COVID Creates Trust Issue in Physical Workplaces

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David Rice
07/23/2020

Workplace safety covid

Not every job is able to be done remotely, meaning companies and their employees have to take precautions to inhabit physical workspaces safely.

As you can imagine, this creates tension. Employees concerned about the pandemic don’t want to see colleagues interacting with other people without a mask and companies don’t want to see employees taking risks that could endanger the entire workplace. Most companies have instituted mask mandates for employees and customers alike and some have even gone to the extent they ask employees to sign daily attestations or agreements that they will adhere to the mask policy.

The attestation is a start, but it’s not enough to create the necessary trust needed at the height of a pandemic. Managers then have to enforce the rules and employees have to follow through, from the moment they clock in until they exit the building to head home. That can be tough though, as forgetting a mask, touching your face or not having hand sanitizer handy has happened to all of us at some point now.

A Betrayal of Trust

Recently, I spoke with an HR leader who shared a story from their own organization. An employee entered the premises knowing they’d tested positive for COVID-19, but fearing future medical expenses and not wanting to be sent home, the employee didn’t tell anyone. They had signed an agreement to wear a mask and to report any symptoms, but simply didn’t follow through. The result? More than 15 other employees later tested positive. The fallout has been a breakdown of trust between employees and a distrust of managers.

Nationwide, the conversation around masks has become unnecessarily politicized, making it a difficult and personal one to have. People may become combative or defensive creating further tension for everyone involved. But if not handled by managers and HR, the issue can intensify with employees self-policing each other.

READ: How to Build Trust in HR in the COVID-Era Workplace

It's a bad day for company culture when someone is chewed out by a fellow team member for taking their mask off on the way to the break room. Morale and trust are going to struggle and may take a long time to return if this situation isn’t handled properly.

And it doesn’t end there with the people who were involved. It’s a betrayal of customer trust as well, which can lead to significant ramifications for the business. Beyond that, what about employees the company currently has working from home, but would like to eventually return to the office?

Remote employees are seeing rises in productivity and adapting to a remote work lifestyle. Seeing the complexities of safely returning to physical workspaces from a distance, those employees are not likely going to be comfortable returning any time soon. This requires the organization’s newfound flexibility to inch closer to permanency, something many have yet to commit to.

The Talent Risk

When assessing the wide variety of risks COVID-19 poses to your organization, obviously the health and safety of everyone who enters the organization in any capacity is paramount. But there’s a longer view implication for the company’s ability to attract talent as well.

Saying the right things and taking basic precautionary measures is a start, but it isn’t a catch all. As Josh Bersin noted in an article for Forbes in May, “if employees don’t feel safe, word will spread: people’s low opinion of their employers will be exposed through negative social and media commentary.”

Reputational damage suffered from a poor COVID response will have huge implications on the ability to attract or retain top talent. Candidates are going to ask how you handled the pandemic from a safety perspective, a question that can be hard to answer if you’ve not been 100% successful in mitigating risk for your employees, maintaining company culture and providing plenty of support for employees working remotely.

READ: 5 Tips for Building Trust When Employees Return to Work

From this point forward, the expectation from top talent is that the organization is pandemic ready. As Bersin notes, COVID-19 safety performance will soon appear on Corporate Social Responsibility reports and it’s likely to see pandemic safety certification and rankings start to appear so that employers can show their credentials to employees and prospects.

Poor COVID responses are also a major problem for companies looking to retain talent. Nothing will push people out the door with speed and enthusiasm quite like endangering their health. In the end, no company can afford to lack innovative and thorough approaches to employee safety right now.

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