There’s no handbook for reopening the office after being closed for a year as a deadly pandemic sweeps the globe. There’s also no one-size-fits-all set of safety precautions to adopt, as everyone has their own level of risk tolerance when it comes to their own health.
Because of this, organizations are making educated guesses as to when to reopen, what precautions to have in place, who to bring back in the office, and how to continue business operations in a different way from before the pandemic.
But educated guesses should be just that: Decisions made based on input and data. And what we found in our “The State of Workplace Safety” report are stories from workers about their concerns around reopening that organizations need to be aware of in order to help them make the best decisions for their workforce.
Basics of returning
When it comes to workplace safety, employees are generally optimistic, with 87% of employees believing that their workplace cares about their safety. Eighty-six percent say their workplaces are putting in safety measures to keep them safe upon returning to the office. Ninety-one percent report having received a COVID safety plan from their employer. Overall, 58% say they feel “very comfortable” returning to an indoor work environment, with another 26% saying they feel “somewhat comfortable.”
If workplaces are taking measures and communicating them to their employees, then everything seems on track for a safe reopening. Or does it?
Discomfort to return
What about those who don’t feel comfortable returning? The biggest reason was that they felt their workplace’s COVID safety measures weren’t enough. The question for organizations then becomes: Do we put in place safety measures that will satisfy the most risk-averse person in the office? Or do we satisfy most employees, understanding that some people will still feel uncomfortable with them? If so, will we make accommodations for those who feel less comfortable? (Which is what the EEOC encourages.)
The second main reason employees felt uncomfortable to return is because they felt their workplace was opening back up too quickly, and putting profit over people. With rising cases of the Delta variant, many people are questioning if now is the time. And many are finding that their timeline is not the same one as their employer’s.
Back to work … or else
Nearly half (46%) of workers who have been asked to return to their indoor workspace feel like they’re being forced to go back. This could mean that employees aren’t being given an option to stay remote, but also aren’t being offered the chance to discuss remote or hybrid options either.
Nearly half of employees (45%) who have been given the option to either return or stay remote feel that they will be punished if they don’t go back, kept out of business decisions, or not considered a team player. For these employees, they’re being told to choose between their health or their career growth.
Bloomberg found that 39% of employees would consider leaving if their employer didn’t offer flexible work alternatives, and that percentage goes up to 49% among millennials and Gen Z. This could mean there’s a retention problem brewing, too.
Are employees speaking up about it? Not quite. Twenty percent of employees do not feel comfortable speaking up about their concerns around their workplace’s COVID-19 safety measures. That number gets higher for female workers, entry-level workers, and for those who work at large companies.
The No. 1 reason for not speaking up was feeling that their company wouldn’t do anything about it, or that their company wouldn’t believe their concerns were valid or real. The second reason employees won’t speak up is they fear retaliation for doing so, and that if they want more safety measures, accommodations, or alternative work plans, their reputation or even their job security will suffer for it.
And they’re not out of line for thinking their workplace wouldn’t address their concerns, or that they’ll be retaliated against. For the 1,744 COVID-19-related retaliation issues filed by workers with OSHA from March to August 2020, only 2% have been resolved. Fifty-four percent were dismissed without investigation, and only 20% were investigated.
Solving the pain points
The simple solution for ensuring that an organization isn’t putting employees into these difficult situations is to listen to them. We found that 74% of employees are more willing to voice their concerns through anonymous channels, which provides a way for those who fear retaliation, have had negative experience reporting before, or who just “can’t take the risk” feel more comfortable sharing their concerns.