Employee Reboarding: How to Successfully Communicate Your Return-to-Work Plans

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The post-pandemic world presents tremendous challenges and opportunities for HR professionals and internal communicators planning for the new normal. Chief among them: As social-distancing restrictions are gradually lifted and employees begin to return to the office, organizations will have to consider how they will successfully reboard their workers.

HR pros and internal communications leaders will need to work closely together to navigate reboarding. Innovative training and communications strategies will be key to engaging employees at all levels, and reboarding blueprints will need to be drawn with flexibility in mind. There are certain to be twists, turns, and pivot points as businesses adjust to the new socioeconomic environment.

According to a survey Peppercomm conducted with the Institute for Public Relations in April, 80 percent of executives have not started or don’t know about return-to-work preparations. Only 10 percent said they had done extensive reboarding planning.

The survey also helped reveal high-level best practices HR and communications pros should follow: Let the organization’s purpose and values guide your efforts, listen to employees and communicate that their safety and well-being are vital, and engage with employees on a human level so everyone can create a brighter future together.

“Not only do companies have to think about the physical changes needed to make workplaces safer, but [they must also consider] measures to help employees psychologically,” said Tina McCorkindale, president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations. “Some employees may not feel safe returning to the physical workplace even as others may feel less at risk. Having a strategic, well-thought-out plan with clear, consistent communication is key.”

A 10-Step Agenda for Success

What factors contribute to an effective reboarding plan? Here are 10 points for creating a framework to help employees be their best when the times comes to return to the workplace:

1. Create a Reboarding Working Group

This team should include HR and communications leadership, but it is also critical to invite the voices of employees from diverse roles, locations, and life stages. Lean into your diversity, equity, and inclusion groups, as well as other sources spotlighted by your audience segmentation (see below), to build a comprehensive council.

2. Develop Communication Protocols

Your company must be able to communicate clearly to employees in various stages of reboarding across all geographies. This may require new, nimble, and informal methods for engaging. Start by identifying your key communicators, the channels you can use, and how information will flow out and in.

3. Collect Employee Sentiment and Feedback

Ensure you have a robust process and the right tools to gather employee sentiment, feedback, and recommendations. The process should be simple to deploy and leverage for the reboarding working group, and it should be easily accessible and confidential for employees. As a best practice, sentiment should be reviewed weekly, and adjustments should be made quickly to mitigate any problems.

4. Segment Audiences

Use employee feedback, current practices, and human resource information system data to categorize employees by position/job title, geographic location, current life stage (e.g., pre-retirees, parents with children at home, etc.), and other demographics.

5. Develop Personas and Journeys

Using your segments, cluster employees into cohorts and create personas for each. This process will help you identify employees at different levels and locations who have more in common than it might seem. In turn, this will enable you to consider how you will want each employee cohort to feel and act based on their motivations and the organization’s goals.

6. Train and Empower Managers

Because much of the tone and communication will come from front-line managers, they should be empowered to communicate and trained to be comfortable in the role. Managers will need both the education and the resources to distribute messages and successfully listen to and sympathize with employees.

7. Kick the Tires

Identify various scenarios that could stress your plan — and be ready for them. Explore and optimize areas where you are most vulnerable.

8. Monitor and Adjust

As you monitor employee sentiment weekly, analyze what has changed and whether your current approach is still effective. What needs to be altered? What is missing?

9. Build the Plan

As always, keep your goals top of mind. Business leaders may want financial stability. HR may focus on safety. Goals should map to your communication themes, ranging from boosting productivity to helping employees feel more secure. Those themes can be planned now, but flexibility is the name of the game. Have a process in place for shifting based on external factors and employee feedback. How quickly can you flex, for example, if an on-site cluster of employees tests positive for the virus?

10. Measure and Rebuild

Pinpoint key performance indicators tied to key business objectives. Measure often and be prepared to adapt quickly. Embrace the challenge; create a culture that fosters curiosity about what’s working and what isn’t. Adopt a test-and-learn attitude that is okay with “failure” and constantly pursues better decision-making and continuous adaptation.

A successful reboarding plan requires an overall commitment to listening closely to employees and straightforward, successive, adaptable steps.

Instead of tracing a straight line, your actual reboarding roadmap will likely have roadblocks and detours. Healthcare officials tell us to expect further hot spots as organizations return to on-site work. That’s okay: With a dedication to human values, safety, and agility, any company can craft the plan it needs to thrive in the new normal.

Ann Barlow (abarlow@peppercomm.com ) is a senior partner and president of Peppercomm ‘s West Coast. Courtney Ellul (cellul@peppercomm.com ) is a senior vice president and partner in London.

By Ann Barlow and Courtney Ellul