May 7, 2021 / Esther Choy

Avoid these return-to-work communication blunders

After a year of remote work, avoid these communication blunders that could hinder productivity.

Don’t donate your professional clothes to the thrift shop just yet. Despite the advantages of saving money on office space, cutting employees’ commute times, and potentially creating a happier workforce, a recent survey shows that most CEOs of major global companies plan to call remote workers back to the office once it’s safe to do so.

The survey from KPMG accountants revealed that only 17% of chief executives of 500 major global companies plan to downsize office space after Covid is under control. And less than a quarter expected the pandemic to permanently change the way they operated. Even hybrid models that would allow employees to remain home two to three days per week were unpopular among these CEOs: only 30% said they were considering it.

Global tech and finance companies have also been outspoken about returning to in-person work. Amazon announced in early spring that it would “return to an office-centric culture as our baseline.” Microsoft and Uber are both reopening offices to employees who wish to return. Uber even sped up its reopening timeline from autumn to spring. Some global finance companies fit this trend too: in the words of Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon this February, remote work is “an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.”

This isn’t representative of all major companies, of course.

JPMorgan Chase, Ford Motor, Salesforce, and Target say they’re reducing office space. And in Manhattan, real estate is taking a hit, as high-rise office buildings have lost 25% of their market value since the pandemic started.

Yet for the remote workers who will be returning to the office after time away, the transition to business as usual is not going to be easy. The impacts of a year of remote work, coupled with lingering fears of Covid risks, will bring many communication headaches that could hinder productivity.

Providing clear answers to just three questions will allow managers and executives to avoid communication blunders later.

1. How will we greet each other?

After more than a year of limited in-person interactions, employees will be hungry for in-person contact. Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone wants a hug. One thing the pandemic has taught us is that, even among close friends, risk tolerance varies widely. We’ve learned how important it is to avoid assumptions.

Leaving your workplace greetings protocol to chance means every interaction employees have could be awkward, getting in-person relationships off to a rocky start.

Avoid this. Solicit input from employees to learn what norms they are comfortable establishing. Elbow bump greetings? Fist bumps? When would they be comfortable shaking hands again? Once you hear from them, put the policies in writing to avoid communication blunders later, and reinforce your policies.

Put your office greetings protocol in writing.

2. Home is casual; will the workplace be, too?

While working from home, employees got used to being able to wear comfortable, casual clothing. What’s the dress code now? Again, seek their input and incorporate it in your written policy.

Beyond following official federal and state guidelines, company leadership should add their voice in mask wearing as well. Of course, like greeting each other, the best plan is to make the company guidelines clear. Set the culture of self-policing at the very minimum. If anyone feels like they want to wear a mask even if there is no government guideline, they should feel free to do so.

3. How will we make up for a year of lost spontaneity?

Again and again, I hear that what colleagues miss most about in-person work is all of the random “bumping into each other”–in the kitchen or copy room or by the water cooler. They miss the spontaneous, productive conversations that can result.

Although many aspects of working from home have been casual, our business interactions have been structured and rigorously scheduledMany managers and executives have meetings every single hour.

In fact, we’ve had more meetings during the pandemic than ever before. A Harvard Business School Study found that within eight weeks after Covid-related lockdowns, people had begun attending 13% more meetings!

“There is a general sense that we never stop being in front of Zoom or interacting,” says Raffaella Sadun, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “It’s very taxing, to be honest.”

These structured interactions have left little breathing room for just chatting with our colleagues like we used to on site.

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As we return to work, is it possible to institutionalize spontaneity? Managers and executives can certainly take steps. For instance, we can plan 50-minute in-person meetings, giving employees ten minutes to transition between meetings. No, you’re not throwing away ten minutes. If nothing else, the casual conversations that follow will yield stronger relationships. And they may even be the exact time when problems raised in the meeting get solved.

Even if meetings must be back-to-back, you can lessen the mental toll and spark innovation by scheduling 10 minutes at the beginning for casual hellos, questions, or statements of intention: what employees hope to accomplish in the meeting. A good, insightful question is a particularly useful way to make everyone comfortable. (If you need inspiration, check out our Crazy Good Questions.)

You can also keep the remaining 50 minutes concise if people are standing rather than sitting. Companies have found that when people are sitting down, they tend to be long winded! And if nothing else, a standing meeting gives employees a healthy break from their sedentary day.

In many ways, the future of work will look like the past–at least when it comes to returning to the office. But a year of remote work for a huge percentage of the world provides a chance to reset our norms for maximum productivity. And productivity begins with strong communication around office norms.

A great way to get ready, and to avoid completely preventable communication blunders, is to brush up on leadership storytelling skills. Check out my introduction to leadership storytelling here.


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Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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