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WebMD’s RTO video: it’s mega cringe, but reflects today’s reality

WebMD's return-to-office video is incredibly awkward to watch, but the Evil HR Lady reminds us that it's a great lesson on communication strategies in the modern workplace.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

webmd RTO video

Everyone hates the WebMD come-back-to-the-office video, except for me and perhaps the people who made it. It was actually made by WebMD’s parent company, Internet Brands, but apparently WebMD is the division we all know about, so that’s what is getting the press.

 

Note: this was published publicly on the company’s Vimeo page – but was removed.

Yes, it’s super cringe (as Gen Z would say) and whoever thought of highlighting “Come back now, or else” should probably step out of corporate communications forever. Social media is going haywire over this. It also has 1.3K upvotes on Reddit, and counting.

But it’s kind of growing on me. Here’s why and what you can learn from it.

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You know your culture

I use WebMD all the time to inform me that I have cancer when really, it’s just a cough, but I don’t know much about the company. In fact, this is the first time I’ve thought about the company and the video indicated working for clients and it made me wonder what they do besides run a website.

I bet that you are pretty much like me – you are an end user when you’re not feeling well, but otherwise don’t know anything about the business.

Maybe this is the type of thing they always do. Maybe different departments take turns producing cheesy cringe videos introducing products and services. Maybe people generally love those videos. I mean, “we’re crushing it,” along with the visual of a Dr. Pepper can being crushed? Peak ridiculousness, and I absolutely adore it – in some settings.

Not everything is ready for prime time and maybe the bigger mistake was releasing the video publicly. People who watched it were doing so from afar, with no understanding of the business model and how productivity and engagement are at WebMD.

When you choose to communicate something to your staff at large, make sure you do so with your company culture in mind. And recognize that your quirky culture may not translate to the public at large.

Explain your threats

Normally, I’d tell you not to make threats, but that’s not really best practice. After all, we all work on threats. “If you don’t do your work you won’t get paid” and “if you sexually harass your coworker you’ll be fired” are threats, but we tend to see those just as common sense rules.

The threat in this video – “Come back now, or else” – is vague and is a big problem. Or else what? You’ll make more videos? Employees will have to wear a dunce cap? Or, is it you have to work hybrid or you’ll be fired?

It’s probably the latter. In a statement released to Business Insider, parent company Internet Brands said:

“Our executive team feels strongly that both our company and our employees are more successful when they can collaborate in person. The tone of the video was an intentional decision to keep the topic light and somewhat ironic, in the context of knowing very well that the Return To Office issue can be emotionally charged. Nonetheless, we take our individual and collective productivity seriously and firmly believe the best way to learn and grow is to be together.”

The CEO of Internet Brands, Bob Brisco, said in the video:

“We aren’t asking or negotiating at this point. We’re informing how we need to work together going forward. It’s again for the simple reason that great companies are built by great people working together and seeing each other eye-to-eye and tackling the big task.”

It’s very clear with these statements that “or else” is short for “or else you’ll be fired.”

Avoiding saying the hard part out loud probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but it left out the important information.

Follow-up information made it clear that this is a hybrid plan and not 100% in the office. The video does not make that clear.

Hybrid is my personal favorite way to work. I value in-person relationships and do know that there is magic in working together.

Humans are social beings and that can make a difference in performance. But also, it’s cold and rainy today and I’d rather not go outside and commuting is a pain in the neck.

The message should have kept the cute kitschy message but added in the important details – not just “your manager will contact you.” I suspect that the policy may not be the same across all brands and departments, which is why they didn’t say, “you have to be in the office three days a week starting April 15!”

But the end shot with no one in the video meeting seems to indicate that everyone has to be in the office all the time, rather than the hybrid reality Internet Brands mandates.

Not everyone is right for your company

We talk a lot about culture; this is an example of a company culture that doesn’t appeal to everyone. That’s fine! You don’t need to create an internal video that will appeal to everyone on Twitter and Reddit and even to everyone on Forbes and Business Insider. It needs to appeal to your staff.

A lot of loud people want to work remotely and it’s true you’ll get more applicants if you have 100% remote positions, but most people work onsite – even now. According to Workable’s Great Discontent survey in 2023, the percentage of respondents working remotely is at 41%, down 17 points from 58% in 2021.

It’s not bad to want a hybrid workforce. And it’s not bad if some people don’t want that. Be what you want to be and don’t worry about people who don’t want to work for you.

Even if that is a bit cringe.

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