More than 20 million Americans have received their first dose of coronavirus vaccine, but communications leaders across the country are in no rush to return to the office this year.
With the number of COVID-19 cases still sky high around the country, agencies and internal communications leaders are cautious about moving their operations back to the physical office.
Most place hopeful return dates around midyear, but leaders are largely leaving it up to their staff to decide.
“Our approach is really our employees' safety and well-being first,” says Joe Farren, MD of Porter Novelli's Washington, DC, office. “Even with the rollout of vaccines, if someone just doesn't feel safe, there's going to be no pressure to go back to the office.”
According to Ketchum's Work Shift 2020 study, since the start of the pandemic, employees' priorities have shifted, with 52% wanting to feel safe at work and 42% desiring flexible working hours. The study also identified four distinct employee personas on returning to the office: the ready resumes, the value-conscious advancers, the static sustainers and the anxious evaluators.
“Just about every organization has a mix of these personas that make up its employee base, but it is critical to understand your company’s unique makeup and, more importantly, how to adjust or flex your work environment to make them feel safe and engaged,” says Ketchum CEO Mike Doyle.
Listening to and communicating with employees about these concerns takes precedence. Signal AI prioritized internal communications and corporate culture as a means to keep employees engaged and implemented mental health awareness campaigns as well as care packages.
“In addition to the care packages, we offered allowances to all our employees who needed to purchase home office supplies and equipment during their extended office sabbatical,” says Matt Brown, Signal AI president for the Americas and APAC.
Zeno Group also has its employees’ physical and mental health as top priority, according to CEO Barby Siegel.
“It's really important that we not only have people's health and safety front of mind, but also their peace of mind,” Siegel says. But there is a small population who very much want to return to the office, she adds. “We do miss that face-to-face human interaction.”
Around the business world in general, relatively few employees have returned to the office. In mid-November, security firm Kastle Systems put the percentage of office returnees at about a quarter, according to The Wall Street Journal. That percentage is up sharply from the spring, but flat from mid-October, partially due to post-holiday surges in the number of Americans testing positive for COVID-19.
For those who are returning to the office, they’ll have to take all federal, state and local guidelines into account. Signal AI has had its offices open since October for voluntary use, but with an operating capacity at 20%. Staffers are encouraged to temperature check every day, schedule office time and take regular COVID tests, especially those who are traveling.
“We are, of course, like everyone else, following advice from multiple sources including New York State guidelines and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and while we will not go against official guidelines, we make all of our decisions independently and with our staff’s safety front of mind,” says Brown.
Ketchum's U.S. offices are operating with socially distanced workstations and required employee reservations.
“We’ve been lucky in that our reopenings have been smooth and those who are coming in are not just compliant but appreciative of the safety measures we have in place," Doyle says. “What I’ve been hearing from them is that being back in the office brings some semblance of normalcy in this very abnormal year.”
Siegel has stocked up on extra sanitation equipment and discussed how Zeno Group would set up offices directionally with the proper signage to keep staff safe but productive.
The increased availability of vaccines has also played a part in when to end office sabbaticals.
“Having successfully transitioned to remote work, most of our employees are of the view that they will go back to the office when they're vaccinated,” Farren says, adding that since productivity hasn't been hampered, there's no pressure to be physically in the office. “We've been doing this for 10 months, and we haven't seen any drastic fall off or problems.”
Even when offices do reopen, flexibility for those who return will be standard.
Kite Hill PR CEO Tiffany Guarnaccia has encouraged her team to work smarter, not harder, which includes taking advantage of an unlimited paid time off policy.
“We are an agile team and are embracing a flexible model that includes work from anywhere, co-working and permanent office options,” she says. “We’re adjusting our headquarters to meet the demands of tomorrow, which we refer to as the ‘three C’s of the modern office': concentration, collaboration and celebration.”
Siegel sees a more flexible work schedule as the norm years into the future, leaving employees with the time to take care of personal matters and still succeed in the office.
“I don't see why we would take that flexibility away,” Siegel says. “It really helps to provide a path for people who want to have a career in a high growth dynamic culture, but they also want to be able to tend to matters on the home front, whatever that might be.”