‘To mandate or not is the big question’: United Minds CEO Kate Bullinger on returning to the office

United Minds and parent Weber Shandwick are publishing a playbook with detailed advice on return-to-the-office communications.

(Photo credit: Getty Images).
(Photo credit: Getty Images).

Bringing employees back to the office was always bound to be a complicated process, and the emergence and spread of the delta variant has only made it more so. 

PRWeek chatted with United Minds CEO Kate Bullinger for a deep dive into her company’s collaboration with Weber Shandwick on Plan Vx – A Playbook for the Business Response to COVID-19 Vaccinations, Edition II: Return to Office. 

What prompted the preparation of back-to-the-office communications strategies?  
Transparent, timely and informed communication has been critical for companies as they undergo so much change. Just as companies across sectors are implementing return-to-office plans, we’re seeing spikes in COVID cases around the country, particularly in areas of low vaccinations. What was already a challenging task, to create an environment where employees were comfortable and motivated to go back to in-person work, is ever more complex as the pandemic continues to shift course.

Do you see mandating vaccinations as a solution?
To mandate or not is the big question, but so far we’ve seen a hesitancy for many large organizations to mandate, with the hopes that strongly encouraging vaccinations or offering incentives will be sufficient. We may see more organizations mandate if cases continue to rise, to both play a role in the broader vaccination effort and to ease anxiety among their own workforce as offices open.

Is companies’ biggest hesitancy COVID-fears? Or is it office flexibility to maintain staff?
The ability to attract and retain talent is a huge challenge for companies as they grapple with what has been coined the “Great Resignation”: employee burnout and newfound employee expectations for more flexibility and control over their work-life arrangement. Employee concern about safety and comfort related to COVID are still big factors in return to office plans, and likely will grow as COVID outbreaks continue, but these are only part of the bigger picture.

What's the general landscape that you’re seeing with employers?
Hybrid work is certainly the topic of the day, but we’re seeing several models emerge. Dominant models differ depending on sectors. For example, financial services companies have signaled expectations to be in the office every day versus some tech companies trending toward remote options.

But no matter which model is chosen, most large organizations are preparing for massive change that will require a thoughtful employee approach. 

What are top tips for getting employees to feel safe returning to the office when employers aren’t mandating vaccinations?
United Minds, Weber Shandwick and KRC Research from May 2021 found that nearly four in 10 employees from across sectors will not feel safe returning to their workplace without the required vaccination of their peers. The playbook provides considerations including listening and gaining perspectives from key stakeholders; leading with empathy and transparency; leveraging values in decision-making; and being prepared for controversy and pushback along the way.

To reduce anxiety, companies can continually convey up-to-date information, provide mental health resources for concerned employees and host “welcome back” moments to realign employees back to in-person work.

Consistent, frequent communication is critical to guiding employees through this process.

What is going to be the biggest challenge in getting employees back to the office?
The biggest challenge for employers is that employees have come to expect the autonomy, independence and flexibility they were granted upon lockdown. However, leaders and employees also recognize that work is about more than just “the work” and accept or welcome the need to interact in-person. The challenge is that many leaders are leaning toward the office being a place for collaboration, whereas many employees don’t see the office as a regular place to get work done with others, given they have been more productive working remotely. Rather, employees see the office as a place to build their social and professional networks or for formal programs like training.

How do companies overcome that challenge?
Organizations need to think through the intersections of business strategy, customer needs, employee needs, purpose and values, as well as short- and long-term operational capabilities. Based on that careful analysis, which should include some active listening among stakeholders, organizations should evolve their desired employee experience, one that supports a culture that delivers on the business while also creating a positive workplace that retains and attracts talent. Once defined, leaders and communicators should show and tell this desired experience throughout re-entry plans in the immediate term while aligning HR programs and operational policies longer term. As always, leaders will need to role model the right behaviors for this new way of working and value those behaviors in their team members.

In terms of ensuring inclusion among both remote and in-office staff, companies and leaders should actively review their policies, procedures, cultures and ways of working to understand when and how employees could be at risk for unfair treatment due to a hybrid arrangement. 

Additionally, organizations that need to retain or win talent in this climate should go beyond risk mitigation and thoughtfully reshape their culture and norms to create a positive workplace that drives their business forward.

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