How to Reduce Fear in the Pandemic Workplace.

After months of zoom meetings and quarantine haircuts, employees are returning to the office, some with gratitude, some with fear, most with gratitude and fear. As business owners and managers, how can we make it easier on our employees? How can we reduce their fear and help them feel safer? (Hint: “reduce” and “safer” are the operative words. We won’t be able to eliminate their fear entirely or keep them completely safe.)

I recommend a four-pronged approach:

  1. Take it seriously
  2. Communicate clearly
  3. Supply tools and materials
  4. Provide structure and time

1. Take It Seriously

Your employees want to know you have their backs. Acknowledge the craziness of the pandemic workplace and implement policies to deal with it. That means establishing—and enforcing—social distancing guidelines; requiring masks; keeping the office clean and disinfected; giving employees leeway around childcare and school issues; and providing adequate sick time to allow for a return to quarantine if employees are exposed or infected.

When your employees see that you’re not dismissing their concerns and expecting them to “just get over it,” they’ll offer you loyalty and hard work in return. Once they re-engage at the office, they’ll think less about their fear and more about what they can do to move forward.

2. Communicate Clearly

By communicate clearly, I don’t necessarily mean communicate more often—it’s likely your employees have been on communication overload since the pandemic began. I mean communicate more efficiently and effectively. Leave the long-winded legalese to government websites. Create simple Covid safety policies and instructions, share them with your employees in regularly scheduled huddles, and post them around the office on eye-catching posters.

These posters can do double duty—provide information and bring your employees back into the fold. Involve the employees in designing both the guidelines and posters to create buy-in and to remind them how life-saving and important these guidelines are.

Further, ask your employees how you can help them maintain these guidelines. This will open up vital lines of communication and earn their trust in this crazy time.

3. Supply Tools and Materials

According to OSHA, employers are not required to supply masks to their employees, but doing so may be a good way to earn your employees’ good will. At the very least, providing information about obtaining the most effective masks will help make sure they take the mask requirements seriously.

While store-bought masks are an easy fix, they grow uncomfortable after hours of daily use. Find a local provider for cloth three-ply masks of various types and sizes (try Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or Etsy). This gives your staff a variety of reusable but suitable and effective masks that are more comfortable than store-bought and can be laundered regularly. Believe it or not, the CDC offers washing instructions for fabric masks: Washable masks also prevent employees from using store-bought masks past their point of effectiveness.

In addition, if you are enlisting your employees to keep the office and their workspaces clean, provide the necessary supplies—disinfectant wipes, spray disinfectants, paper towels, and so on. This does two things. One, it puts your money where your mouth is to show you’re serious about keeping them safer; and, two, it engages the employees in the process, creating a sense of ownership and agency that will help lessen their fear.

4. Provide Structure and Time

First, realize that time isn’t going to be the same as it was pre-Covid. Don’t pretend everything is back to normal, because it isn’t. Employees will need more time to settle in and decompress, both in the long run and day-to-day. Structure Covid breaks throughout the day—periods of time, five to ten minutes—where employees can vent. Then at other times, structure huddles in which they can only discuss work.

Structure the cleaning time as well. At the end of every day, maybe ten minutes before closing, set a time for employees to clean their workspaces with the supplies you’ve provided. To make it less of a chore, crank up some music. Make it a group activity and tension breaker. Get people moving and watch the energy rise.

Getting Back to Work

None of these steps will eliminate your employees’ fear entirely, but they will go a long way toward showing your employees that you’re invested in keeping them safer. Employees who feel taken care of are employees well on their way back to doing great work.