Many employees were anxious to get back to work in order to preserve some sense of normalcy and try to jump start the economy in this unprecedented era of COVID-19. But let’s face it, there is nothing normal about this new reality. The new workplace includes stringent procedures for personal protective equipment, increased cleaning protocols, temperature screenings, physical barriers, layout distancing, staggering shifts, and a continuation of a variety of work locations for remote and non-remote workers.
Some have argued these returns and openings came too soon, while others argue they came too late. Even though people were eager to get back to work, they are still worried about the risk of getting sick. The reality of the situation is that 64% of the US workforce is still not comfortable going back to work even with the safety measures in place. (“Ready They’re Not: New Citrix Survey Finds Employees Reluctant to Return to Office,” May 13, 2020.) It is not just because the protective equipment is hot and difficult to work in, especially as the summer months approach, but also because many of the social distancing protocols minimize the benefits of collaboration and connection to peers. Human beings thrive on these interactions and without them, stress levels can increase while productivity and comfort levels decrease.
What can employers do? The main goal for any organization is to create and/or sell a quality product or service that doesn’t compromise the safety and well-being of employees or customers. This sense of security starts with trust. There is a correlation between employees following the regulations put in place to minimize the risk of infection and the feeling of safety and security by employees. If employers can prove to employees that they are truly concerned about their health and safety and, if by doing so, employees feel safe, then employees will be much more likely to follow the guidelines. This perception of feeling safe will be important along with the mitigation of the real risk of contracting the virus for all employees, no matter their age or circumstance.
How to engender this trust? In order to continue to revive the economy and keep employees working in the COVID era, organizations need to do three things well.
#1) Increase communication efforts. Communication needs to not only be transparent and provide information to employees in a timely manner, but also needs to be personal and individualized. Tailoring messages to key populations, creating communication cascades, and leveraging social media to build relationships and trust with employees and customers are only a start. Continued personal check-ins and regular opportunities for leaders to show care and concern for employees are needed now more than ever.
#2) Train employees on workflow protocols, hygiene processes, and new behaviors. Create learning opportunities in formal training classes as well as by learning from one another. On-the-job learning and sharing will go a long way in building trust and connection. Employees want to be part of the solution and feel that they are equipped to handle the needs of the work environment.
#3) Perform regular pulse checks to monitor stress levels of employees. If possible, utilize your HR team to handle tricky situations and consider expanding mental health resources to support employees as they deal with fear and anxiety about being back to work and the high level of stress that come with COVID-19 work/life issues. The stronger your employees feel physically and emotionally, the easier it will be to overcome the challenges of 2020.
Infrastructure changes and rules alone won’t ensure your employees’ comfort level with being back at work. Safety regulations are dependent on an organization’s ability to strictly enforce those rules and are reliant on individual behavior for success. Individual behavior is much more likely in an organization with an atmosphere of trust. Increased communication efforts, more comprehensive training, and showing care and concern for not only the safety of employees but also their well-being will go a long way in keeping your employees comfortable while back at work.
Could you use some help communicating with your employees? Not sure what kind of training you need? Foundations HR can help. Our consultants have years and years of experience helping organizations deal with crises and cultivating an engaged and committed workforce. Contact us and let us show you how we can assist.
–Leslie Russ, Consultant