HR Leaders Can Help Workers Feel Safer About Returning to the Office

Jeff Myhre | | Change Management

training for new policies and processes needs to start soonFor better or worse, the US is working to reopen for business now that the initial shelter-in-place orders are expiring. Even New York City, where 20,000 people have died from COVID-19, is in phase two of a four-phase plan. Meanwhile, many medical experts warn that a second wave of the pandemic could be on its way and, as the number of new cases rises again, more are saying the first wave hasn't truly crested. The fact remains that, in many places, workers are returning to work with hope tempered by trepidation. They're returning to workplaces that are drastically different from mere months ago. Luckily, HR leaders can use their position and skills to alleviate their fears and concerns.

Risk Management

In the end, it's a matter of risk management. If people believe their decisions about when to return to work and how are based on facts and common sense, they'll be more comfortable than if those conditions don't exist. As HR leaders, we're the ones who can and should provide the necessary and relevant information.

I think that information falls into three categories. The first is information about how doing the work at hand is changing. The second is information about how the organization is going to function now that a new normal has arrived. And the third category is the global picture of what the pandemic and COVID-19 are doing as well as what human beings are doing to combat the virus.

Retraining – Doing Things a Little Differently

Before the outbreak, you did your job That Way. Now, you have to do it This Way. HR leaders wrestle with this all the time. The difference this time is everyone is doing it all at once – within the company and at home. Usually, you could schedule training times and arrange for different teams to receive their training when it was convenient for them.

But that's not how things work now. It's still retraining but it's a huge volume of retraining in a short period of time. It's also retraining on a new schedule with teams split between different shifts. Because of this, there are going to be mistakes, especially those that naturally occur when people do too much too quickly. When altering the training plans and the way some jobs are done, flexibility is key.

That said, we can probably do an exceptional job using our tried and true methods. Emails are less effective than video and having resources in one easily accessible place allows people to find what they need with minimum effort. Zoom meetings are great, just don't forget to record them (and remember to tell everyone when they're being recorded – it's the law).

Corporate Strategy

The information about how the organization is going to operate under our new normal provides much of the “why” for the first category. Social distancing creates issues. Working remotely creates issues. Flexible working hours create issues. People are generally understanding about the fact that we need to operate differently. However, that understanding wears thin quickly when changes appear to be happenstance. Explaining the overall strategy of new operations protects basic receptiveness.

HR leaders communicate new policies and proceduresI work for a real estate firm as part of earning my daily bread. Pre-pandemic, agents left closings with commission checks that had to be taken into the office with various forms for processing. Copies were necessary, and the whole thing had to be scanned. The office has been closed since mid-March. Transactions already in the pipeline went ahead, with some difficulty, so there were still checks that needed processing. So we needed a completely different way of accomplishing that.

The firm sent an email explaining what had to happen. A new form was created and a mailing address was provided. It wasn't too difficult, but a 90-second video going through the process would have helped. The point, however, is that no one objected to the changes. We all understood this was part of the company's effort to socially distance and keep people safe at home. It's taking longer for agents to receive their commissions. While no one is happy about it, being told in advance this would be the case, we prepared, making the delays more tolerable.

Trusted Sources – YOU

In my opinion, the third category is the most important – telling people what the current best practices are for taking care of yourself and your family. There continues to be confusion about the virus and how it spreads. Conflicting messages cause uncertainty which cause stress. What people need is a source of information they trust, and sadly, people don't trust many institutions these days. As a journalist (the other way I earn my daily bread), I believe I have a pretty good handle on which sources are reliable and which are suspect. I know how to read government press releases, find reports and interview witnesses – skills few people have and many don't feel the need to develop. This is where HR leaders can shine.

People have a higher level of trust in their employers than most other institutions, whether they want to admit it or not. A recent Edelman article states, “As trust in media and government erodes, people are turning to that which they know and can control: the relationship with their employer."

After all, we trust HR leaders and employers with information like social security numbers, home addresses, contact info for next of kin, bank account numbers and more. The organization is positioned to provide trusted information that can help people feel better about this situation. Even bad news is preferable to not knowing. You can explain to employees what businesses are allowed to open and how in phased reopening plans, how to claim benefits and what new developments have occurred. But remember to keep your information focused. There's a difference between explaining and editorializing. Explanations help people understand why certain decisions were made. Too much editorializing can erode trust in some of these situations and could add to workers' stress and anxiety.

“Events, My Boy, Events”

One last point: no one knows how this is all going to end up. A lifetime ago, Britain elected Harold MacMillan as Prime Minister. As he took office, someone asked him what would determine his government's course. He answered, “Events, my boy, events.” The same is true here. Things are going to change, and events will force us to continually recalibrate what we're doing. The most valuable commodity remains information. The most important and valuable thing HR leaders can do is communicate quickly and clearly to those who need it.

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