Planning Back-to-the-Office Messaging: Key Considerations
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Planning Back-to-the-Office Messaging: Key Considerations

November 02, 2021 | Report

Back-to-the-office communication is shaping up to be one of the most challenging undertakings ever for internal communicators, far more complex and fraught with peril than most are prepared for. This is against a background of employees reassessing their job preferences and facing their employers’ back-to-the-office policies, which are themselves in flux as employers struggle to keep up with the latest government policies, such as vaccine mandates.[1]


Current employee attitudes: 25-41 percent of employees are considering leaving their current jobs, 54 percent would quit just for more work-from-home flexibility, and 42 percent are concerned about virus exposure back in the office.[2]


Insights for What’s Ahead

  • Approach back-to-the-office through the lens of organizational change. After all, for employees who have been working remotely for the past 18 months, whatever the employer’s new policy is, it represents a significant change from the way things have been—not just a change from the recent remote-work arrangements, but also from the prepandemic work situation.
  • Listen to your employees. If your organization has not solicited feedback from employees, opting instead to make decisions based on assumptions and gut instincts, remember that listening is critical. Whether your communications or HR teams conduct a survey or construct a series of listening sessions, finding out what employees really want will inform policies and head off everything from employee dissent to a debilitating exodus of workers.
  • Convey empathy. In communicating the company’s policies, acknowledge employees’ concerns and convey the rationale for the approaches the organization is taking, especially when they diverge from employees’ preferences. Identify the various reasons employees may object to the policies and address them proactively. When possible, speak directly to the company rather than relying on a surrogate.
  • Address employees’ concerns. Major employee concerns focus on virus exposure, care for those at home, and vaccine mandates. Work closely with your internal communications team to clearly convey the company practices to keep the workplace clean and safe, company policies to allow for remote work, and the evolving company position on the vaccine status of your employees.

The Broader Picture

While there are unknowns in any change effort, in this case, there is a lot we do know. Surveys and analyses conducted by a variety of organizations in recent months paint a clear picture. Chief among these are studies revealing that a jaw-dropping number of employees are thinking about leaving their jobs, so many that it has been dubbed “The Great Resignation.” 

Companies are experiencing dramatically increased difficulty retaining employees in the wake of the pandemic—25 percent say it is “somewhat difficult,” up from 15 percent during the first year of the pandemic, and 3 percent call it “very difficult,” up from 1 percent, according to a recent study by The Conference Board.[3]

Other studies have found large percentages of the workforce may leave their current positions, with estimates ranging from 25 to 41 percent of employees considering leaving their current jobs.[4] Even at the lowest figure, imagine a quarter of your current head count deciding to up and leave.

One of the key forces driving this Great Resignation is that employees realize they can have a different social contract, spending more time with family when they work remotely and skipping the commute, Shahar Erez, CEO of freelance talent platform Stoke Talent, notes in Fast Company.[5] A survey by The Conference Board reinforces this finding, with a flexible work location policy topping the list of most desired aspects of a new job (at 31 percent).

Compounding the situation, the same survey finds unease about returning to the workplace: 42 percent of respondents voiced concerns about the risk of contracting COVID-19 personally or exposing family members to it.[6]

Workers are also looking for more rewarding work, one of the reasons so many people are not returning to low-wage jobs. “During the pandemic, many employees reassessed what they want from their personal and work lives,” the Fast Company piece asserts.

What Employees Want

There are, no doubt, employees who truly cannot wait to get back to the office. Among these are those with no dedicated office space at home, forcing them to work from the kitchen table, often alongside partners in the same boat while the kids and pets present distractions and challenges. Some younger workers are also longing for the office: a study from Generation Lab, a polling and research company focused on youth trends, found college students and recent graduates favor in-person work, Axios reports.[7]

In another survey from Slack, younger workers said they worried about being left behind by remote work; 74 percent said they would miss the office community in a remote world, 41 percent said they would miss mentoring, and 60 percent said they wanted in-person feedback from managers (versus written reviews or Zoom sessions).[8]

A 6,000-person survey conducted for Sharp Europe found similar sentiment across the pond, with over half of staff aged 21-30 stressing “the importance of being able to meet and work with colleagues in person again” and nearly 60 percent saying “working in a modern, collegiate office environment has become important to them over the past year.”[9]

Most employees, though, have indicated a preference for working at home at least part of the time. In one survey, 39 percent of employees said they could quit after the pandemic just to find a job with greater work-from-home flexibility.[10] Another study found some employees were willing to take a nearly 10 percent reduction in pay to work from home two or three days a week.[11] Companies are listening: just over one-third of companies responding to a survey by The Conference Board expect 40 percent or more of their employees will work primarily remotely for a year following the pandemic.[12]

Even though employees like the idea of a hybrid approach, many are not impressed with the configurations their employers offer. In most organizations, the model is simple: you will work three days in the office and two days at home. The question is, which days? Employees may not have any say in this or may not understand or agree with the choice. A global study, the Future Forum Pulse survey, found workers were being left out of postpandemic work policy planning. Instead, policies are being established purely based on senior leadership preferences.[13]

How Companies Are Responding

Companies are working to ensure there is balance—a roughly even number of employees at the office on any given day. But if you spend your three office days with your door closed while pounding away at the keyboard, rarely speaking to another person, why, exactly, was it so important to make the commute on that particular day?

