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Returning to Work after the Lockdown: How Employees Are Feeling

If there is anything more extraordinary than shutting down an entire planet to mitigate a disease that is spreading rapidly, it is preparing the same planet to return to work as usual. As part of our COVID-19 weekly pulse survey, O.C. Tanner conducted a study in early May of 1,436 employees in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom to determine general attitudes about returning to work after quarantine. While a significant number of organizations have reopened to the public—a 28% week-over-week increase—or resumed their normal operations—a 31% week-over-week increase—the overwhelming majority of employees feels it’s not yet safe to return to work.

This perception of unpreparedness has fostered another feeling among employees: fear. Only 22% of employees feel it is presently safe to return to work, and seven in ten (67%) employees are genuinely worried about returning to work too soon. These statistics are concerning; no business wants employees to fear for their safety, and forcing employees to expose themselves to risk can be downright traumatic.

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Additionally, when employees felt their organization was unprepared for returning to the office or the resumption of “normal,” and were forced to return, we saw impacts such as:

  • Increase in fearfulness (46% increase)
  • Increase in reporting a tense work atmosphere (23% increase)
  • Decrease in engagement (31% decrease)
  • Decrease in trust in leaders to consider their wellbeing (23% decrease)

And yet, businesses will need to reopen, so how can businesses navigate the reopening process while assuaging employee concerns?

  1. Testing. A common fear among employees is asymptomatic carriers. It is quite possible that an employee could return to work and unknowingly spread the virus. Employees are fearful of being patient zero in their organization, and being exposed to patient zero. Our research demonstrates that employees may not move past their fearfulness without robust local and state testing regimens.
  2. Listen to local authorities. The pandemic has suffered from inconsistent messaging from the outset, and that’s engendered confusion and anxiety. While different levels of government can’t agree on everything from mandatory mask rules to what designates a business as “essential,” employees strongly favor the guidance of local government officials. This may be because local authorities are perceived to be more closely aligned with their constituents due to sheer proximity. Whatever the reason, ensure to consider guidance from local officials, as your employees are listening closely to them.
  3. Detail safety practices. Safety practices have decreased by 15% week over week. This is concerning, given that COVID-19 cases are still rising in many parts of the country and the broader global community. Articulate precisely what safety procedures your workplace will be following, then communicate and enforce those procedures. Employees will be much more comfortable returning to the office if they receive visual confirmation of these safety procedures being followed; implement social distancing, mask wearing, and rigorous cleaning.
  4. Ask for volunteers. Instead of requiring employees to return to work, consider instead asking for volunteers. Your employees should be given the choice to return to work or allow others to take their place.
  5. Be empathetic and default to kindness. It can be frustrating for leaders to have employees unwilling to return to the office or resume “normal” business operations. It can also be easy to default to performance management conversations. Instead, train leaders to approach situations empathetically and listen to why employees are concerned. Our research has found that nearly half of employees are at-risk or live with someone who is. After listening, build an individual plan to help support the employee while balancing business needs. Weekly one-to-ones are a great place to touch-base and follow-up on each individual plan.

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When it comes to returning to work, timing and safety will be everything. While waiting too long to open could negatively impact the bottom line, most employees feel it’s simply too soon to return — 36% feel waiting another 2+ weeks is wise, and 40% think it’s smart to wait at least another month to reopen.

When you do consider reopening, make sure your employees feel safe, and take visible steps to ensure their safety. Listen to their feedback, bearing in mind some employees may be more vulnerable than others. And don’t let those safety procedures slide; we’re not out of the woods just yet.