The Role of Communication in a Successful RTO

The return to office phase in the COVID-19 pandemic

As organizations initiate the return to office (RTO) phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become apparent how important internal communication is in building trust, connection, and a sense of unified purpose. This is more vital than ever as leaders seek to provide physical and emotional safety, acknowledge the challenges created by re-entry and chart the course forward.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve been working closely with founders and senior leaders to navigate the state of flux and uncertainty that their organizations have been experiencing. As we embark on re-entry and recovery, clear and intentional communication has become central to the success of an RTO plan, especially when there is a hybrid in-person/dispersed work approach.

Based on my experience, every organization has needed to manage their RTO at their own pace to accommodate both business and employee needs. While some organizations have been operating in a hybrid environment throughout the pandemic, others are just planning the transition to a hybrid work environment now. Regardless of where organizations are in their RTO journey, I’ve identified the following critical success factors to help leaders effectively communicate plans for their RTO and navigate any unexpected hiccups.

Top 10 Success Factors for Effective RTO Communication:

  1. It’s a return to office, not a return to work – First and foremost, it’s important to emphasize that this is a return to office, not a return to work. People have been working. Some people feel that they have been working harder than ever, with their personal and professional lives bleeding into one another. Many have had little separation between work life and home life and may be feeling fatigue from the experience. Therefore, it’s essential that in any reference to this next phase, whether it continues to be remote, a hybrid of in person and remote, or fully in the office – this is a return to office, not a return to work.

  2. Communicate the plan clearly – People are craving stability in these uncertain times. It’s critical to be clear in setting expectations. As previously stated, leaders need to be transparent. If you’re flexible on whether employees are physically at the office, say that. If you’re not, then provide them with specifics on how often and which days are intended to be “in office” days. As Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” Clarity allows for people to know what to anticipate which in turn will reduce anxiety and foster trust. Right now, clear communication is essential to leading with empathy and emotional sensitivity.

  3. Prioritize the well-being of employees – Above all else, make the focus of communication the well-being of employees. It’s important to demonstrate your commitment to both physical safety protocols and psychological safety. Where possible, be specific about the protocols that will be in place and what the work environment will look like. For example, leaders should make clear any expectations around vaccination status, measures toward physical distancing and policy around the use of masks within the office.

  4. Where possible, involve your team in decision-making – Understanding employee needs and preferences is essential to developing a successful RTO plan and communicating it effectively. It’s vital that employees feel like they’ve been heard and are contributing to the decisions about how to move forward. If employee preferences can’t be accommodated, leaders should be transparent and explain their decision-making rationale.

  5. Acknowledge the challenges of re-socialization and take stock of how people are feeling – Everyone has had different COVID experiences. Some employees may be looking forward to returning to the office while others may feel anxiety about the transition back to being physically with others. Leaders need to understand how people are feeling so that they in turn can demonstrate more empathy and emotional sensitivity. Re-entry anxiety is real and re-socialization can be exhausting. In many of the companies I’m working with it’s proving to be a big adjustment for people to be “on” all the time. Leaders cannot assume that “extroverts” will handle the transition to the office with ease. My clients and I have observed that at times individuals with more introverted tendencies have prepared themselves better for the return to the office. As a rule of thumb, don’t make assumptions – it’s always better to ask someone how they’re doing. Operating in a hybrid atmosphere of online and in-person creates an additional layer of effort to stay attuned to how people are feeling.

  6. Focus on connection – One of the biggest challenges organizations are grappling with is how to foster connection in hybrid environments. Those water cooler moments, the walks to and from meetings, the few minutes before and after a meeting are difficult to replicate remotely. In dispersed or hybrid situations being intentional with communication is even more important. There needs to be extra attention and intention placed on opportunities for connection.

  7. Ensure you’re available for candid conversations – Open communication and dialogue between leadership and their teams will play an instrumental role in working through these challenges. Having candid conversations about expectations of each other and how teams will work and communicate with each other is important when trying to set teams up for success. Leaders should be open to both ad-hoc dialogue with teams and one on ones.

  8. Be prepared for new communication challenges – Leaders need to be prepared for new challenges to arise as organizations adjust to hybrid work environments. For example, with only some people in the office having spontaneous conversations, the question arises of whether those unable to have those candid moments of connection will miss out on opportunities. Addressing the fairness of connection opportunities is an example of a new challenge that leaders will need to navigate.

  9. Establish team norms – Developing and communicating team norms for how your organization will interact with each other is essential in supporting an effective RTO. Examples include onboarding, shared activities, finding opportunities for collaboration, celebrations, and regular touch points. Establishing norms will also help foster trust, connection, and a sense of unified purpose.

  10. Prioritize rest and time to re-energize – Last but certainly not least, it’s essential to prioritize rest and self-care during this re-entry and recovery phase. Leaders are in unchartered territory. It takes significant energy to lead hybrid teams and guide an organization through this re-socialization stage. Leaders need to build in time to re-energize themselves and their teams as organizations navigate the RTO. Without question, effective communication will be central to the success of any organization’s RTO plan. If leaders do it right, they have the opportunity to reshape the work environment. While the purpose of your organization likely is the same, the way that work is done has been shaken up. Making sure that you’re fostering an environment for collaboration, trust and open communication will help employees understand and live that shared purpose in this new environment

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