Some companies are taking a different approach that requires greater levels of trust in their employees. Employee engagement firm Reward Gateway, for example, devised a matrix designed to help employees decide whether to work in the office or home on any given day:

The chart was the result of “many weeks of reflection, research, listening, and learning,” Catrin Lewis, head of Global Engagement and Internal Communications, says in a LinkedIn post, adding: “The main thing that’s struck me with the simplified approach of ‘You’re either at home or in the office’ is that it doesn’t acknowledge the task at hand and help employees understand where you’re most likely to be productive, supported and able to work best.”

The Challenges Ahead

The disconnect between leaders and employees when it comes to returning to the workplace is striking. According to data collated by building management company Kastle Systems, 83 percent of CEOs want to see staff back in the office full time, compared to only 17 percent of staff feeling the same.[14]

There is more—much more—for communicators to address as elements of a change initiative. These include the following:

  • The rationale for return Some people are skeptical about the idea that collaboration and innovation require an onsite presence. Provide clear, unambiguous guidelines for how and under what circumstances the organization will support remote work, and offer flexible options. Operationalize the messages the guidelines include by including recruiting managers in the solution.
  • Resistance to vaccine mandates Companies’ mandatory vaccination policy has caused some employees to go so far as to take legal action against their employers. For example, six United Airlines employees have filed suit asking a federal judge to block the airline’s vaccination requirement. A growing number of companies are grappling with whether and how to implement such requirements. According to a new survey from the Committee for Economic Development (CED) at The Conference Board of more than 100 CEOs and directors, nearly two-thirds support President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-test mandate. But at the same time, more than half of respondents (55.8 percent) are concerned about their ability to implement the mandate at their companies.[15] 

In a recent CEO Briefing on vaccine mandates, The Conference Board Marketing & Communications Center weighed in with some advice for communicators on vaccine mandates, including: 1) use the systems of internal and external communication channels and strategy that you have deployed to manage expectations during the pandemic, and 2) be clear and concise, and provide a resource for those who have questions and concerns.[16] 

Viewing return to the workplace as an organizational change will go a long way to avoiding the consequences of simply throwing employees into the deep end of the new-normal pool. Every employee communications team should be working right now on a strategic back-to-the-office plan that goes far beyond articles and text messages. Listening is the most important activity to build into the plan.

Finally, be flexible and encourage flexibility, since the configurations on which your company has settled may not work, in which case they are likely to change. If you treat this as a change effort, you will be prepared.

Shel Holtz, ABC (Accredited Business Communicator), is a Senior Fellow in The Conference Board Marketing & Communications Center and Director of Internal Communications of Webcor, a San Francisco-based general contractor. Shel has more than 30 years of organizational communications experience in both corporate and consulting environments.

[1] Find out how thought leaders from The Conference Board suggest approaching vaccine mandates: “CEO Briefing: Vaccine Mandates,” The Conference Board, October 2021.

[2] Prudential Financial, “Pulse of the American Worker Survey,” March 2021; Microsoft, “2021 Work Trend Index: The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?” 2021; “Survey: As Workplaces Reopen, 42% of Workers Fear Getting COVID,” The Conference Board, August 2021; Alexandra Olson, “Poll: Amid Pandemic Challenges, 25% of US Workers Consider Quitting,” Associated Press, October 19, 2020; EY, “EY 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey,” press release, May 12, 2021.

[3] Frank Steemers et al., “The Reimagined Workplace a Year Later: Human Capital Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The Conference Board, May 2021.

[4] Prudential Financial, “Pulse of the American Worker Survey”; Microsoft, “2021 Work Trend Index”; AP, “Poll: 25% of US Workers Consider Quitting”; EY, “EY 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey.”

[5] Stephanie Vozza, “The ‘Great Resignation’ Is Here. This Is How Employers Should Prepare,” Fast Company, June 15, 2021.

[6] “Survey: As Workplaces Reopen, 42% of Workers Fear Getting COVID,” The Conference Board, August 2021.

[7] Erica Pandey, “Younger Employees Fear Being Left Behind by Remote Work,” Axios, July 13, 2021.

[8] Erica Pandey, “Everybody Loves the Hybrid Workweek,” Axios, January 27, 2021.

[9] Mark Daniel Davies, “Fed-Up Young Workers Fear They Need Offices to Save Their Career,” Bloomberg, June 14, 2021.

[10] Anders Melin and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou, “Employees Are Quitting Instead of Giving Up Working From Home,” Bloomberg, June 1, 2021.

[11] Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis, “Why Working From Home Will Stick,” Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago, April 2021.

[12] Steemers et al., “The Reimagined Workplace a Year Later.”

[13] Slack Technologies, “Future Forum Pulse,” October 2021.

[14] Jennifer Smith, “The Fight to Get Back to the Office,”, July 29, 2021.

[16] Find out how thought leaders from The Conference Board suggest approaching vaccine mandates: “CEO Briefing: Vaccine Mandates,” The Conference Board, October 2021.



Senior Fellow
Marketing & Communications Center
Director of Internal Communications