Overcoming Fears of Returning to Work

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Employers, What Worries Are Keeping You Up at Night?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been learning a lot about how worried employees are about returning to work.  They are right to have concerns. But employers are right to be worried too. Let’s look at the return to work (RTW) process from their point of view.

What’s Worrying Employers and What Can They Do?

It’s still too soon to have exhaustive statistics about the most common concerns that employers are feeling. (We are conducting surveys on the question, and we will report findings when they are compiled.)

But even though we have not definitively ranked employers’ top fears yet, we would like to tell you about some that are causing business leaders the most anxiety.

Concern: Physical and Physiological Well-being of Employees When They Are at Work

This is a critical issue for employers, if not the top concern. It can be broken down into two parts:

- Ethical and moral worries – Companies do not want to imperil their employees by exposing them, and their families, to the virus.

- Practical risks and concerns of the disease – These come well after ethical and moral concerns for company leaders, but cannot be overlooked entirely. Company leaders worry about how they will protect employees and keep productivity high, how they will manage flexible return-to-work schedules, how they will deal with any future outbreaks of Covid-19, and more.

What can you do as an employer? Get in the habit of making daily visits to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) page of information on Covid-19. It’s full of the latest advisories on establishing and maintaining a safe work environment.

Concern: Psychological Issues Related to Returning to Work

Most employees are anxious about returning to work, some more than others. As an employer, it is best to treat everyone – both the very concerned and the less so – in a uniform and sympathetic way. Employees who are more anxious about Covid-19 are not being difficult or demanding. After all, we have all lived through a pandemic that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

What can you do as an employer? Survey your employees to pinpoint their level of worry about returning to work, and about their specific concerns, such as commuting, the cleanliness of your location, or exposure to other people in elevators and common areas. Don’t minimize or dismiss those concerns. Address them. It is also helpful to provide resources to higher hesitancy employees. If you have a company health plan, for example, it may be able to offer speakers and other resources to your employees at this time. If you do not have a health plan, local hospitals can send in speakers to give programs. If some employees are seeking counseling or therapy to help them adjust, find ways to support them.  

Concern: Obstacles Are Keeping You from Getting Your Salesforce Back into the Field

This too is a very real concern for companies where revenue is highly dependent on sales. In this period of recovery, there are two principal concerns in this area:

- Your company’s own salesforce is now experiencing obstacles regarding travel to clients’ locations.

- Your clients’ operations have changed dramatically by having their employees work from remote locations, on flexible schedules, etc. Your ability to sell can suffer when you do not even know where and when your prospects can be found.

What can you do as an employer? Although reestablishing sales levels could be a real challenge in the period following the pandemic, there is one reason to be optimistic: As your clients resume operations, their need for what you provide could experience a spike. The question is, how can you get back in contact with your prospects and sell to them?  Here is one powerful solution:

- Analyze how your salespeople utilized videoconferencing tools during the period of quarantine and lockdown. Then encourage your salespeople to continue to use those tools. Making virtual sales calls is more time-efficient than having your salespeople physically travel from place to place to call on prospects. Why not continue to use the remote selling strategies your team has developed during the last few months?

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Concern: Employees’ Exposure to the Virus while Commuting

Although research is ongoing, preliminary surveys in the New York tristate area are finding that this is the number-one concern that people are feeling about returning to work. Employees are worried about exposure to other commuters when passing through transportation hubs, and riding trains and buses and subways. As an employer, you have two issues to address:

- Actual exposure to the virus that your employees might experience.

- Employees’ fears and anxieties about exposure when commuting

What can you do as an employer? Survey your employees to pinpoint their level of worry about how they commute to work, and where they could have exposure to the virus. Then consider whether some of the following solutions can both make your employees safer and lower their anxiety about commuting:

- Flexible work schedules that allow employees to commute during off-peak or low-traffic times of the day.

- Work from home and/or work from anywhere schedules that give them the option of not commuting, or the option of commuting only for meetings or other operational demands.

- Use of remote work locations near employees’ homes, perhaps ones that you are able to negotiate on behalf of your employees.

