COVID-19 and Employee Fear on Returning to the Workplace
By Nai Kanell
Vice President of Marketing
Between stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines, there’s understandable fear of public places during the COVID-19 pandemic. People don’t want to pick up the virus or risk transmitting it to others if they’re an asymptomatic carrier. Despite their avoidance of public places, many people face the prospect of a return to work soon. It’s cause for anxiety and trepidation. Employers need to make strides to proactively address COVID-19 and employee fear on returning to the workplace.
There are a lot of different opportunities for employers to quell fears about returning to the workplace. Even small reassurances go a long way. Here’s what companies can and should do to help mitigate coronavirus concerns as they welcome employees back to work.
Maintain optional remote work opportunities
Just because your city or state has lifted its stay-at-home order doesn’t mean you necessarily need to usher every employee back into the workplace. If your company has remote work protocols in-place, it’s not a bad idea to extend them—especially if employees demonstrated good productivity over the past weeks and months. Allowing employees to continue to work from home can be a goodwill gesture that shows you care.
For companies eager to bring employees back in-house, a hybrid schedule is a great compromise. Bring back your most essential teams, while allowing peripheral teams to telecommute for an extra week or two. Just be careful not to create division in your workplace. A simple solution is to offer an opt-in remote work policy. Employees with anxiety about a quick return can continue to work from home, while those eager to get back into a routine will gladly come to work.
Ease employees back into the workplace
For larger workplaces, a slow return to work can mitigate employee anxiety in a big way. There are many ways to stagger a return to in-house work based on the flexibility of your workplace:
- Bring back one department at a time over a multi-week timeline
- Implement a hybrid work schedule—three days remote vs. two days in-house, or similar
- Scale into capacity through a hybrid schedule, adding another in-house day each week
- Stagger shifts or adopt first and second shift splits to mitigate workplace congestion
Even simple return to work policies can significantly reduce employee fears—for example, scheduling the first shifts back in-house on Thursday or Friday. It’s also smart to coordinate a brief reorientation period, to allow employees to reacclimate without the stress of a full workload.
Make a concerted effort to sanitize
The biggest fear employees have when returning to the workplace is exposure to COVID-19. They want some certainty that reentering a social environment won’t result in a coronavirus diagnosis. While there’s ultimately no guarantee, employers can make a show of sanitizing the workplace.
Create new policies around workplace sanitization and hygiene, and enforce them. Put up signage to remind employees of hand washing and respiratory etiquette. Ensure paper towel, tissue, soap, and hand sanitizer are readily available at key points in the workplace. Encourage employees to disinfect desks and other flat surfaces when they’re done with them.
In addition to these basic sanitization efforts, show employees you’re committed to cleanliness. Inform them of new sanitizing efforts by your janitorial team, or let them know you’ve scheduled more frequent deep cleanings. Employees shouldn’t just feel like they’re working in a clean space, they should know they are.
Open communication channels
Employees have questions and they’ll expect answers. It’s not enough to implement new policies or ease the return to in-house work; companies also need to open the lines of communication. Send out a company-wide memo or host an all-hands meeting and make it clear that your employees have a voice. Some simple suggestions include:
- Hold a Q&A session where employees can ask questions
- Provide an online form or portal where employees can voice concerns
- Host one-on-ones with employees to gauge their feelings
- Provide weekly emails or memos to keep employees informed
Some companies will opt for an open forum-style approach to communication, while others may offer anonymous feedback channels. Regardless of how your organization welcomes employee feedback, the important thing is that you listen to it and act accordingly.
Be aware of employee concerns and act accordingly
Every person is going to process the return to work differently. Address COVID-19 and employee fear on returning to the workplace on an individual basis as-needed. For some, a return to the workplace means a welcome return to normalcy; for others, it’s extremely stressful. Act in a responsible capacity and make concessions where possible.
A structured, organized return to work will yield best results. Don’t just open the doors and expect things to go back to normal. Make it clear your organization has a plan and execute that plan with an air of confidence and purpose. The smoother the transition, the better the results.
Keep Reading: COVID-19 Workplace Resource Page