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Are You Sure You’re Ready for Employees to Return to the Office?

You’ve been in the throes of planning for some type of ‘return to office’ for the better part of a year now—and it’s almost time to execute on your plans. You’ve spent hours thinking through who should come back to the office (check!), when they should come back to the office (check!), whether employees and others on-site will be required to be vaccinated (check!), and how you will handle unforeseen issues as they come up (check!), among many other things.

But what plans are in place for your employees’ impending next (or in some cases first) Day One in the office? How will they be welcomed? What awaits them after they get in the door?

A well thought out reboarding plan may be just what you need.


Many returning employees were part of your organization prior to the pandemic. However, workers have experienced a great deal since the pandemic began, so for many, this will feel like a brand-new start. They’ve had time to think and reevaluate whether your organization is the place for them—many are still in that process.

Reboarding offers the opportunity to remotivate, refocus, and reassure employees as they embark on the next phase of work. In addition, the reboarding process when done well restores camaraderie, connection, communication, and community, as well as strengthens ties to the business and among team members. Reboarding is also an opportunity to reconnect with the company culture, along with the organization's values, vision, and mission.

As employees are asked to make yet another change, it is imperative to consider the steps being taken to re-instill your cultural values, reconnect the leadership team to your employees, provide opportunities for employees to reconnect with each other, and ensure all are confident that the work environment is a healthy and safe place to be.

But what does reboarding mean, especially as it pertains to returning to an office after a pandemic? Where should organizations start?

Employee well-being

First, organizations must start by addressing employee health and safety concerns. Though more and more individuals are getting vaccinated, for many people, anxiety regarding the pandemic is still a factor, especially with the emergence of the new Omicron strain.

Reboarding should reassure employees that company leadership has made plans that are aligned to the latest guidelines and protocols to keep everyone healthy and safe. Leaders must be clear about the masks, social distancing, sanitization, and disinfection policies in place as employees, clients, and customers return. Managers must be equipped to have conversations about health and safety, some of which might be difficult and perhaps about decisions with which they don’t agree. Remember that employees don’t have as much information as you do around the steps that have been taken to assure employee safety is a top priority, so it is of utmost importance that this information be shared regularly and often.

Communicate, communicate, and communicate

From Cube to Cloud ReportContrary to what some may have thought would happen, over the course of the past 18 months, the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) has seen a rise in overall employee engagement. Specifically, in the member-exclusive study From Cube to CloudTM, respondents noted that since the onset of the pandemic (and expansion of flexible work),

  • 47% reported that employee engagement increased/increased significantly
  • 47% said employee connection to organizational purpose/mission became stronger/much stronger
  • 45% said that their organizational cultures became stronger/much stronger

These results were due in large part to the increased transparency and communication delivered to the workforce by senior leaders during the crisis.

As you head into the next phase of work, take the time to assess what your organization did differently to drive increased engagement, connection to purpose, and culture. Hang onto and lever up those things that positively impacted employees the most. Doing anything else risks being perceived as taking something away, likely negatively impacting employee connection to the organization.

Employees returning to the office also provides the opportunity to reinforce the organization’s mission, vision, and values, so be sure to include these in your communications to assist employees to reconnect with the why of the organization. Reminding and reinforcing these things now will help stave off a potential wave of resignations.

Immediate suggestion to ensure this base is covered include:

  • Plan a welcome back all-hands sometime during the first day/week back that includes all employees, regardless of location. As part of the all-hands message, reinforce your organization’s mission, vision, and values.
  • Ask the CEO or CHRO to email a welcome to our next phase of work note to all employees. In this note, reinforce the why behind the decisions made around the next phase of work for your organization.
  • For the first week or two, place someone (ideally a leader or company ambassador) at each entrance to welcome people in and make sure they know where to go/don’t have issues getting past the badge reader etc. Nothing says “you’re not valued” more than being unable to enter the building.
  • Ensure leaders are visible and available to answer questions as they arise. Management by walking around has never been so important.

Remember that employees will be in various stages of acceptance about being back in the office—so the more welcome they feel, the more energized they will be.

Prepare managers

The importance of the role of the manager as people return to the office has been amplified, so it is imperative that they have the tools and resources they need to effectively lead hybrid teams.

Getting Hybrid Work right managers guideIn i4cp’s member-exclusive Getting Hybrid Work Right Manager Guide, you’ll find a wide range of tools and thought starters to assist managers in doubling down on capabilities such as empathy and understanding, technological savvy, inclusivity and transparency, purposeful connection and collaboration as well as development of talent.

In addition, i4cp’s onboarding and reboarding series, which is a collection of resources including a comprehensive timeline toolkit created by i4cp, guides, templates, examples of best practices in organizations including Ford Motor Co., Microsoft, DocuSign, and Toyota North America, and benchmarking data is also available to members. 

Keep in mind the needs of managers—perhaps consider creating forums for people leaders to purposefully connect with each other to help one another with questions, concerns, etc. Small peer groups can go a long way in ensuring managers feel a stronger sense of community with their peers and that they have a safe space to ask questions of one another. Remember to check in with managers across the organization regularly. There’s a lot more on their plate now than ever before, and a little understanding will mean a lot.

Work environment

Imagine you’ve spent all this time working from the comfort of home and now you’ve made the trip to the office with great anticipation. You walk in and what do you see? Plants that haven’t been watered in almost two years? Old and likely moldy food in the fridge? Scattered half-filled coffee cups?

OR – have you taken the time to create a warm and welcoming environment?

This may sound incredibly basic—but can be easily overlooked.

Some suggestions:

  • Work with your facilities team to ensure dead plants are removed and/or replaced.
  • Make sure the kitchen areas are cleaned up and restocked, and investigate what’s left in the fridge for anything that should be tossed.
  • Turn on the heat or air conditioning to the right temperature so that your employees are comfortable right away.
  • Make sure the lights or light motion sensors are on, so people aren’t walking into a dark office space.
  • Verify badge readers work and have a contingency plan in case there are issues.
  • Ensure in advance that all technology needed is available and in working order (test it—don’t just look at it!).

Creating a welcoming environment can go a long way in setting the stage for a successful re-entry.

Final thoughts

Keep in mind that not everyone in the organization has been part of the conversations leading to the decisions made around hybrid work. Ensuring employees feel safe and welcome, that they have opportunities to reconnect with the organization’s mission, vision, and values, that they have easily accessible avenues to connect with each other and with leadership, and that managers are prepared for new types of conversations, all make for a solid start to the reboarding process. You’ve worked so hard to get here—now is not the time to drop the ball.

Kari Naimon is an i4cp Senior Research Analyst