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The ‘return to work’ communications conundrum

02 July 2020

By Tali Robinson, Partner

If you’re a communications professional like most of us here at Newgate, you will undoubtedly have been pulled in a million different directions, had countless debates and conversations and a found yourself with more dilemmas than you ever imagined possible since the start of lockdown in March. From how to communicate office closures and remote working protocols to staff, to relaying difficult furlough decisions both internally and externally, to announcing office closures or redundancies to clients, media and markets – you would have thought we’d seen and done it all by now.

Yet just as things seemed to be stabilising and getting back to some kind of (new) normality, and comms pros around the world were breathing a tentative sigh of relief, we were faced with our next challenge, which was equally all-consuming: how to communicate around returning to the office. But not the office as we once knew it. And not exactly ‘returning’. And only for some of us. And possibly only for a short time, R-rate dependant. The unknowns were suddenly endless again and I have found myself on many a client call, team discussion or Zoom meeting with industry peers discussing these questions and trying to find answers around best practice and what we can or should be advising as we try to plot a course through the Covid fog.

Of late, like many business, we’ve been grappling with what our own future Covid-safe office will look like and how to phase our team’s return to various offices (as explored in this piece by our CEO). But putting aside the debate over face masks, how to actually travel to the office, and what would happen to meeting rooms and (most importantly) the kitchen, the issues we’re advising clients on run far deeper.

One of the biggest unknowns for Heads of Comms and CEOs was around the new reputational challenge that the furlough scheme has brought up. As we started to see the likes of the Spectator declaring that they would pay furlough back to the government as a result of their better-than-expected financial performance, the realisation set in that many companies were going to have a hard time justifying paying dividends or bonuses in future if they’d used the furlough scheme. We saw some spectacular PR disasters early on with the likes of Tottenham Hotspurs and Liverpool announcing and then reversing widely criticised decisions to use public money, particularly in light of record bonuses being awarded last year.

The issue over how to communicate with furloughed workforces has also been a new challenge for internal comms and HR professionals, without prior experience to refer to. Technically you’re allowed, and encouraged, to communicate with furloughed staff, but only where there is no actual work involved. This becomes a highly sensitive issue of engagement for any business: there is a fine balance to be struck between including furloughed staff who are still a vital part of the team, and allowing them the space they need and deserve during a uniquely difficult time. This sensitive issue is only going to get more fraught as furloughed workforces are brought back either fully or partly. The companies that manage to keep those team members feeling valued and engaged will win, those that don’t will certainly lose out on both valuable talent and the confidence of their teams – and it’s clear that good communications will be what makes all the difference.

Even the terminology around ‘return to work’ has caused some contention in comms circles. One head of comms at a global firm I spoke to recently said that he had banned the phase ‘return to work’ itself, as everyone has certainly been working (and mostly a lot harder) over the past few months, and the idea of work only happening in an office is surely a modern day myth after the past three months.

If anything has propelled PR and internal comms into a seat at the (albeit virtual) boardroom, it’s been this pandemic. Although most companies are aware of the impact of good external communications on their bottom line, internal communications has lately been top of the agenda for most firms. C-suite execs have been forced to pay attention to the results of staff surveys asking what employees wanted their future workspace to look like, or what intranet was being used and how much staff were engaging with it; tools and techniques which had previously fallen to the bottom of many corporates’ to do lists suddenly took on a renewed importance as employers could no longer look their employees in the eye or drop past their desks to chat. 

Finally, the simplest yet most difficult question to answer for comms experts at the moment is the age-old one around profile. Without physical industry events, panel discussions, conferences and launches, how to stand out and differentiate from the competition has become harder than ever. Where companies have been successful in finding new and unique ways to engage, its frequently been those who have invested heavily pre-Covid. One thing is for sure: if ever there was a time for communications experts to shine – it’s now. We may not be sleeping much, but we are certainly getting our moment in the spotlight.