In the 1986 hit song “Wham! – I’m Your Man,” George Michael sings, “If you’re gonna do it, do it right (right).”
As organizations grapple with the future of work, this should become their mantra.
Unfortunately, when it comes to planning for where staff will work once the pandemic crisis ends, many businesses don’t have a clue of how to do it right.
Some are examining the idea of bringing all employees back into offices on a full-time basis. Others are aiming to let staff choose whether to work remotely or in an office, the so-called hybrid approach. Meanwhile other firms are betting that the future of work is 100 percent remote and plan to make the current work plan permanent.
While I passionately believe that the future of work is hybrid, this article is not about which solution is the right one. It’s about organizations making sound decisions in the right way.
Key to this decision-making process is communication: Poor communication can be costly to both the health of your business and workers.
Concern, anxiety, burnout
An April 2021 McKinsey & Company survey showed that the lack of information from organizations regarding post-Covid-19 working arrangements is spurring employee anxiety.
Here are some of the numbers: 40 percent of employees say they have yet to hear any vision from their organization and 28 percent say that what they have heard is vague, the survey found.
Almost half of employees reported the lack of communication is causing them concern or anxiety, and about the same percentage said they are feeling some symptoms of being burned out at work.
These likely are an underrepresentation of the real numbers.
Employees clearly need more certainty about post-pandemic working arrangements. However, many organizations, uncertain about what to do, are keeping mum.
Others have indicated a general intent to embrace hybrid work going forward but are saying little about what that looks like.
No wonder employees are feeling anxious. Haven’t they been through enough already?
Silence is not golden
Here’s the problem: Silence causes a vacuum and vacuums need to be filled.
When employees know that change is afoot but the employer says little or nothing, employees will fill the vacuum with conjecture and rumor.
It will not take much time for that conjecture and rumor to become employee reality, which is a dangerous place to go. Their misinformed reality can become a social-media frenzy, resulting in a damaged brand and reputation, employee backlash and talent attrition.
Employees are not stupid. They know that the change the organization is going to have to make is not a small one — whatever the decision.
Many organizations are struggling to come to terms with the enormity of the change and are baffled about where to start. Still, this should not preclude communication.
If organizational leaders are unclear on the way forward, they should be communicating this to employees now and sharing their intent. If you have nothing to tell employees, tell them you have nothing to tell them.
In addition, you should explain the actions you are going to take to decide on the way forward and keep communicating on a frequent basis.
Remember, there is no such thing as overcommunication. No one ever left an organization because they were told too much too often!
The McKinsey survey revealed that organizations that have articulated more specific policies and approaches for the future workplace have seen employee well-being and productivity rise.
Even high-level communication about post-Covid working arrangements will boost well-being and productivity and this will increase as more detail is provided.
Avoid the ‘announcement’
At the same time, making a blanket announcement on the direction to be taken by an organization is the wrong path to take as well.
On May 7, Cathy Merrill, CEO of Washingtonian Media, in an opinion piece for the Washington Post managed to offend her staff and stir a viral whirlwind of anger on social media.
The original title of the piece, “Opinion: As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office,” was later softened to “Opinion: As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work” due to the backlash.
Merrill stated that “if the employee is rarely around” the office, then there is a “strong incentive to change their status to ‘contractor.’” This sounded like a not-too-subtle threat to those who do not want to return to the office on a full-time basis.
The response from magazine staff was to refuse to write content for a day and to share their dismay on Twitter.
Regardless of whether Merrill truly believes that a 100 percent return to the office is the best solution or whether she was just testing the waters, the CEO failed miserably and it resulted in distrust, anger and hurt.
The opinion piece, whether intended or not, suggested “it’s my way or the highway,” which only served to alienate employees, especially those who had embraced the flexibility of working remotely.
Now her staff will have doubts about the organization in the future, and whether it will take employee sentiment into account in creating future policy.
A one-sided decree made in public serves no purpose and only generates fear. Employees at the Washingtonian were anxious about whether they will have jobs or not.
Even if employees were not going to agree with Merrill, there should have been some discussion about her intent internally before going public.
She should have explained her rationale and allowed some inner debate. The announcement should not have come as a surprise to all employees.
Both of these situations — the silence and the announcement — could be avoided with basic but effective communication. Here are my 20 suggestions for improving communicating with your staff about the future of work:
- If you have nothing to say, say you have nothing to say. Transparency rules.
- Do not create a communication vacuum.
- Communicate frequently and regularly.
- You cannot overcommunicate.
- Find various ways in which to communicate so that everyone hears.
- If you are unsure about the future, ask your employees what they want.
- If you think you have a direction, ask your employees what they think.
- Listen to what they have to say — really listen.
- Demonstrate you have heard them.
- Demonstrate that you understand what you have heard.
- Share your findings.
- Articulate the direction.
- Make sure your communication has clarity.
- Be direct.
- Check that the message has been heard as intended.
- Repeat the message.
- Manage expectations: This is uncharted territory and plans may change.
- Provide clear and open channels for communication.
- Take the first step.
- Keep communicating along the journey.
Karen Ferris is an organizational change-management consultant based in Melbourne, Australia. Her opinions are her own.