What Employees Need to Hear as They Return to the Office

BY C. Lee Smith
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After a year of working in a remote location, many of your employees are dreading a mandated return to life as they knew it in the pre-​pandemic days. Your employees need to hear a few specific communications as they return to the office. Your ability to communicate as a leader may never be more important than it is now. 

Yes, you were told the same thing at the beginning of the pandemic. And during the pandemic, you did your best to help people transition to remote work situations. You supported them as they dealt with personal challenges ranging from childcare to learning how to dial in to Zoom calls. Over time, your employees and teams developed new work routines and saw the benefit of not having to commute. Some employees thrived in the remote work environment. Others didn’t.

Now that it’s time to call people back, your messaging has to be just right, says Professor Boris Groysberg. Your employees need to hear what the company plan is for returning to the office. They also need support and understanding for their individual situations. And leaders can also establish new methods of in-​person connections to positively support operating in the new normal.

The Company Plan

In old-​school businesses, the owner announced the plan, and everyone did their best to meet expectations. That style will not fly in our knowledge-​based economy. Well-​educated workers expect to participate in the decision-​making process. Many times, they know better than leadership about whether a plan will work or how the plan should be adjusted to make it work. At some companies, workers also own company stock, or they participate in profit sharing. In those arrangements, they need a voice in planning for the future. 

As a leader, you can set an agenda to discuss the topic of returning to in-​person work arrangements. After that, you should provide communication vehicles for employees to make their concerns and preferences known. Whether it’s large team meetings held via video or smaller teams posting to internal chat rooms, give everyone a chance to be heard.

Empathy for Individual Situations

Your employees have set up a system that is working for them away from the office. When you mandate a return, expect pushback. They’ll tell you they’ve been more productive at home. “Not commuting is better for the environment,” some might say. And they may challenge you on that point if your corporate positioning has championed the environment. They’ll complain that their lives will be more expensive now that they have to buy subway passes and pay for parking.

Before you start trying to convince them that you need them to be in the office, “acknowledge their pain.” Doing so demonstrates empathy and caring, say Groysberg. If you don’t take this simple step, you risk alienating and possibly losing the employee. Up to 38% of sales reps have left companies that don’t seem to care about their employees. A little understanding can go a long way toward helping an employee’s mindset and engagement level. If possible, give the employee a little time and flexibility as they adjust their routines and resources for a return to the office.


One way to get employees committed to the in-​person work experience is to improve inclusion on all levels. Coach every one of your team members on how their job connects to the corporate mission. If their responsibilities changed during the pandemic, talk with them about how those changes make a positive difference. 

Return to the Office

And at a time when we are all more aware of social justice, your younger employees, in particular, want to be a part of what matters on a larger scale. Now might be a good time to review the nonprofit organizations and initiatives your business supported prior to the pandemic. Does that support make sense in the context of the business you’re in and the new social and economic order? Engage your employees in planning new initiatives as you move forward and they'll be more motive to return to the office.