- Reduced work schedules that allow employees to reduce their commuting time by shifting to part-time or flextime schedules.

- Phased return to work schedules that allow different employees, or classes of employees, to return to work at different times.

- Emotional support and counseling programs that help employees who are working remotely feel positive and connected to the company and their peers.

Concern: Your Real Estate Costs and Affiliated Expenses are Suddenly Out of Control

This is a very real concern for many companies. It is a problem that can present itself in many ways:

- You are paying for more office space than you now need, because more of your employees are working remotely or have dropped back to part time.

- You still need a large space that is filled with workstations and cubicles, because your employees have the option of coming into the office when they want. But at the same time, most of those desks are empty.

- You have costly computers, phone systems and other equipment that is not being fully utilized.

What can you do as an employer? You have many options, including:

- Downsizing office space and renegotiating leases with landlords.

- Renting out unused square footage to other companies, while being mindful of heightened risks of exposure to your employees.

- Opening remote company offices close to employees’ homes, while closing or downsizing company facilities.

- Partnering with a company like KettleSpace in developing solutions that allow more of your employees to work remotely.

Concern:  After You Get Your Employees Safely Back to Work, More Outbreaks of Covid-19 Could Happen

This is a troubling worry for many employers – and of course, their employees too. This worry can be debilitating for everyone. It can be broken down into several parts:

- Personal concerns – Everyone hopes that once the pandemic ends . . . it ends! But because the way the virus behaves is not completely understood (including how it is passed from one person to another, whether prior exposure to it makes a person immune, whether the virus will mutate and become resistant to new treatments, and more), people are right to be worried.

- Family and social concerns – Parents who have been schooling their children at home want to be sure that their children will be safe when schools reopen. Employees can be concerned about their parents and older relatives. The bottom line is, everyone wants to be assured that the virus pandemic will end, that we will live safely, and that we can resume normalized routines.

- Operational business concerns – Once your business is starting to operate again, the last thing you want to worry about is that you will have to revert to the protocols that you developed during the period of shutdown. What business would ever want to see its employees becoming sick again in a period of new outbreaks? What business would ever want to lay employees off or to stop critical operations, or to see revenues fall? Although all business people are resilient, we have all been through enough. We don’t want to experience setbacks and start over again in our recovery.

What can you do as an employer? Get in the habit of visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) online regularly. It offers updated information on outbreaks of Covid-19 and other diseases, along with advice on testing individuals for Covid-19. You can then take steps to help contain the virus and prevent further outbreaks, including these:

- Test arriving employees for elevated temperatures and other signs of illness, using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Note too that local hospitals, as well as the company that administers your health care plan (if you have one) should be willing to help you set up a program of employee screening.

- Make sure your work premises are completely and correctly cleaned and sanitized, using protocols from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

- Require employees to wear face masks at work, to use hand sanitizers and exercise other preventions. Also if possible, consider installing anti-virus shields and barriers in appropriate places in your workplace.

- Encourage employees to monitor their own health, and to stay home or work remotely if they experience symptoms like rashes, elevated temperatures, or coughs.

- Have procedures and protocols in place to treat and transport employees who become ill at work.

- Continue to practice social distancing in your workplace, even if you become confident that the Covid-19 pandemic is subsiding.

- Consider allowing employees to work from home, work from anywhere, or work from remote locations, so you can decrease the number of employees who are physically present in your locations. And if employees have been capably handling some of their jobs from their homes or remote locations, consider allowing them to continue to do so.

- Continue to use virtual meetings, which can allow you to keep your work on track without the need to physically bring groups of employees together.

And Above All . . .

There is more to recovery than simply putting out masks and sanitizers, taking employees’ temperatures, and putting other protocols in place. If your company is to thrive in the coming period of return to work (RTW), your company’s leaders will need to exercise real leadership that combines compassion, level-headedness, and genuine courage.

Above all, be agile, flexible and quick to respond to reports of outbreaks from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One thing we have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic is that early and unhesitating preventive action limits the spread of the disease . . . and saves lives.

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