By Nai Kanell
Vice President of Marketing
SpaceIQ

Going to the office has drastically changed, and that makes workplace policy and facility management more complex. While you’re implementing new safety measures such as social distancing, mask wearing, and disinfecting, don’t forget to include employee sentiment as part of your back-to-work plan.

Employee sentiment matters because this is also a stressful time for employees, and you need to establish trust as they return to work. Generally speaking, stress negatively affects physical and mental health, turnover and absenteeism rates, productivity and motivation, morale and complaints, and even on-site accidents. The world is dealing with collective trauma, and your back-to-work plans can exacerbate or diminish those challenges.

Employees understand that the coronavirus is dangerous. They may be familiar with well-documented cases of workplace infection and feel vulnerable to catching the virus or spreading it to others. They may worry that they are putting their lives on the line to come to work. Listen to their concerns and ideas and take them into consideration when you make your back-to-work plans. When you ask them to risk coming into the office, your actions should reassure your employees that you’re worthy of their trust and that you’re working to reduce that risk.

Employee Sentiment Matters

Your hard work and good intentions for reentry planning won’t mean much if those plans don’t match employee needs. In a recent Future Workplace survey, employee experience ranked first among 50% of HR and business leaders as their top initiative for 2020. Since a high percentage of employees are anxious about returning to work, employers can’t afford to ignore employee sentiment.

Most employees feel job-related stress at least some of the time. When you add in COVID-19-related challenges, the stress may be difficult to manage. Although you may think you are doing an excellent job following CDC guidelines or even going beyond recommendations, that may not be enough for some employees, especially those with health concerns or extra COVID-19-related responsibilities.

Unlike momentary stress such as a looming deadline or an important presentation, COVID-19 stress is chronic, unrelenting, and can directly impact the workplace. It’s safe to assume your employees will be stressed at least some of the time. They may experience physical and emotional symptoms of their stress.

Although most remote workers continue to be productive at home, three factors (in addition to safety and security) influence well-being and work effectiveness: trusting relationships, social cohesion, and individual effectiveness. Employees who feel they can share their experiences and concerns without repercussions will feel safer in the workplace, and this can positively impact performance.  It’s not just about creating a physically safe working environment. You also need to create an emotionally safe workplace.

A cookie-cutter approach won’t suit everyone’s needs. If you listen to your employees and respond appropriately, they will appreciate your efforts. They will remember that you cared about them and their needs during a crisis, which can earn you employee loyalty and trust for years to come.

Gauging Employee Sentiment

You can create both formal and informal listening opportunities. The easiest way to get a lot of information quickly is to use workplace reentry surveys. Surveys make it easy for employees to respond quickly and to do so at their own convenience.

Start by gathering feedback about four main areas:

  • Physical Workplace: social distancing, mask wearing and enforcement, cleaning/hygiene, health screenings and contact tracing, ventilation
  • Remote Working: IT support, software/hardware issues, communication, manager oversight, performance and expectations
  • Work-Life Balance: personal health concerns, child care, homeschooling, elder care, household unemployment/illness, anxiety/depression, trust in management
  • HR Policies: compensation, access to FFRCA funds, sick leave, bereavement leave, vacation days, health insurance (including contract/part-time workers)

It’s critical to assess what employees know and how they feel. Do they understand your policies? Are they aware of your efforts to promote safety? Are they doing well emotionally? Do they feel safe confiding their concerns? Doing so will allow you to determine if you have been communicating well and whether your employees believe your workplace is a physically and emotionally safe place to work.

Listen to Your Employees

Even when you implement safety measures, it may not be enough for all your employees to feel safe. This holds true nationally, where one survey shows that fewer than half of employees say safety measures like social distancing will make them feel more comfortable returning to work.

Whether you’re gathering data from surveys or personal interviews, communication will help employees learn more about their individual circumstances, some of which may affect work. An employee living with medically fragile people, for example, may be more cautious than others. A parent with elementary-aged children may appreciate flexible hours.

Survey data can provide valuable insight. You can use sample employee sentiment surveys or create your own using survey software or Google forms.

You may also want to interview your employees individually and institute an open-door policy. Listening closely can help you understand your employees’ needs and circumstances. Interviews can provide qualitative data that surveys miss and allow you to ask follow-up questions. Through your actions, you can show your empathy and help your employees trust that you care about them.

Communicate Early and Often

In a rapidly changing environment, emotions are strong. Uncertainty and change are hotbeds for anxiety, stress, and depression. Keep your employees informed of situations both inside and outside the workplace to provide reassurance. Even if it’s bad news, employees will respond better to the truth, especially when it’s delivered early. They will grow to trust you as a source of accurate information, and employees will appreciate extra planning time when you give them advance notice of changes.

Don’t forget employee  mental health. Help them recognize the signs of stress and provide resources for mental health aids and intervention. Inform them about your workplace’s mental health benefits and hotlines. Consider virtual socializing opportunities to help employees connect with each other. Refer employees to mental health apps that can help manage anxiety. Cultivate a safe place for employees to share their concerns.

Above all, keep the lines of communication open. It’s particularly important for remote employees to maintain a strong connection with the office. Whether you use email, task management software, apps, and/or other tools, maintain IT support and use the same tools consistently so that you and your employees can respond quickly if a crisis arises.

Sometimes, bad news is inevitable. Your decisions may be unpopular. Even when you try to be as flexible as possible, some situations are beyond your control. When you communicate your decision-making process, show that you’ve taken employee concerns into consideration. Modeling honesty and transparency will help your employees do the same with you, and this will help you create a better employee experience.

The COVID-19 situation is difficult for everyone at the office. When you’re planning workplace reentry, risk and uncertainty can create high levels of anxiety in an already stressful situation. If you take the time to listen to employees, gauging employee sentiment will help you create an effective, responsive back-to-work plan, and build a higher level of communication and trust.

Keep reading: 10 Tips for a Safe Return to the Workplace