Comms execs still in the early stages of preparation for employees to return to work

by | Apr 30, 2020 | Analysis, Covid-19, Public Relations

A newly released report found that most senior communication executives are just beginning to plan for their employees’ return to work as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc far and wide. In fact, only 10 percent have done extensive planning, according to the new co-branded study conducted by the Institute for Public Relations and Peppercomm. The survey, which polled 403 senior communications leaders, took a deep dive into internal communications, employee engagement and return-to-work preparedness (along with eight or nine other macro communications challenges).

Sixty percent of respondents either had not started planning or simply did not know about return-to-work preparations

Only 42 percent of respondents have done at least “some” planning for when WFH employees return to the office.

“As soon as we started talking about pulling people out of the offices, we started talking about how we’re going to have to go back into the offices,” said Stacey Jones, Head of Corporate Communications for Accenture. “Because we’re global, this will be a very complex mission in that we have various governments and health authorities all over the world to consider as well as being really attuned to what our clients want and need.”

On average, communication executives said 13 percent of their employees had worked from home before COVID-19, compared to 77 percent during COVID-19, and predicted 23 percent will continue to WFH following COVID-19. Companies are increasingly focused on the mental and emotional well-being of their employees during COVID-19 as well, with nearly two-thirds sharing resources with their employees. The vast majority of respondents said making employees feel safe when they do return to the office is critical.

“Something we’ve said in almost every communication from day one, and I think it’s really anchored us, is that the safety of our people is the top priority,” said Jones. “That has to be at the center of everything.”

Communication leaders reported they are working closely with other C-suite functions, such as human resources, legal and risk to help employees transition safely and effectively back to the physical office.

So, how do you bring back employees? All at once? Plan a phased return or staggered work week/hours?

According to Bill Hughes, Chief Communications Officer at Pitney Bowes, “We have 60 sites around the US with communications people including a general manager or regional manager. This team will be coming back to work in a staggered way.”

Like Pitney Bowes, about a quarter of respondents said they are planning for a phased or gradual return of employees, while 12 percent said they will return en masse.

What does this mean for our workspaces?Nearly half of those surveyed had not discussed changes to the physical workspaces or were unsure if their organization would make any changes. Examples of potential changes included increasing physical distancing of employees (closing shared spaces, creating physical barriers, adding plexiglass shields, more contact-less meetings), increasing shared space such as eliminating desk ownership, instituting temperature checks and offering more WFH opportunities.

Successful reboarding of employees to a physical workspace will have organizations rethinking the space itself as well as the function of existing spaces

It may even have an impact on real estate as companies consider how much space they need after seeing their teams collaborate and successfully perform their jobs remotely. Nearly two out of three respondents said employee engagement had increased with nearly half (49 percent) reporting trust had increased. Nearly six out of 10 said employee collaboration had increased. However, overall productivity was mixed; 25 percent saw an increase while 40 percent said it had decreased.

Communicating these topics effectively along with new protocols and procedures is critical to making sure employees feel safe. If planning and/or communications for a return to the office has not begun, the time to start is clearly now.

These survey results are the second in a series of three COVID-19 specific communications reports fielded by IPR and Peppercomm. Other critical subjects covered in this most recent report include employee satisfaction and productivity; the most trusted go-to sources, topics, and channels; measurement; and how diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have fared during the pandemic.

Read the full report here. The Institute for Public Relations and Peppercomm will collaborate on a third report in mid-May that will ask senior communications leaders to look ahead to what will be the new normal for the profession.

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Tina McCorkindale and Steve Cody
Tina McCorkindale is President and CEO of IPR; Steve Cody is the Co-Founder and CEO of Peppercomm.

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