Bringing Your People Back – how to re-onboard after the lockdown

Going into lockdown was hard for many businesses; opening up is going to be even harder. Millions of people will return to their workplaces over the coming weeks, and they will find them changed places.

The demands of social distancing pose significant practical considerations, and it’s vital that employers help their people navigate their way through this changed reality, reassuring them, and helping rebuild cultures and connections between people.

The organisations that think this through now, who plan appropriately, and who engage their workforce, will emerge far more strongly from this lockdown.

Collaboration – at a distance

Work must be safe, and for every business this is the first issue to address. The government has issued eight sets of sector specific guidance on how to return to the workplace safely, and these are a useful starting point, but each business needs to work through the detail of what it means for them. Engaging employees is a crucial step.

We have been working closely with the BBC during lockdown, helping it to make the changes it has needed to so it can continue broadcasting. There has been no recorded transmission of the virus on BBC premises and the organisation is keen to keep it that way.

Social distancing rules mean a maximum of 20% of the BBC’s workforce can come back at any one time. The priority will be those who create content, and while some organisations will need to work hard to persuade people to come back, the BBC’s content creators are enthusiastic to return and get back to using the hi-tech equipment on site.

They will need reassurance on safety, and the BBC is providing that in the form of an induction video and pack. Initially the primary practical focus for the BBC, as for most other organisations, will be social distancing. Temporary communications will be upgraded to semi-permanent ones, and we will put in place behavioural nudges to ensure people stick to the rules. Crucially, we will need to ensure that instruction on distancing does not undermine ongoing messages encouraging collaborative working.

We will need to think too about the people who will continue to work from home. Lockdown has shown how well it can work, and it is likely that it will become more permanent feature for many. Jack Dorsey has announced that his firm Twitter will enable any employees who want to work from home to do so. Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects half of Facebook’s workforce to do their jobs outside Facebook’s office over the next five to ten years.

As Barclays CEO Jes Staley put it, crowded corporate offices with thousands of employees “may be a thing of the past.” We will also need to think carefully about how we communicate safe working to this group of people.

Opportunities to talk 

After long weeks of lockdown a great many people will find returning to their workplaces a deeply emotional moment. It’s vital their employers support them through this. Closing all restaurants for over eight weeks has been a first for McDonald’s in the UK and Ireland. With more than 134,000 people across 1,421 restaurants, around 1,270 of which are run by franchises, reopening has had to be phased and restaurants would only reopen when the business could be confident that they could operate in a way that keeps their people safe.

Communication with employees throughout the crisis has been key – with regular touchpoints from the business to reassure and inform about the steps towards reopening, and as plans are finalised. It’s also been important for the business to listen, to understand the sentiment and any concerns that employees may have. McDonald’s has been giving its people the opportunity to share their feelings about the return. As well as enabling the company’s ‘Love to Listen’ meet-ups to be turned into virtual conversations, allowing people to put any questions they have to the leadership of their restaurant – they have ‘ourlounge’, a social platform for people to share their feedback.

During lockdown, many organisations found effective ways, like these, to retain virtual connections between people. As we re-open many will choose to keep these connections available. For those who’ve not started doing any of this, it’s never too late to start gauging how your people feel and giving them a chance to share their concerns.

With so many other issues to consider, it may be harder than before for people to motivate themselves. McDonald’s has highlighted this issue and is putting in place specific steps to build and maintain motivation – with customer demand likely to be high this will be critically important for McDonald’s, but also for many other organisations.

Finally, think carefully about the language used here. Talking about ‘returning to work’ is going to alienate a lot of people who’ve spent weeks welded to their computers. It will be better to talking about ‘reopening the workplace’ to more accurately reflect the current state of affairs.

Shared sense of purpose

The last factor to consider is culture. With anxious staff maintaining social distancing how can you rebuild your shared sense of purpose? Walk into any BBC building or McDonald’s restaurant and you can sense their distinctive cultures. In the weeks ahead rebuilding culture will be vitally important.

Engagement is key. Every organisation needs to bring its people with it, be clear about plans and expectations and re-engage everyone in their purpose and direction. Crucially, senior leadership needs to understand that this is not about broadcasting messages, it’s about engaging people – internal communications teams have a vital role to play here. Crucially, it’s also about understanding the organisational implications of big shifts taking place in the crisis, so communications teams are deemed indispensable.

Our public sector clients are similarly in the thick of tackling these very issues. Working in a wide range of environments, all with their own practical and cultural considerations, the c. 400,000 civil servants based all over the UK face their own set of cultural challenges. Taking time to facilitate conversations, listen to people’s experiences, gather themes and then work through ways of addressing them are all crucial aspects of developing our ‘new normal’ as a country.  In some cases this means focusing on the logistics of facilitating more healthy home working – organising desks, screens and ergonomic chairs to help people limit potential eyesight and back pain issues as working at home more extensively becomes a long term prospect.  In others it means extensive consultation over new ways of working in offices with social distancing and cleaning regimes that no one could have envisaged a year ago.

A key issue here is helping remote workers manage their work-life balance. Working from home has been draining for many people, and as it becomes a more permanent feature of our working lives, we need to help people find a better balance and manage their mental health, whilst also retaining a unique sense of culture within their organisations.  Being clear about the division between working time and home time, without the interlude of the commute, is becoming more important.  Protocols like online team catch ups – formal and work-focused, as well as informal and morale-building – are evolving creatively and helping people operate in an environment where they can often only see each other on screens.

Internal communication has never played a more important role in catalysing and drawing attention to the evolving conversations and new ways of working.  Staying close both to leaders and colleagues throughout our organisations is key – so we can credibly advise leaders at the top of the house on ways to engage and capture the goodwill of their people; and keep close to the heartbeat of colleagues at every level, feeding back issues as they emerge and ensuring leaders keep course-correcting as they go.

Wave of innovation

There is much then to consider, but it is important to get it all right, and all this work on re-onboarding will have longer-term, more profound implications. The COVID-19 crisis has been devastating in many ways, but it has also prompted a remarkable wave of innovation. When we come to look back on this remarkable phase in our lives, we may find we’re most struck by how much we were able to change, and how much we were able to reshape our loves and our work for the better, in such a relatively short period of time.