Return-to-Workplace: Employee Communications Strategies and Lessons Learned

As employers the world over look to return employees to the worksite, there are dozens of steps to consider to mitigate the potential risk of COVID-19 infection and support the overall well-being of the workforce.


June 08, 2020

Employers should be prepared to address several aspects of a safe return to work strategy, including decisions on who should return to work and when, procurement of personal protective equipment, worksite readiness, and how to communicate these changes to employees and their families.

The unprecedented nature and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic and the speed with which it engulfed states and countries, impacting every aspect of life, created a unique set of communication challenges and opportunities. Employers, just like public officials and leaders, had to quickly develop and adjust existing communication processes to generate accurate, timely and consistent messaging. In many instances, new communication channels were deployed to keep employees abreast of the developing health crisis and the impact it was going to have on their professional lives, as well as on their health and well-being resources. Finding the right balance in communications, in terms of both frequency and content, as well as identifying reliable sources that could be vetted properly, quickly became a challenge the employers had to address and solve. This section of the RTW Employer Guide summarizes the best practices adopted by many Business Group on Health members for communicating effectively during the pandemic.

Creating Communications

Almost uniformly, large employers relied on their COVID-19 response teams to play a role in generating and vetting the pandemic response communications. Many established multidisciplinary teams early in the pandemic. Those teams, composed of functional leads from many parts of the organization, are often tasked with creating or reviewing all communications. This practice ensures consistency of communications with the company-wide COVID-19 response strategy and appropriate timing so that nothing is communicated broadly before final decisions are reached.

For employers with a global workforce, most are taking an enterprise- wide approach with their communication strategy. As one member noted, “an employee in Brazil is just as important as an employee in the U.S.” As the stage of the virus’ spread will vary across geographies, so too will public messaging and local requirements. These variables, combined with the cultural and language differences, require a globally aligned message that is tailored to local needs.

Identifying reliable, aggregated and up to date pandemic information sources is essential for employers monitoring the rapidly changing situation in states and countries they operate in. Some of the better-known sources include:

>Some of the best practices for creating and effectively distributing pandemic- related communications, as shared by our members, include:

  • Being proactive, communicating early and frequently.
  • Treating any internal communications as if they may become external.
  • Acknowledging potential for change and for revised recommendations. If changes in previously communicated guidelines occur, ensuring that the reasons for these changes are explained and scientific sources cited.
  • Being transparent about who is part of the pandemic response team, their expertise and the use of reliable external information sources to drive decision-making.
  • Creating weekly touchpoints with all HR members to ensure consistency of messaging.
  • Acknowledging regional and country differences. Because most companies use an enterprise-wide communications strategy, this often means that certain messages need to be added or adapted for a specific set of local conditions or sensitivities.
We're All in This Together 

Communicate early and frequently, with the goal of encouraging safety awareness, protecting each other and assuming shared responsibility for safe practices and risk mitigation. Employee buy-in to the new, shared culture of safety is the best guarantee for compliance and can reduce the need to address outlier situations.

Adopting the Omni Channel Approach to Disseminate Information

Reaching employees and their families during the pandemic presents a unique challenge. Most employers have relied on their internal resources and expertise to create communications and identify the best channels for communicating. However, some have recognized that their existing vendors, specifically those responsible for engagement platforms or otherwise involved with  contacting members, have quickly begun developing capabilities to customize and target communications based on the challenges and needs unique to the pandemic. Some ways to change your communications by population include adjusting the message geographically, adjusting the message by job class, addressing those on-site and those working from home, and creating separate sets of communications for leaders. Such targeted messaging may be possible by deploying the same principles of customizing communications that have been used to personalize the benefit program messaging.

Involvement of C-Suite members in COVID-19 response messaging helps demonstrate strong leadership, adds to the perceived importance of the changes being conveyed and can ensure consistency of messaging across the organization.

  • Emails coming from the same address or individual, possibly at a consistent frequency/time;
  • Webinars involving the trusted partners and expert voices in conveying the message and creating a direct opportunity to ask questions;
  • FAQs informed by employee feedback and questions received through the dedicated employee communication channels/ inboxes;
  • Virtual townhalls; and
  • Engaging Employee Resource Group (ERG) networks.

