Employees Have Concerns About the Return to Work. Are Managers Prepared to Hear Them?
Businesses everywhere are reopening their doors and inviting customers in again. Even those companies that carried on business while their people worked from home are also feeling a renewed energy and collective uplifting of spirits.
Even as the economy stumbles back on track, people everywhere are holding their breath, wondering what going back to work will really mean to them and to their health.
A friend asked for my advice on how to handle the issue (yes, issue) with his employer. After being laid off from his retail job for two months, he was anxious to get back to full salary. In spite of that, he was nervous about being back in public, facing customers and his team, and having to deal with potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus on the sales floor.
I get that… but I get the company’s side too. And I get his boss’ side.
In this time of so much anxiety and confusion (what is the right thing to do—reopen or not? Go to work or not?) managers have to be considerate of their team members’ concerns and feelings. Understandably, people will be trepidatious about returning to work. Yet, they also have financial and mental health (loneliness, disconnection) concerns which could be alleviated, in no small part, by returning to work. And, let's not forget, business needs to be done and the world seems ready for it.
A great many knowledge workers have been working remotely since mid-March. They’ve grown to like working from home and have found their productivity has increased greatly. They’ve also experienced the added benefits of improved work/life balance and not having to commute to work. Nearly 43% of full-time American workers say they want to continue working remotely after it’s deemed safe to do so. However, most of these same workers are pessimistic about their companies allowing this to continue. Why? I’m sure there are many reasons, like companies don’t want to keep paying for empty facilities, but I bet the chief reason is trust. Trust and consideration are good friends. Companies need to trust their people are doing the work (but shouldn’t deliverables demonstrate that?) and employees need to trust their employers are going to take care of their physical and mental concerns about work. The question is, what precautions has the company put in place to protect their employees? What consideration have they given to employee concerns?
Looping back to my friend’s situation, I learned the company has taken some precautionary measures. However, there are others they hadn’t even considered. For example, they didn’t consider the virus could be living on items being returned by customers. It was my friend who suggested they “quarantine” the clothes in a separate area before putting them back on the shelves. Of course, this also means they didn’t really consider that employees would have to touch all those returned items in order to take them from the customers and put them on the shelves. The district manager for this large retail outlet was somewhat surprised when his store staff was less than enthusiastic about returning to work. To give him credit, he did take the time to listen to what they had to say and consider their concerns.
Being considerate is a key leadership trait I highlight in my upcoming book, but one that doesn’t show up very often in management textbooks. This is likely because it’s not so much a management skill as it is a life skill.
Considerate managers get that the feelings, ideas, and actions of others have meaning—even if only to them. As a result, they take time to understand the people they work with. They learn what their goals are, what drives them, and what they value. They look at the work that has been done and consider the effort that has gone into it. They pause to consider what drives their people to act and react the way they do, and if they’re not sure, they ask why.
According to Merriam-Webster, consideration can have several meanings, all of which are important to managers who lead people:
· Consideration means continuous and careful thought. Managers should be clear and concise in communication, especially in a time of uncertainty. Furthermore, managers should give careful consideration to how, to whom, and how frequently they communicate. Keeping people in the loop is an important way to encourage engagement and involvement.
· Consideration means a matter taken into account when formulating a plan. Managers should connect employees’ ideas to the success of the business and give them kudos for their contributions. This leads to employee engagement and feeling like part of a team.
· Consideration means thoughtful and sympathetic regard. Managers should treat their employees as if they are valued. They should hold regular one-on-ones so as to learn more about them. In these sessions, relationships will be developed and valuable insight into how employees think and feel will be gained. This will help in support and encouragement moving forward.
· Consideration means esteem or regard. Managers should acknowledge accomplishments and success. People will do great work when they know they have a supportive and encouraging environment.
· Consideration means an opinion obtained by reflection. Managers should be considerate of the contributions employees are making to the business. When employees are doing good work, managers shouldn’t undo everything with harsh criticism or abrupt changes of plan without providing a compelling reason.
Considerate managers ask thoughtful questions designed to get employees engaged in the conversation. When responses are given, they listen carefully, and think before making a response. In the amazing book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we see Habit 5 “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. This habit involves a paradigm shift wherein managers listen with the intent to understand their team member before replying. Many people listen with the intent to speak. They’re listening, but formulating their replies at the same time. The net result is they don’t really capture what’s important to the other person. Seeking first to understand by really listening is critical for completely understanding issues and finding the correct outcome. In an uncertain environment like the one we’re currently experiencing, this means they seek to understand what causes concern for their employees and reply to those concerns appropriately.
This type of consideration is playing out in examples set by tech giants like Apple, Facebook, and Google. These companies may be preparing to open their offices in June, but they’re encouraging most employees to continue working from home for longer. Twitter has taken this one step further and is telling their employees they can permanently work from home if they’d like to.
Consideration also shows itself in examples like sneeze guards put in place to protect cashiers, one-way corridors to direct traffic in hallways and grocery store aisles, and staggered hours to reduce the number of employees in an office at any one time.
For my friend, how his employer demonstrates care and consideration for employees is being played out right now. The store has been thoroughly cleaned, the plan is set for customer traffic control, and sneeze guards are in place at the cash desks. Oh—and a quarantine spot has been created for returns. Most importantly, however, is the fact his manager is listening carefully to his concerns and considering what those concerns mean to my friend returning to work.
Laura Sukorokoff is the Founder and People Maximizer at C-Change Learning and Development. She knows managers hold the key to employee engagement and provides the training, coaching, and support they need to be great at what they do. Reach out to her at www.cchangelearning.com.
(cover image: master1305)