility and empathy into the spotlight as leaders navigated how to keep workers happy and healthy. Constant communication was no longer a perk; it was essential — especially with information in continual flux.

Leaders couldn’t shirk communications during the pandemic, and they can’t neglect it now. With the office geographically dispersed, it became more important than ever to keep employees connected. Building trust is essential, both for the health of the business and employees’ mental well-being. Such confidence will only be more necessary now as the world opens up. Leaders must be sensitive to what employees have gone through over the past year. Any communication should show the commitment of purpose, but leaders should also deliver the message sensitively.

Conclusion

Leaders need to have serious discussions about what the future post-COVID office will look like with the blending of the physical and digital world. While employees may miss seeing their coworkers in person, they might not see themselves returning to the office five days a week soon.

How leadership communicates will be an integral part of ensuring a seamless transition during this time. Your organization’s digital and communication tools need to align across different departments, distributed locations, and connect teams. Organizations must utilize a source of truth, like an intranet, for critical information that will reach every remote employee without getting lost. Employees need a trusted virtual headquarters to find what they need, clarify important news and be a resource for the return to work.

While news outlets have written much about the new normal, it’s important to remember that we aren’t there yet. And normal won’t mean a return to the old standard — it will be something different. Not all workers will want to return to the office; leaders will need to transform their offices. Teams will be uncertain on what the new reality means for their company; leaders and managers will need to communicate the company vision clearly and effectively so that every employee understands what the new standard will look like. It will take time, but with clear direction and communication, offices will get there.

See how Simpplr can improve your return-to-work communications at simpplr.com.