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The Covid-19 pandemic upended every facet of life – particularly work life for countless people. Many association staffers have been warily eyeing the ongoing, ever-evolving “Return to Office” (or “RTO”) plans which have, over the years, changed. The Delta and Omicron variants threw a wrench in many RTO plans, leaving most workplaces scrambling to return to the drawing board. 

So what do association leaders need to keep in mind as they start their return to office planning? 

The key to successful leadership techniques appears to be that old chestnut, good communication. Principally, effective communication shows that you respect your employees enough to give them the whole picture. And when employees know they can expect good communication from those at the top of the chain, then everybody wins, because respect is a two-way street.  

1. Communicate Clearly

Calm and clear communication is essential. When you communicate clearly, your team knows what to expect. Effective communication looks like: 

  • Simple and straightforward language
  • Active listening
  • Engaged interaction

When preparing communication about RTO, make a “clear communication checklist” for yourself, which can include preparing your message, choosing your words carefully and reinforcing the message. 

Pat Barron, the co-founder of a start-up in St. Louis, Missouri, stresses the importance of clear communication with employees. He says, “The pandemic underscored the importance of clear and effective communication from leaders to employees. It’s critical to continue that strong communication during the return to office process so that your employees know what’s coming and so that they feel they can trust you and trust the process.”.

Trust in an association’s leadership is the byproduct of clear communication. And employees need to have a sense of trust and psychological safety to thrive at work. Along with clear communication, showing flexibility in your leadership style amid RTO planning is a smart move, too. 

2. Prepare to Meet Resistance

While clear communication and flexibility are key, brace yourself for possible resistance during RTO efforts. The Harvard Business Review acknowledges the resistance many companies will face, writing, “Leaders argue for a resumption of in-person work because it enhances collaboration and innovation. But many employees are balking. They liked the flexibility, autonomy, and feelings of safety that came with working remotely.” 

Everyone’s lives have changed dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people lost their jobs, experienced the death of loved ones to the virus, and coped with the daily anxiety of life amid a global pandemic with a mutating virus. In short, people see things differently now because we’re all a little bit changed by this experience. Also, many have grown accustomed to working from home.

As a result, you may be met with some resistance and hesitation around RTO plans. Some people aren’t emotionally or mentally ready to work in person again. Others may raise concerns about in-house safety precautions at the office, wondering if masks will be required and if employees will be required to show proof of vaccination

Good leadership amid anxiety requires a calm and steady hand and one that’s unfazed by the inevitable resistance. Prepare yourself for the likelihood that employees will have questions about the RTO plan, and some may also have criticisms of the RTO plan. 

3. Understand the Limitations

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to evolve, so there are limitations around what associations can do when laying out the RTO plan. The unpredictability of the pandemic and the virus’s mutation poses ongoing limitations. 

However, if leadership can lead with a plan, communicate clearly, prepare to meet resistance and know their limitations, then you are setting yourself up for success in the eyes of your employees. 

No one likes to feel they’re left in the dark, and that’s especially true in one’s work life. Lead your association’s RTO plan effectively by communicating it every step of the way. Your employees will thank you for it, and their sense of trust in the organization will increase, too.

Anne McCarthy
Post by Anne McCarthy
March 10, 2022
Anne McCarthy is a freelance journalist who reports on tech and culture. She is a contributing writer to the BBC, The Guardian, WIRED, Teen Vogue, Ms. Magazine, and more.