To re-open now or to re-open later, that is the question.
America is starting to partially re-open for business. A large majority of Americans still have concerns about opening the economy and ending stay-at-home restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus, according to a recent Washington Post/University of Maryland national poll. The Covid-19 epidemic has posed difficult questions, if not a dilemma, for employers about when it would be safe to bring back furloughed and teleworking employees to the workplace.
What can employers do to inspire confidence in the minds of their workers that it will be safe to return to the workplace? The best thing to do is to have a reopening plan with concrete measures for protecting the safety of workers and customers, vendors and other stakeholders. The second is to communicate directly with workers about the plan and get their feedback and suggestions.
In these circumstances, all organizations should expect their staff to have reservations about coming back to the workplace. After all, the virus can strike anyone and anywhere. These concerns need to be taken into consideration when developing reopening plans and a strategy for communicating this to workers.
The employers I have spoken to are grappling with these issues as they think through the timing of opening and how to do it so that workers and customers will feel safe. All are trying to balance the benefits and the risks. Some say they will open when government authorities lift restrictions. Others say they will open only if they feel it would be safe for employees and customers. All agree that engaging staff in the planning process to reopen will be crucial to reducing workplace safety concerns. Here are few suggestions that could help:
Develop an Employee-centered Reopening Plan – At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations had to make plans for handling employees and serving customers remotely or shutting down completely if they were considered to be a non-essential business or service. Reopening will also require a plan. Employees will be eager to return to the workplace, but also concerned about their safety. They will be looking for guidance from their employer’s leadership.
Get Feedback – Employees are gold mines for information about an organization’s workplace culture and what is working with customers and what is not. Find out about what they think about a re-opening plan and solicit their suggestions. There’s lots of ways to do this. Many organizations use employee surveys, virtual townhalls and perhaps the most impactful, individual conversations. The important thing is to be proactive in reaching out to workers.
Communicate, Communicate and Communicate – In a crisis, people can never get enough information. Consumers are using television, radio and Internet use for news and information about the pandemic at record all-time highs. Employees will have the same need for information about reopening plans and updates after the doors open. There is little doubt that we will have a bumpy road ahead of us. Covid-19 infection surges are predicted. The already battered economy could lose more ground and lengthen the recovery. Anxious employees will be better able to deal with upsets and uncertainty if their employer regularly engages them in dialogues about how the organization is doing.
Lead by Example – Organizational leaders will play key roles in setting safety standards in reopened workplaces by being role models. For example, if wearing masks in the workplace is mandatory, leadership from the top on down should be wearing them too. This communicates that no one is exempt from this workspace safety practice, not even executives. Walk the talk!
Employee Safety = Customer and Vendor Safety – An organization’s reopening plan that underscores the safety of its employees as a priority will complement safety measures for its customers, vendors and other important stakeholders. Employees practicing safe behaviors will give stakeholders more confidence that they can safely do business with the organization.
I am encouraged by the number of employers I have encountered who are developing reopening plans and understand the importance of engaging their employees in a conversation about workplace safety. It’s the right first step towards creating a safe workplace for staff to be productive and engaged during these challenging and uncertain times.