Your executive leadership made the decision to return to the office. Now what? You might think your team can flip a switch and show up to the office tomorrow like the previous 16 months of remote work never happened. However, you owe it to your employees to have a well-thought-out transition plan. 

Returning to the office and a sense of normalcy shouldn’t just be about dollars and cents. You also want to make sure that your team knows this wasn’t a decision made haphazardly. You could build a comprehensive playbook like Dow, a materials science company, did for its workforce. But don’t worry if your plan doesn’t have the same level of detail.

We’ve already written some great posts about all the preparation required to go back to a hybrid workplace and provided a 30-day return-to-work checklist. Today’s post gives you some tips on devising a “soft launch” for your return to work strategy.

How to soft launch your team’s return to the office

Step 1: Distribute your return to office plan

Announcing your return-to-work plan will trigger a broad reaction and mix of emotions — joy, anxiety, and uncertainty all come to mind. You should welcome and encourage employee feedback throughout the soft launch process so you can create a plan that’s fair for everyone. Emphasize the positive aspects of returning to in-person work, like increased collaboration and connecting with coworkers.

The official announcement should be done simultaneously company-wide, ideally through an all-hands meeting. Follow it up by pinning the announcement in company messaging programs (e.g., Slack and Microsoft Teams), your intranet, and your human resources system. Any updates or changes along the way should be reflected in these channels as well. Make sure information can get to employees who may lack regular access to certain channels, such as your company intranet. Work with your human resources team to determine the best channel mix to support all employees.

It’s best to provide employees the return-to-office details as soon as they’re finalized, ideally at least one month in advance of the effective reopening date. This gives teams time to mentally prepare themselves for the transition and coordinate the necessary steps to get set up.

In all communications, you must be empathetic to employees’ well-being. Address common concerns like the potential increase in COVID-19 cases after returning to the office, along with any worries about exposing unvaccinated family members. Jacob Hirsh, associate professor at the University of Toronto, states:

“[Employees] need to see that there’s a competent and well-thought-out plan ... And that plan should consider their needs. Make the connection between the expectations for the return and the concerns they’ve shared with you, for example saying something like, ‘We understand that some of you have reservations and those make sense. To address those, we’ve…’. Again, you want people to feel heard and considered.”

Remember, a return to the office is a positive step towards recapturing a sense of normalcy, improving team dynamics and company culture, and hopefully, benefiting the bottom line. If you ignore team feedback, you’re inviting resistance to an otherwise well-intentioned plan.

Step 2: Collect team feedback

Continuous feedback is necessary to any return-to-office plan. For starters, establish a dedicated committee and email address for employees to voice their suggestions and concerns. 

The committee will disseminate information to employees and take the burden off local leaders regarding difficult decisions or negative feedback. Setting up a new email address to be managed by HR or the communications team will keep all records of employee feedback separate from other inquiries. 

Send out online surveys periodically using Google Forms or SurveyMonkey — submissions can be anonymous, the forms are customizable, and the responses are easy to interpret. Additionally, host office hours with HR and executives over video. These calls could be structured like a town hall meeting so the entire company can gather and get answers from the top about the return-to-office plan. Another option is CultureAmp, says Citrix’s Jenna Geigerman, Director, Real Estate & Strategy:

"As we prepare to return to the office, we solicit employee feedback via the CultureAmp survey tool to understand work location and in-office frequency preferences for Phase 3 (up to 50% occupancy), especially since coming in the office during Phase 3 remains optional.  That data helps us to determine the amount of space to open and to identify concerns and issues on adopting a flexible workstyle so we can address those prior to Day 1.  The results are communicated to managers and woven into employee updates as we prepare for the office opening.”

Finally, team leaders should hold smaller department meetings where direct reports can be open and honest, then forward the feedback to the appointed committee. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing their concerns publicly, so offering ways to speak to their manager instead of HR or C-level executives is important. In all channels, you want to establish feedback loops so employees’ concerns are heard and addressed. A listening component can turn your employee communication into a two-way conversation instead of a one-way lecture, and all employees then become part of the solution.

5 Steps to Soft Launch Your Team's Return to the Office 2
Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

Step 3: Communicate frequently and strategically

Think of your soft launch communication plan like a new product announcement. You’ll initially meet on a weekly basis and increase frequency in the weeks leading up to the reopening. 

The first committee meeting should outline the main points of the soft launch, how to relay information to employees, and the expected return-to-office date. As the date approaches, schedule bi-weekly check-ins to update the team on any county or state guidance and how it pertains to the plan. 

In the days leading up to your grand reopening, hold daily standups with executive leadership and everyone involved in the planning process. This ensures everyone is aware of what time to arrive in the office, as well as last-minute reminders on health and safety protocol.

As part of your soft launch, distribute a video to clarify what employees can expect in the office, model desired behaviors (e.g., mask-wearing and physical distancing), and answer common questions like, “How frequently will the office space be cleaned?”, “How will team meetings account for social distancing protocols?”, and “Where will I eat lunch?” A video is also a great way to provide instructions for returning company equipment used to work from home, like monitors and desk chairs. 

Train all employees on COVID-19 health and safety protocols as things will likely have changed since they were last in the office. Keep a record of the training and safety information provided so that leadership knows who’s up to date on procedures and cleared to be in-office. 

Develop and communicate a re-exit strategy in case employees must return to a fully remote model overnight. Working with human resources and IT, prepare messages to be shared with employees should a future workplace closure become necessary.

Going remote at the start of the pandemic was a shock to most people and a tough adjustment for many. Building a re-exit strategy into your soft launch plan will minimize the hurdles and stress of another drastic change. That said, continue to make remote work best practices available, and support on-site employees in connecting and collaborating with their remote-working peers.

Step 4: Consider off-site gatherings 

Your soft launch plan shouldn’t be limited to the office. A fantastic way to transition people back from a remote-exclusive environment is to coordinate team get-togethers before reopening. Off-site team lunches (like a picnic or reserving a private room in a restaurant) are wonderful opportunities to bring the team together in a social setting. 

If lunch isn’t in your plans, consider a group activity such as an escape room, scavenger hunt, or volunteering at a food shelter or beach cleanup. These options give everyone the chance to meet coworkers and new team members in person for the first time and ease back into face-to-face communication.

Step 5: Welcome people back to the office

The first day back shouldn’t be like any other day. Executive leadership and senior-level management should be present when employees return to in-person work to greet people as they enter the building. Open all doors (where feasible) to reduce points of contact. Feature a scrolling marquee with welcome back messages and balloons at the front door. 

Remember, this is the first time they’ve been back since March 2020 — and for employees hired during the pandemic, this is the first time they’re stepping foot on the premises, so you want to make a great impression. 

Welcome back swag bags give you the opportunity to share a small token of appreciation. A combination of coffee gift cards, personalized mugs, Rocketbook cloud notebooks, hand sanitizer, and a cloth facemask would work well. Not only do these encourage sanitary practices in the office, but they also inspire productivity in the changing work environment. Ultimately, the first few days back in the office will feel like employee onboarding all over again, so be patient as everyone gets acclimated.

Soft launch your return to the office with Wrike

There’s no "one size fits all" approach for heading back to the office, but a documented soft launch strategy will make the process go smoother. A soft launch will help you gauge what’s most important to team members and how the return to office can be successful for everyone. Have a “people first, safety first” approach with open lines of communication and be willing to accept and implement their feedback as you go along. 

When you’re ready to put your soft launch into place, coordinate all the details in Wrike. With custom workflows, interactive Gantt charts, shareable dashboards, and more, no other collaborative work management platform can compare.