A 2015 study by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that “a healthy and safe workplace correlates with a company’s performance and its ability to provide positive returns to shareholders.” Earlier studies on workplace safety have similarly concluded that organizations with strong health and safety programs benefit from improved employee morale, loyalty, and retention—not to mention they outperform the S&P 500 by between 3% and 5%.
In other words, putting employees first isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s good for business.
When COVID-19 forced a global shutdown, sending millions of workers remote overnight, employers suddenly faced new challenges that tested their ability to keep their people out of harm’s way. A year later, employee safety is now a top priority for nearly every organization. Yet, as employees begin to return to the physical workplace, it remains unclear to what extent their employers are ready for them.
Amid reopening plans, employees must come first
The move to remote work forced organizations to adopt new tools to improve collaboration and help employees remain productive. It also forced employers to adapt and be flexible. From managing the absence of employees who tested positive for the virus to supporting those who decided to move back home to take care of at-risk family members, the focus for many organizations appropriately turned toward keeping their people safe and healthy through whatever accommodations were necessary. As organizations look to go back to the physical office, prioritizing employee safety will once again be put to the test.
Already we’ve begun to see some of the world’s top employers announce reopening plans that highlight what the future of work may entail. Microsoft reopened its headquarters in March, implementing a hybrid work model that will allow employees to choose whether they want to be in the office full time, work remotely full time, or do a combination of both. In a blog post explaining the decision, Microsoft executive vice president Kurt DelBene outlined the four key principles of the company’s return-to-work strategy, which include:
- Prioritizing physical, mental, and emotional well-being
- Providing additional flexibility to employees
- Serving customers and maintaining critical business operations
- Meeting or exceeding [workplace safety] regulations
Facebook, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Uber have also made similar announcements regarding bringing employees back, each promising extra safety precautions.
Still, employees are hesitant about returning.
A survey by the American Psychological Association found that 49% of adults feel uneasy about returning to in-person interactions once the pandemic is over. A similar study from Envoy found that 66% of employees said they were worried about their health when thinking about returning to the workplace.
So, how can employers provide peace of mind that the office will be safe?
Communicate a plan and demonstrate that you care.
Revisit your company culture
Business leaders know how impactful a strong company culture can be during periods of instability. It helps you attract better talent, keeps employees motivated, and provides a North Star for those making tough decisions. As employees return to offices after an unprecedented year of challenges, now is the perfect time for organizations to reassess their company culture and ensure employees’ safety and well-being is a top priority.
In a recent interview, Scott Gerard, VP of environmental health and safety at Moss Construction, offered a helpful perspective on why incorporating safety into your corporate objectives makes sense.
“At Moss, we think of safety as more than just a priority—we think of it as a value. Priorities within an organization can change with external pressures. For instance, if we fall behind on a schedule and add more staffing to work overtime, that might conflict with a financial priority. But a value is who you are all the time. Your values never change.”
The nature of the workplace has fundamentally changed. If you fail to account for new employee concerns around health and well-being, your growth may stagnate, and you’ll have a harder time retaining talent.
Take the time to revisit your company’s values and mission. Ask yourself whether safety is a key theme, and if not, make adjustments to account for it. Revisit the steps you’ve taken to address employee safety and make sure they’re enough to ease concerns.
For many companies, a culture that prioritizes safety involves the adoption of a hybrid work model. JPMorgan Chase has been one of the biggest proponents of this shift, arguing that the five-day office workweek is a relic. The company will offer a rotational work model, where employees will switch between working remotely and in-office.
We’re exploring much of the same at AlertMedia. Our goal is to capture the benefits and efficiencies of both in-person interaction plus the benefits of work-from-anywhere options. We hope our headquarters becomes the place where important meetings take place, but we want to provide employees the ability to work wherever and whenever they are most productive.
Transparency and communication are key
Employees feeling safe at work starts with them believing that you’re being forthcoming about what’s going on. Share details about the protocols you’ve adopted that will keep them protected should they decide to return to the office. If you’re requiring employees to get the vaccine in order to return, share how you’ll account for who is fully vaccinated and who isn’t.
More importantly, give your employees the “why.” If your people are aware of your rationale for developing or modifying a policy, they are usually more willing to get onboard. It’s also a good idea to implement a method of soliciting employee feedback. That way, they will feel like communication is a two-way street and they are being heard.
Consider creating a designated transition team accountable for both executing and communicating your reopening plans. Involve stakeholders from multiple levels and departments to ensure your plan reflects both the needs of the business and your employees’ needs. This will help your people know you are genuinely concerned for their safety and that you have thoroughly vetted all ideas.
Trust is currency
The more transparent you can be with your employees, the more trust you’ll gain. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer found that even though institutional trust is at an all-time low, 61% of respondents still reported they trust businesses to do the right thing more than NGOs (57%), government (53%), and media companies (51%).
The trust built over the past year will be vital as you welcome employees back. If you prioritized your employees’ well-being while they were working remotely, they will be more willing to trust in your ability to take care of them once they are back in the office.
Everyone ultimately wants to work for a company that makes them feel safe. Safety is a basic human need. It even represents the second tier of Maslow’s hierarchy. If your organization can’t fulfill that need, employees will quickly look for their next opportunity. Those who choose to prioritize their people over the next year will soon find themselves more competitive, better able to attract top talent, and well positioned to thrive in times of hardship.
Brian Cruver is the founder and CEO of AlertMedia.