PR’s Top Pros Talk… Communicating Return to Workplace
Maura FitzGerald, Founder and Partner, V2 Communications
As the Founder and Partner at V2 Communications, Maura FitzGerald values frequent communication and feedback from employees when it comes to return-to-workplace planning. She emphasizes the increased need for CEOs to be more active in internal and external communications. Maura also underscores the importance of being socially conscious in a fast-paced industry.
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About the Host:
HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: MAURA FITZGERALD
DOUG: So, one of the big issues for people who are fortunate enough to be able to work remotely during the earlier phases of the pandemic, is returning to work. And our guest is going to really give us some great insights about some of the most important things you need to think about. Thanks so much for being with us, Maura.
MAURA: Well, thanks for having me.
DOUG: Great. So, what is your take? What’s the key thing to be thinking about as we return to workplace and different organizations handle it differently?
MAURA: Well, I think obviously the most important thing to think about first is safety. We actually had covidized, if that’s a word, our office last year. And some people elected like me, I worked in the office, all during the pandemic. I’d go in for a couple of days a week. It’s easier for me to work like that from my office and I live across the street. For people who didn’t feel comfortable taking public transportation, that sort of thing, of course, safety was just paramount in their mind. So, I think safety first and then comfort level. You want people to feel that they have a choice. And if they elect to continue to work from home, we can accommodate that, and that we can function as a team and we can function on behalf of clients, regardless of where they’re located geographically. And honestly, Doug, from my perspective, our team has been incredibly successful. We’re having our best year ever and this is with the workforce that’s recently become hybrid. So, I’m not in the office today because we’ve got some construction going on, but I’m going to run over there for our staff meeting at four o’clock, and we’ve got about half the people back in the office. But you want to be sure that they’re feeling productive, they feel like that as a team and in support of clients they can work together regardless of where they’re located.
DOUG: Yeah. So, let’s get into that from a communications standpoint, because obviously some companies, Goldman Sachs was a notable example. They’re coming in with we’re going to be in the office x number of days a week. What are some of the communications challenges, both internally and externally for an organization in navigating the return to work, whether it’s in a hybrid, whether it’s we’re all back or whether it’s work wherever you want to work?
MAURA: Well, I think the first thing that corporate leaders need to recognize is that the needs, the information needs of their audience changes over time. So, when COVID first hit and everybody had to work from home, people needed to hear certain messages and they were receptive to those messages. Now, those messages have shifted from what do you need to work successfully from home to what do you need to be able to come into the office on days when you feel like you can work more effectively from there? And what do you need to work effectively from home? And how can we get those pieces of equipment or those materials into your hands? So, I think the first thing to do is understand what people need to hear. And then, of course, it’s up to us to communicate our messages to our employees with a lot of clarity, a lot of candor, and a lot of frequency. People need to hear from us and need to hear how we’re viewing the workplace amid the pandemic almost on a weekly basis because I’m in Massachusetts and things change really, really, quickly here. And I think that also providing people with the feedback loop, so that they feel like they’re engaging in a dialogue, and they’re not being forced or being issued mandates that they’re not comfortable with. So, I wanted to make sure that people felt like they could respond, and they had an avenue to respond when things changed, and the message changed.
DOUG: Right, having a dispersed workforce, whether some are in, some are out can present additional challenges, any thoughts on how to mitigate some of those aspects? Because even for the people coming in, they’re probably spending way more time on Zoom because they’re unlikely to be meeting clients face to face. Any thoughts on how to mitigate and handle that? And then we’re going to look at leadership.
MAURA: We made an investment in upgrading within the office, we have a Zoom room, it’s really our conference room with video in it, but I’m not sure what our IT people did. I just write the check once they make the recommendation. But we tried to upgrade so that if people were communicating with clients or with one another through Zoom when they were in the office that at least the equipment worked, that they could hear each other, that it was the best we had available to us. So, I think that’s one thing. I feel like it’s become a way of life in a way. You know, personally, for me, it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face communication. And like, for example, I had a client meeting in the office this week, and I’ve got another one on Monday. So, we’re seeing a gradual, return to work based on people’s comfort level. But I think again, making sure that people have the right equipment and making sure that they feel very secure, that there’s no judgment if they prefer to work from home and go get into a meeting via Zoom, whether it’s in the office or at home, that as long as the clients are happy and we’re getting great results for them, we’re perfectly happy to accommodate whatever it is they’d like to do.
DOUG: And obviously for me, since I’m hosting a show that we’re recording over Zoom, I’m pretty comfortable in the medium. Though it does differ for different employees, different people like communicating in different ways, which brings us to the importance of leadership. Obviously, the pandemic and some of the challenges over social justice issues that came up at the same time have made leadership and employee communications more important than ever. Do you have any guidance in those areas?
DOUG: Well, you know, I think going back to what I said earlier, you can’t over communicate. And one of the things I say to my staff, at V2, is that whenever we have a client or a prospect, come to us with an issue, that issue is always rooted in communication. Either marketing isn’t speaking to sales, the developers aren’t speaking to marketing or sales, the CEO isn’t speaking to anyone. So, I think it’s so important to communicate clearly and with a lot of frequency, especially during times like this, when we don’t have physical proximity to each other, it’s so important to just keep that dialogue going. And it’s challenging, it’s very challenging. I think if you can maintain a good dialogue with people and establish a feedback loop so that they feel comfortable giving you that feedback, the turnover will be minimized. People won’t feel disconnected from the workplace. I mean, the statistics about people changing jobs right now, I think there’s an article in Wash Po today about it. It’s shocking, and it’s because people don’t feel connected to work anymore.
DOUG: That’s interesting, and I really like the idea about highlighting the communication issues at the root of when problems arise as a way to enforce communication. You also touched on the CEO communications, and we’ve seen many of our clients are increasingly putting their CEOs out during the satellite media tours we do, getting that communications out there. Has it become more important for the CEOs to be communicating, not just internally but publicly, which is also an avenue that the employees will be hearing?
MAURA: You know, look, Doug, to me, that’s not new. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve always told my clients that it’s part of the CEO’s responsibility as an organizational leader and a brand steward to be out in front of the company. And of course, it’s more important than ever now. You see that employees are becoming very socially conscious. They expect their companies to behave the same way. So, something recently in the news demonstrates how important it is in this age of employee awareness and wokeness. Employees expect their companies to be social stewards, and they expect them to stand for something and to live their values. And I think that what’s going on at Facebook is a good example of that, and the company has seen opinions coming from the workforce that they need to listen to. Talent is scarce and the best companies have the best people, and the best people want to work at the best places. And the best places are not just best places to work, but they’re good social and societal members, and CEO leadership needs to play into that big time.
DOUG: Very well, that’s a great point to leave it on, thanks so much for sharing your ideas. Lots for people to take away from this conversation. Really appreciate it.
MAURA: Well, thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure.