woman wearing protective mask

COVID-19: How to put employees at ease about returning to work

COVID-19 is the most significant employee public relations issue of our time. Before the crisis hit, all firms had to do was provide clean bathroom facilities, somewhere to get coffee and ergonomic keyboards. Now, though, the pandemic has put a spanner in the works. And it is making a lot of people very nervous. People don’t want to return to the office if it involves the risk of catching a potentially deadly virus. They’d rather stay at home. 

The business community, however, knows that current stop-gap measures are not sustainable long-term. Eventually, the necessity of the office will rear its ugly head, and leaders may have no choice but to insist that workers return.

We look at some of the strategies that you can use to put your colleagues at ease if they don’t want to return to work. As their employer, you need to make sure that they can see that you care about their wellbeing and aren’t just after the money. The more you can prove you’re doing everything you can, the more you can foster a strong employee brand. The process may actually help you to improve your relationship with staff by growing trust. 


Make Workplace Safety A Part Of Your Customer-Focused Branding

Telling your customers how you’re looking after your colleagues, is actually one of the most powerful tools at your disposal for holding onto valuable staff. It immediately shows the team that you take their well being seriously. If you’re willing to go public with your commitment to your people, then it is more likely that you’ll be held accountable. And that’s one of the most powerful techniques that you can use to build trust and confidence in your policies. 

Create a communication plan for customers that tells them how you plan to keep your employees safe. Talk about the abatement measures you’re using and how you’re fighting back against the risk of infection. Things like hourly cleaning of bathroom facilities, maintaining social distancing at work, and offering PPE can all help. 


Publish A Post COVID-19 Safety Plan

Giving your customers a general sense that you’re looking after your colleagues is all well and good. But what people in your organization really want is proof that you’re taking decisive, practical action to keep them safe. 

If you currently have colleagues working from home, you might want to consider publishing a post-COVID-19 safety plan. With a document like this, you can set out the measures you’re putting in place to keep people in your organisation safe. Here are the types of things you may wish to talk about: 

  • Your updated cleaning policies and how these are likely to keep people safe in your organisation
  • How cleaning policies will target high-risk surfaces, such as elevator buttons, door handles, and faucets. 
  • Social distancing requirements and policies in the office, to ensure that colleagues don’t come into proximity with each other
  • How you plan to put social distancing stickers on your floors, showing people which way they should go, allowing you to create one-way systems along narrow corridors and staircases
  • Your policy on how to people should behave if they get sick and that you will accommodate any sick leave
  • Your reception staff policy on taking employee temperatures as they enter the building to protect others from infection
  • Building segregation policies concerning how you will keep departments separated from each other – at least temporarily
  • Your policy towards guests, deliveries, and clients and how you will manage the infection risk of outsiders
  • Your provision of infection abatement resources, including things like hand sanitizer and facemasks. 

You get the picture. The more information you can provide, the happier your staff will be and the more willing to return to work. Policies like this are particularly important in industries where talented employees are highly mobile and could leave you for somebody else. You want to present yourself as a business that is doing everything that it can to preserve their health and enable them to remain productive. 


Make Working From Home A Regular Feature Of The Working Week

Most employees won’t want to give up the homeworking lifestyle altogether – at least, not at first. Firms, therefore, need to think about how they’re going to coax talented employees away from their cushy homes offices in a way that isn’t going to make them feel robbed. 

One idea is to make working from home a regular feature of the working week. Employees might come into the office three or four days out of five, and then spend the other one or two in their house. 

This strategy essentially gives companies the best of both worlds. Colleagues have ample opportunity to interact with each other during the days when they’re in the office, and can then adopt their preferred working practices at home. At the same time, businesses can more easily manage interpersonal interactions at work by limiting the number of people in the office at the same time. 


image of man and woman wearing face masks

Launch A Mobile App That Tracks Employee Health

A lot of companies are trying to inspire confidence by launching mobile health apps that workers can use to report on their current health status. The idea is to pick up early on people who might have COVID-19 and prevent them from travelling to the office. 

Currently, there’s concern that things like scanning people for a fever at the door won’t be enough to prevent infected employees from coming to work. Evidence suggests that COVID-19 patients can have no symptoms but still transmit the virus to other people. 

The purpose of mobile apps, therefore, is to provide an additional layer of security. Employees will be able to punch in and tell the app whether they have any symptoms and respond to questions posed by employers. These questions will try to root out whether a colleague is in the early throes of COVID-19 or if they’re infection-free. Specifically, it could ask them whether they’ve lost their sense of taste or smell – two early warning signs that the condition is taking root. 


Recommend Cloth Masks

The CDC hasn’t gone as far as to suggest that people wear N95 masks while working, simply because of the discomfort they create, and the fact that there is still a limited supply of them. It has, however, suggested that returning colleagues wear cloth masks. 

The purpose of cloth masks is two-fold. First, they slightly reduce the risk of inhaling airborne COVID-19 particles. And second, and most importantly, they reduce the chance that an asymptomatic person will spread the infection to others. 

Putting a cloth mask policy in place, therefore, can serve to reassure colleagues that you’re taking the spread of infection seriously. It is a visual reminder for everyone that the disease is still a present threat, and they should do all they can. 


Make Your Handwashing Policy Clear

Employers can also help to reassure people by putting in place a rigorous handwashing policy. When colleagues arrive at the office, you may require them to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer, especially if they have been using public transform. Washing their hands will prevent them from infecting themselves and others via surface contamination. 


Set Limits On Conference Room Capacity

Even according to the updated rules, people need to stay more than one meter apart from each other. That means that you’re limited in how many individuals you pack into a given space. 

Start by putting notices up on your conference room doors, limiting capacity. Also, reduce the number of people you allow in board room meetings, showing that people right at the top of the organisation believe and respect the same rules. 


Improve Your Sick Pay 

Before the crisis, many companies operated minimal sick pay policies, if any at all. Workers, therefore, often came into work, even if they were ill.

With the rise of COVID-19, though, policies like these are no longer sustainable. People must stay at home to keep everyone else in the office safe and protected. 

You may, therefore, want to design and communicate a more generous sick pay policy if you don’t have one already. Ideally, the document should indicate that colleagues will still get paid, even if they don’t come into the office  and they suspect they have  COVID-19. A policy like this might sound expensive, but it is far less costly than having all your workers fall sick at the same time. That would be an operational and public relations disaster. 

Remember, smart employees will see a policy like this for what it is: a way to reduce risks for them. So by offering more generous terms for sick pay, you put their money where your mouth is and help keep people safe. It’s expensive. But it could actually be better for profits in the long-term.

Remember, once the crisis passes, you can relax your sickness pay offering and bring it back into line with its traditional form.

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