Many employers created a go-to place for all COVID-19 related- information, utilizing familiar and frequently accessed sites such as an HR portal or time reporting apps, as well as consistent signage for those who have remained at the worksite or returned recently. Such websites and signage need to be updated frequently, and communication teams should be mindful of removing information no longer relevant in a timely fashion.

Employer best practice: “Create one source of truth across the entire company

David Nill, MD, Vice President and Chief Medical Officer - Healthe at Cerner Corporation

Be Mindful of the Benefits of 360o Communications:

Establishing an inbox or designated contact dedicated to workplace-related issues during the pandemic gives employees a channel to communicate their concerns and ask questions directly to those who drive the pandemic response. Those assigned to monitor the inbox and respond to inquiries should be familiar with the overall communication strategy. Questions received can inform published FAQs.

Deploying employee surveys can also help gather feedback and monitor employee response to the communication efforts and strategies.

Communications Content

The communication strategy and priorities are likely to evolve as workplaces move through the various stages of reopening. Examples of communications necessary in those different stages include:

Preopening Stage

  • Clearly communicate the workplace reopening plans, what your decisions are and what are they based on.
  • Include information about any changes in policies, including work- at- home policies.
  • Provide information about existing and new resources available to employees, including health plan resources, wellness information, financial support and childcare.

Reopening Stage

  • Anticipate changes needed in the workspace and worksite access protocols.
  • Provide training for any employees whose job may require modification.
  • If worksite reopening is occurring in phases, communicate which metrics trigger the next phase and the duration of each reopening phase to allow your employees to plan accordingly and inform you about any return- to- work concerns or limitations. During these highly uncertain times, creating structure and a level of predictability can reduce anxiety.
  • Prepare information about all revised policies that impact the return- to- work process, including reporting time, leave policies and any job-specific guidelines.

Post- worksite Opening/Staying Open Stage

  • Circulate general information about identified virus exposure that may require modification in workplace procedures or even lead to temporarily closure. Such facility- wide communications should include an appropriate level of detail, making such information actionable, but also protect the privacy of impacted workers. Employers that have implemented contact tracing procedures will supplement general communication with individual outreach to those employees affected directly by the exposure.
  • Clarify any local or new information that may be inconsistent with company guidelines. For example, in response to OSHA’s (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) a statement about face coverings not being mandatory, organizations that do mandate on-site PPE/face mask usage may want to issue an explanation for why such measures are deemed necessary.
  • Issue country- specific communications when local laws or guidelines may conflict with companywide procedures communicated in connection with the worksite opening.

When creating effective communications, it is important to acknowledge the goals and scope of these messages. As there are many related implications to the pandemic, COVID-19 related-communications should not be limited to the response to the disease and changes to the worksite that need to be made before reopening. This challenging time is an opportunity to continue conversations about mental health and reinforce the importance of engaging in employer programs available to employees.

Effective Communications Enhance Compliance

Build trust. Reinforce culture of safety. Connect your message to company values, images, and mission statements. Use your brand to create a sense of common purpose in mitigating risk and getting through this together.

Even the best designed on-site safety protocols will not be effective without employee buy-in. Communications serve as an important tool in changing the culture of the workplace in response to the pandemic. Coming to work ill, especially with virus- like symptoms, should no longer be a badge of honor. Caring for one another, fostering a sense of community and dependence on the actions of others for ensuring your own safety will create a safer environment than any disciplinary action. Reminding workers of new or revised sick leave policies may also go a long way in addressing concerns of lost pay due to illness.

Educating employees about what constitutes virus exposure risk can also go a long way toward easing some of the worksite anxiety. Therefore, employers should consider clarifying that not all situations create an equal risk of exposure and should further reinforce best practices and situations to avoid. Using emerging scientific data to inform such communications and present it in clear language (explicitly citing length of exposure/ distance/ the degree to which masks can reduce exposure) adds to credibility and effectiveness of your messaging.


Psychological safety is just as important as physical safety. Acknowledging limitations can build trust. Furthermore, reinforce that we are navigating this pandemic together and that the risk of community spread cannot be eliminated. The success of any risk- mitigating factors and adoption of safe reopening procedures largely depends on the effectiveness and thoughtfulness of the pandemic communication strategy.

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  1. Creating Communications
  2. Adopting the Omni Channel Approach to Disseminate Information
  3. Communications Content
  4. Effective Communications Enhance Compliance
  5. Conclusion