An Unsettled Workforce

The Coronavirus pandemic has turned our world upside down. Businesses have been shuttered and many jobs lost permanently. A resurgence of COVID-19 infections in several parts of the country largely halted some reopening efforts. In addition, with a new school year beginning, parents of school-age children are dealing with the dilemma of in-person versus online classes.

With infection numbers beginning to trend downward, we may soon be seeing light at the end of the tunnel, but there will surely be lingering effects when this pandemic ends. The effects of Coronavirus have been felt particularly acutely in the workplace. Employees in “essential” industries who kept working, as well as those gradually returning to the workplace, have been confronted with a radically altered environment with pre-work temperature checks and other screenings, social distancing protocols, hand washing and sanitation protocols, and even COVID-19 testing.

Many employers continue to have their entire focus on trying to ensure that their businesses and workplaces are safe from potential exposure to Coronavirus. Little time has remained to attend to the routine employee concerns that consistently arise in the workplace. Perhaps more significant has been the lack of attention to the unique employee pressures created by the pandemic. Employees experience an understandable anxiety created by being in unavoidable proximity to others for hours each workday. The concern is not only for themselves, but also for their loved ones at home.

Reports of employee walkouts and workplace demonstrations over actual or perceived employer failure to implement adequate safeguards have been common. In some cases, employees have filed lawsuits alleging such claims as failure to provide adequate PPE, failure to enforce social distancing and other CDC-recommended protocols, and failure to inform employees of a coworker’s positive test result. Some employees have refused to return to work from layoff due to fear of possible infection.

Workplace safety concerns have spread notwithstanding employer efforts to implement and follow all CDC/OSHA guidance and prevention measures. Personal safety in the workplace had rarely been the primary concern for most employees. That is no longer be the case as a result of COVID-19. The pandemic-created anxiety is almost certain to impact productivity, quality of work, and employees’ well-being.

Another effect of the pandemic on almost everyone, but especially on employees is a genuine uncertainty about their economic security. Mere months ago, anyone who wanted a job could find one. Unemployment was at record lows. Wages were rising. This changed almost overnight. The federal enhancement to unemployment benefits has eased some financial pressures temporarily, but a return to a booming economy remains the only true solution. However, speculation of even more, permanent business closures and layoffs result in even greater uncertainty.

COVID-19 related fears and anxieties will very likely confront both employers and employees for the foreseeable future. Day-to-day workplace issues or irritants can easily become exaggerated for otherwise unsettled employees. A minor gripe can become a major problem. This means that now, more than ever, employers must truly live by the refrain “our employees are our most valuable asset.” The unsettling nature of all that they have been living through makes it imperative that employers demonstrate that they truly value those “assets.” When there is little more that can be done to provide a Coronavirus-free work environment or to assure our employees that we will promptly return to a growing economy, employers must make an extra effort to emphasize the small things that truly matter to employees.

While wages, benefits, and promotions may be important, numerous studies have confirmed that working for employers that genuinely care about them matters most to employees. Fostering a caring workplace culture can overcome almost any employee problem, even concern for personal safety and economic security. Taking the time each day to demonstrate that employees are appreciated goes a long way in generating employee good will. It takes little effort and costs nothing to thank someone for staying late, completing a critical project on time, or simply for being there and making a sincere effort. Spending time on the work floor on a daily basis interacting with employees in a positive manner is the type of managing-by-walking-around that helps to demonstrate that we are all in this together. Keeping employees informed of any issues related to Coronavirus prevention, as well as to business prospects will help satisfy the critical need of employees to be informed of what could affect them. Finally, making sure that your supervisors are providing the same type of care and attention to employees on a daily basis will complete your efforts.

No one knows when the pandemic will end or how promptly the economy will rebound, but by making every effort to show employees your appreciation for all they do will help ensure that we all successfully navigate the Coronavirus fallout.