‘One of the biggest change management moments we’ve ever experienced’: How agencies are helping clients navigate re-entry

Businesses are playing it safe in bringing employees back to the office.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Los Angeles to Miami, most U.S. cities are pushing ahead with reopening their economies, meaning businesses can begin to bring employees back to their offices, as long as local and state rules are followed. 

Yet even with the green light, many companies are being cautious with the daunting task of the return and a desire to get it right with employees, says Anthea Hoyle, EVP at United Minds, Weber Shandwick’s management consulting group. United Minds launched a workforce re-entry practice last month. 

“Re-entry will be one of the biggest change management moments we’ve ever experienced,” she says. 

Hoyle notes that while businesses shut down literally overnight because of the pandemic and quickly figured out how to operate with a displaced staff, “we are seeing the opposite now. Clients are keeping their offices closed even though they can reopen.”

“They are saying, ‘Great to know the government supports reopening, but are we ready? Not just our operations, but from a people perspective?’” Hoyle explains. “During shutdown, people were being prioritized above commercial interests, and that principle is thankfully carrying through to the reopening phase.” 

After all of the work of putting people first during the shutdown, the last thing companies want to do now is force employees back with a “checklist” of how to keep safe, she says. Instead, companies should take their cues from their teams by keeping a pulse on their emotional state. 

“If part of their anxiety is not wanting to come back, that it feels too soon, then it is really understanding how you can be flexible and make them feel comfortable, regardless of where they work,” says Hoyle. 

At least one United Minds client has made work-from-home its default option for employees, at least until 2022. 

“This client recognized that some employees feel more productive on-site, and if they’re also comfortable with measures to make that site safer, then they can opt-in to work at the office,” she says. “It allows employees to have a choice in where they feel most productive and safe working.” 

Another best practice is to identify and follow an office capacity cap, which will help with social distancing and reduce workforce anxiety. 

“We’re hearing a range of 10% to 25% from clients,” says Hoyle. “I think the number fluctuates depending on the logistics of the space and safety measures in place.” 

Rodrigo Castro, Miami-based VP of technology for BCW, is also seeing office capacity caps of about 25%. 

“Offices started opening at the end of May in Miami, but very, very slowly,” says Castro, who, like the rest of the BCW workforce, continues to work from home. 

Some companies have shuttered their headquarters altogether. This week, the Miami Herald said it is planning to move out of its office in August and that “employees will continue to work remotely through the end of the year.” After that, the media outlet will find “a new centralized home,” one that presumably will make social distancing and other protective measures easier to implement. 

In other cases, “clients are reviewing how to restructure the office before having employees return,” says Castro.

Some media companies have been long known for having open-concept workplaces, and other employers have adopted similar layouts to foster collaboration and creativity, such as brand newsrooms and many PR agencies.

However, most employees don’t want to return to these environments, according to research from the Harris Poll and the Institute for Public Relations. A poll of more than 800 full-time employees in mid-May found 80% agreed that employers should move towards sectioned-off offices and phase out open-space offices. Employees should also be allowed to work from home until they feel comfortable to return, 81% of respondents said.

“This is a great time to rethink brick-and-mortar spaces and rethink the future of work,” says Julie Batliner, president of Carmichael Lynch Relate. “It’s a time to notice what is working about remote working and find a long-term plan to carry that forward.” 

She adds that agencies and companies should not assume that “back to normal” is the right message. 

“What people miss about the pre-COVID in-office environment is not going to be the way it is when they return due to safety protocol,” Batliner explains. “It's about helping people understand that, and adjust their thinking.” 

Both the agency’s Minneapolis headquarters and New York City office are servicing clients virtually, but Batliner says agency leadership is rethinking how the two locations can be used once they do open.

Other agency leaders say they may continue their work-from-home policies until the end of the year. Some are pondering if they need the same amount of square footage in an office if a part of the staff will always be working remotely. 

Patty Barry, principal of Matter, encourages businesses to remember all the great virtual tools they’ve developed to keep employees motivated and engaged. Matter has been working with Xandr, the advertising and analytics division of AT&T, to create a video series, shot on smartphones, spotlighting how employees and executive leaders are staying connected.

Barry says clients have an opportunity to “build upon some of the unexpectedly great new ways we are working together at this moment,” like video chats and cross-office collaboration. 

Workplaces with on-the-ground staff 

Many types of non-office environments have no choice but to bring employees back into a physical space. However, calling them back in and falling to alleviate their fears would be a recipe for disaster, warns Suzanne Miller, founder and president of Dallas-based SPM Communications. 

She points to Hillstone Restaurant Group, which was returning to 25% capacity in its dining rooms, but banned waiters from wearing face masks. An employee called leadership out on social media.   

“The restaurant had a snarky statement on their website telling people if they didn’t like it, they didn’t have to come. Social media had a field day, and traditional media jumped in soon after,” says Miller. “The restaurant rescinded their policy quickly, but their reputation may be permanently damaged.”

She adds that “the store or restaurant employee is the face of the brand and the key touchpoint for consumers.”

“Having those employees on board and modeling the brand’s stance on precautions to the consumer was everything – nothing communicates a brand’s stance more clearly than seeing what the employees do,” says Miller. 

Fast-food chains such as McDonald’s are trying to be thorough with employee protocols. It has issued a 59-page guide to reopening dining rooms, and PRWeek confirmed that the brand has established a taskforce with franchisees to evaluate the reopening of the dining rooms. 

But are consumers ready? 

With employees on board, SPM Communications worked with Gold’s Gym on the reopening of hundreds of gyms in the U.S. It surveyed members about their willingness to get back into gyms with safety and sanitation protocols. 

With its gyms open, the fitness chain is using email, social media and its website to talk to existing and potential members. It also invited key media to experience some of the changes themselves. 

“Because we’ve invited media into our gyms and been transparent about our reopening plans and what we’re doing to provide a safe environment, the positive coverage has helped members (and potential new members) understand and become comfortable with our temporary new normal,” says Adam Zeitsiff, president and CEO of Gold’s Gym. 

Even if employees are ready and willing for a physical return, Batliner agrees businesses have to factor in whether consumers and clients are ready. 

To that end, Carmichael Lynch Relate has developed the CLEffect Covid-19 Tracker, a tool that helps businesses determine when to reopen brick-and-mortar locations based on markets and the type of customer messaging most appropriate to the customer mindset.

The tool takes mindset, along with information about how the virus is spreading, state and local regulations, economic indicators and media activity for the competitive set, and overlays it with client sales data – both online and brick and mortar – to come to a recommendation. 

“There are various stages of mindset for the pandemic including denial, anxiety, adjustment, re-evaluation, new-normal and next-normal,” says Batliner.

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