Is Your Return-to-Work Plan Doomed to Fail? When good change plans go bad, and what to do instead.

It’s all too easy to create the world’s greatest action plan just to see it rendered actionless by a leader or team who “memo-fies” it. No, not mummifies—memo-fies. Yeah, they sound the same, and they both involve taking a once-living thing and fating it to be encased in really high-quality paper products for the duration of their existence. But, at least there’s a chance that something that’s been mummified will come back to life—sadly, that’s not the case when it’s been memo-fied.

As you prepare to roll out or support your organization’s return-to-work plan, be careful not rely on a memo-fication strategy to inform, motivate, and enable people to enact a set of behavioral standards.

What is memo-fication?

Here’s a classic example of what it looks like in real life.

Some months ago, one of my good friends braved the risks of shopping in a pandemic to stock up on needed essentials. Face covering in place, he stepped from the sanctity of his car and moved toward the wild frontier marked “Enter Here.” As he approached the entrance, he couldn’t help but notice a large sign outlining health and safety guidelines, the primary of which was “No mask, no shopping.” Pretty clear.

Once inside however, he found people following a different rule: “No mask, no problem.”  Which ended up being a big problem for many customers and employees.

What about the sign right outside the entrance? Seems like expectations were pretty clear. How about the other signs throughout the store indicating the same thing? And sure, we’re dealing with shifting guidelines and requirements throughout the pandemic, but shouldn’t those signs be enough to get people doing what they’re supposed to be doing?

The ineffectiveness of memo-fication

This strategy is not only a big problem for the people who are supposed to be changing their behavior (the target audience), but also for the people who developed the plan in the first place. In the case of the store, leaders had taken time to create guidelines and safety measures to protect customers and employees, and people were outright ignoring them.

So how do leaders typically respond to lack of change in this situation? By increasing the number and size of the signs (bigger signs make the world go round).

Many leaders succumb to the ease of prettying up new policies or desired behaviors and putting them where people can’t help but see them. After all, once you stretch a person’s mind by informing them of the proper protocol, corresponding new behaviors will soon follow. Seems logical, right?

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

Albert einstein

Well, not quite. In the act of posting the memo, we somehow come to believe we’ve stretched someone’s mind when we’ve only tugged at it a little.

How memo-fication could hurt your return-to-work plan

If you’re at the point of launching your own return-to-work plan, you may be worried that your plan is fated to low compliance like the retail store mentioned above. And if you’re not, maybe you should be.

First of all, understand that the success of your plan will have very little to do with the plan itself. It could be the greatest plan ever devised, and it could still fall short if you memo-fy it instead of preparing employees at all levels to take responsibility to enact the plan.

When you memo-fy something, you take an inanimate artifact (the actual plan with all its corresponding details) and turn it into a well-designed inanimate artifact (the poster/sign) in the hopes that it will bring it to life. It’s a risky play because you’re hoping that after reading your plan, employees or customers will

  1. Know what to do
  2. Be willing to change their behavior
  3. Already have all the skills they need to enact the new behaviors
You shouldn’t post a sign unless you’re willing to back it up

You transfer the responsibility to breathe life into the plan to your employees or customers without providing the support they need to actually do so.

How to move beyond the memo: consider other factors

Wise leaders take a different tack. While most leaders are gearing down once they’ve memo-fied their plan, the best leaders are gearing up. They realize that their people face an abundance of triggers that initiate a series of autopilot behaviors. Autopilot actions override the new behaviors, and nothing changes.

For example, people often leave home without a mask because nothing reminds them to wear a mask. So, by the time they are reminded—at the front door of the store—it’s too late to comply with expected behavior.

When a memo fails to elicit the desired behavior, leaders are often not sure what to do. The thing that was supposed to make life easier for them by informing, instructing, and institutionalizing new behavior is actually making things more difficult because people aren’t conforming—even after the second and third reading. Good leaders understand that the memo is not enough to change behavior. They also need to prepare employees and customers to be motivated and able to do so.

“When a team takes ownership of its problems, the problem gets solved. It is true on the battlefield, it is true in business, and it is true in life.”

Jocko Willink, Extreme Ownership

Here are some things effective leaders do to help employees take responsibility for a plan so it doesn’t become memo-fied.

Look at environment

When you only focus on telling people what they should do without addressing environmental factors that drive behavior, you fuel guilt instead of change. You need to identify and remove those things that trigger unproductive, autopilot behaviors. One of the best ways to do this is to conduct a trigger audit.

Identify the existing triggers of counterproductive behaviors (for example, in the case of a return to work plan, work spaces and meeting rooms that invite close congregation) and add new triggers that make it easy for people to adopt the new behaviors (spaced desks, open meeting spaces). Design the environment so that it causes people to enact the new behaviors without requiring them to think about it.

Practice for perfection

Have people practice the new behaviors. According to McDonald’s Dine-in Reopening Playbook, as the fast-food chain prepared to re-open, they designed practice scenarios that helped employees take responsibility for themselves and others.

They not only practiced safe behaviors. They also practiced what to do when someone else deviated from those behaviors. And since they expected most of those deviations to come from customers, they developed specific scripts related to customer situations and taught employees to use them. They understood that it takes people at all levels holding one another accountable to breathe life into any initiative.

The organization had people practice the scripts and behaviors so they’d be comfortable using them in the moment. This helped them avoid going into autopilot and reverting to old behaviors when things got tough.

“High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”

Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

Show support through actions

It ends with you. Upper management might decide to roll a plan out, but how leaders promote and support the plan helps determine whether others will do their part to make it a reality. People are looking for evidence of your support. It needs to be unmistakably obvious. It’s not enough to voice say you’re on board; you have to back that up with actions. Actions like publicly praising those who confront you in a moment you weren’t adhering to agreed-upon behaviors. Or taking time out of your schedule to participate in practice with people at all levels of the organization. Or even posting the results of a trigger audit that you conducted in your area and what you plan to do about it.


Creating a solid return-to-work plan is the first step to resuming business and opening up your organization safely. Ensure that plan’s success by moving beyond just posting it and hoping everyone falls into step.

You need to shift the responsibility away from the memo and prepare people to take responsibility at all levels. When you enable people to take ownership of the plan, hold others accountable, and bring the plan to life—and that’s when real change starts to happen

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