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Communication Best Practices for Returning to Office After COVID

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Post-COVID: Returning to Work Communication Series

Returning to work after pandemic is full of challenges, out of which, communication work, when done right, is instrumental to realigning teams.

Introduction Unsettled individuals, shattered workflows, changing demands from internal and external customers and volatile macro environment all seem to be casting a formidable spell on work life after COVID. 3 best practice communication principles are shared in this article:

will give you a head start as organizations plan for what to expect and put into action as they enter the next phase of change after COVID.

Extended period of working from home, zero physical contact with coworkers, stretching our newly acquired digital skills to connect, all these are about to end. We see light at the end of the tunnel as many organizations are resuming work mode to what it used to be pre-COVID.

Managers are to be mindful that the post-COVID way of work does carry a heavy influence from the pandemic itself. Stress from prolonged exposure to highly disturbing events such as COVID does not vanish overnight. Better preparedness on team communication and empowerment can improve the transition for returning to work. Organizations that are aware of the following communication best practices can take steps to improve workplace relationships post-COVID.

I. Build Empathic Communication Culture

The old belief that a manager should not display vulnerability or should only be about results and bottom line could now be seen as callous, undermining one’s leadership, and eventually damaging the organization in ways beyond imagination. As we experience trauma or a disaster, the world for everyone is interrupted, howbeit difference in force. Socially, prolonged stress and aftershock may amplify human anxieties, which can increase the challenge of communication after getting back to work. Empathic communication, i.e. being able to detect and understand other’s perspective, is the antidote enabling one to make a connection and eventually reach consensus.

The following tips would come in handy when building an empathic communication culture post-COVID:

  • Lead conversations about the emotional impact experienced

  • Listen with the intent to understand, not judge

  • C-suite and managers be prepared and trained for uncomfortable conversations

  • Leaders as fundamental sources of resilience do not over-delegate communication duties

  • Reinforce organizational values, celebrate the positives during the pandemic

  • Uplifting conversations are crucial: message of gratitude, appreciation and support

  • Precise messaging about how the organization is reinventing to be future-ready

  • Set up feedback loops, and solicit external help on trauma support where needed

There is no guarantee that everyone will feel psychologically safe to share and respond, as we all take a different pace. Understand that if a team member closes off or acts out, it is not that something is wrong with them, it is because something has happened to them. While empathy is essential, it could also be hard to practice at times, remember that you cannot pour from an empty cup, so always start by self-awareness and self-understanding.

II. Proactively Renew Communication Processes

As with most things in life, having a de facto process in place ensures consistency. During the pandemic, many of these systems have been thrown out of the window, as health and safety take priority (and rightly so): reporting line, meeting frequency, approval process, customer service, sales funnel handling, etc., are not how they used to be. When the door to the office reopens, there is bound to be confusion on ‘Now, what?’. One of the best practices to better communication post-COVID is communication (pun not intended): solicit dialogues with stakeholders on a recurring basis and be prepared to enter rounds of discussion, refinement, and feedback to determine how we communicate moving forward. Most important of all, what is the purpose, desired outcome, boundaries, and means of each communication flow. Setting up a task force to focus on this subject could prove helpful when representatives from all parties are in place to clarify and voice their ideas and questions. The positive prospect is that organizations will be better equipped to thrive, instead of dwell in the uncertain return and recovery phase lacking clarity. Be proactive in initiating discussion about communication processes as early as work resumes and build a sense of purpose in the long term.

Discussion questions to ask to when renewing communication processes post-COVID:

  • How has communication changed for your job function (internal/external)?

  • How about cross-functional communication?

  • What worked? What did not?

  • Which group of stakeholders benefited, which group was impacted?

  • Are there renewed expectations: speed, format, frequency, touch points etc.?

  • Imagine designing the communication process anew, what would it look like now?

  • What resources (hardware, training, system etc.) do we need?

III. ACT: Authenticity, Clarity and Timeliness

As an executive coach and communication trainer, I have a privileged inside view into how inspirational leaders and high performers deliver messages at a crisis or during difficult times, and I summarize these distinctive approaches with ACT: Authenticity, being genuine, true, and open; Clarity, keeping messages simple, relevant, and actionable; Timeliness, sufficiently prompt, without unnecessary procrastination or delay. Authenticity Authentic leaders are transparent, genuine, and honest, they command trust and respect. While it may seem to be an obvious approach to communicate, many public figures and corporate leaders have been identified as lacking authenticity, or even being hypocritic under a crisis or setback situation, which is detrimental to their leadership and organizations. Trust must be earned, and it works both ways.

Does being authentic mean having answers to everything?

Authenticity is certainly not about having all the answers, instead, it requires honesty and candor about the challenges, steps to be taken, obstacles ahead, and questions that are unanswered at that moment.

It is worth mentioning that though authenticity is a powerful tool in communicating and building emotional connections, leaders should be aware that authenticity can also trap us in our comfort zone (as it is relaxing to be just who we are). More on communication traps in another article. Clarity The more complicated and urgent the situation, the more significant is clarity. As crisis and uncertainty trigger cognitive freezing, individual’s information processing ability drastically reduces, this is when consistent, bite-sized and frequently repeated messages are most needed. Managers should begin with anchoring on key message points and be consistent in delivering the talking points when cascading the conversation throughout the organization. A common approach in advertising to drive home a point is to repeat a message, same rule applies here: messages must be repeated and reinforced. Over-communicate in frequency and through multiple avenue – email, newsletter, bulletin boards, business website, intranet, staff town halls, or video delivery etc. Timeliness

Timeliness in communication means engaging individuals at the time when the information, feedback or guidance is needed, and when they are receptive to hear and act on it. Timely communication is the watchword in the modern world of communication. Imagine there is an outbreak of an illness in one of your office premises and you first hear this from the TV news, while receiving no information from your company, will you feel treasured and safe? Or, if there is a retrenchment plan in the pipeline yet you are hearing nothing from your managers, it is no surprise that precious productive hours will be used on workplace gossip and exchange of ‘intelligence’. Communicating in a timely manner on what is known and not-yet-know, and providing frequent and reliable updates is especially relevant post-COVID where adjustments are frequent and expectations from teams are changing.


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