As the impact of coronavirus spread around the world, and with the declaration of the pandemic by the World Health Organization on 11th March 2020, employers had to respond rapidly.
Many companies shut down their workplaces and required staff to work from home, many used government furlough schemes, and some decided to lay off staff.
Since then, the global situation has changed on a day-by-day basis with a wide range of impacts and responses being seen in different parts of the world.
The vast amount of coronavirus and COVID-19 information, as well as misinformation, which has been circulating has led to genuine and valid concerns by employees about returning to work.
“Very few changes have been made so not much to report.”
To understand this further a survey of employees in the UK, US and Canada was undertaken . This research explored what changes employers have been introducing, employee’s perspectives of those changes, whether employees remain concerned, whether employees have a way to voice concerns, and whether any have made positive changes that the employees think should be shared outside of their company.
The overriding message is: there is a gap between an employee’s expectations of what constitutes a safe workplace, and the changes that their employers are introducing.
The three primary recommendations for employers are:
- Determine whether there are any gaps between expectations, communications, and reality.
- Ensure staff are briefed on the changes being made, as well as the rationale for them.
- Communicate how employees can raise concerns, and implement anonymous feedback services.
For employees themselves:
- Keep informed on the changes being introduced, and alert employer to concerns.
80% of workers who had been asked to work remotely during lockdowns have already been asked to return to their normal workplace, or are anticipating that their employer will expect them to return within the next couple of months.
However, only 29% of employers are providing their staff with personal protection equipment (PPE) and only 16% are requiring PPE.
The most common ways employees say their employers are coping with COVID-19 are reducing the number of people in an area, setting up sanitizing stations, and an increased disinfecting protocol. With the uncertainty of the virus’s behavior, a lot of employees feel uneasy about returning to work in a normal fashion.
Employees report that their employers are rarely (32%) staging the return of employees to the workplace (or using shifts) to allow people to readjust to their environment.
In summarizing how they feel about returning to their workplaces the median response from employees about the extent to which they were concerned about returning was “Somewhat concerned”.
Employers could take some comfort from the median score of “Sufficient” for the extent to which employees feel that changes made for a safe workplace are sufficient. However, with over 50% of respondents considering the changes to only be sufficient or below that is not necessarily a resounding endorsement.
This feeling of uncertainty could be the result of many factors. Based on the survey’s free responses, it is most likely inconsistent messaging, changes to lockdown arrangements, or lagging communication between health professionals and employers. With an apparent employee perception that insufficient precautions are being taken, many employees are clearly concerned with their eventual return to the workplace.
It is clear that employers have been making a wide range of changes to their workplaces, and it is evident that the coronavirus situation is evolving very rapidly. National and regional governments around the world are continually updating their guidance and local requirements.
Nonetheless employers have legal responsibilities to their employees, as well as duty of care factors to consider.
To ensure employees feel safe returning to work, they are asking for sufficient PPE. Whilst “sufficient” is a necessarily somewhat vague term as the requirements vary in different industries, it is apparent that there is a perception that employers are not providing enough. Similarly whilst other changes are being made it is apparent that employees still remain concerned.
Employers should urgently determine whether this is a gap in expectations, communications, or reality – and then address accordingly.
Based upon the responses it would appear that communications between employers and employees is not being as effective as is required given the many uncertainties.
There is a lot of misinformation circulating about coronavirus, so it can be hard to ensure everyone is staying properly informed. Employers are having to make a lot of high-pressure decisions to change protocols during the pandemic, and may be doing the right things, but not clearly communicating with their employees.
With speculation of there being secondary waves in 2020, containment remains a major issue . COVID-19 has created a lot of novel situations in the employee / employer relationship, and people are still trying to understand the right things to do in these “unprecedented times”.
This can create noise and confusion around what the best ways to return to work are. Unclear communication and uncertainty create differing levels of stress among employees leading them to feel worried or apprehensive about returning to work.
“Our proposed plan has been released to the public and differs greatly from how it will actually be implemented at worksites. I fear this will lead to an increase in cases.”
Employers should ensure that they are briefing their staff as to the adaptations that they are making as well as the rationale for them.
They should also ensure that their employees have an open channel of communications to address uncertainties, concerns, and take on board suggestions for improvement. This has to be established in such a way that employees feel that it is safe for them to provide that feedback, and that they will not suffer negative consequences from doing so.
According to the survey, only 59% of participants have an outlet for their COVID-19 related concerns, while the rest are unsure if they have anywhere to turn for help or do not have that option through their employer. To ensure the safety of their people, employers should implement a way for employees to raise and report concerns. Options for feedback should include confidential and anonymous outlets so employees feel safe reporting their concerns – such as equativo.
Given the close proximity in most workplaces, there is potential for coronavirus to continue to spread quickly. Continuing to monitor the situation based on advice from health professionals is critical, however this does not discount the importance of employee feedback throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Employers should ensure that they communicate the different ways employees have to raise and report concerns, and if necessary implement anonymous feedback services.
It is also beholden upon employees to consider their potential role in the spread and containment of coronavirus and COVID-19 throughout the communities in which they live as well as their workplaces.
Employees should recognize their responsibilities in managing a safe workplace for themselves, their colleagues and their customers. They should clearly act responsibly at all times, which includes proactively contributing to their workplace context. Where necessary they should seek professional guidance from employee advisory bodies.
Employees should ensure that they are keeping themselves informed as to the adaptations their employers are introducing and alert them to areas of concern.
On a positive note
On a positive note, many participants want to share publicly the good things their employers are doing to ensure employee safety so that it can set a good example for other companies.
They hope that by setting a good example, other companies will follow. Some say that sharing positivity will hopefully increase their perception among potential clients and bring new business opportunities.
“I would like to see my employer receive the recognition they deserve for providing outstanding care.”
Notes on methodology and responses
The survey was made available to respondents via social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) as well as an independent audience gathering service. Respondents were presented with an online questionnaire taking on average 5 minutes to respond. Over 120 responses were gathered from the end of May 2020 to mid-June 2020.
On how employees feel about returning to their workplaces a median score of 2 from a scale of “0 Not at all concerned” to “4 Extremely concerned”.
On the extent that employees feel that the changes made to secure a safe workplace are sufficient a median score of 3 from a scale of “0 Not at all sufficient” to “4 Extremely sufficient”.
The responses gathered and analysed for this survey represent a snapshot in time and from those who chose to respond to this voluntary survey. It is acknowledged that this does not necessarily represent a comprehensive analysis of all sectors or types of work. As such the data provided here is for information only and no warranties or guarantees are provided and no responsibility is born for any use to which this information is put.
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