Resistance to return: Why it happens and how HR can handle it with empathy

Employee returning to work

Many organizations today are facing resistance from their employees when returning to the workplace.  With winter on the way in many places across the US, it’s natural for employees to have heightened fears of coronavirus outbreaks.  In fact, we’ve already seen new spikes in COVID-19 cases and health officials are anticipating further increases.  On top of that, if employees lack trust in the steps your HR and leadership teams have taken at your organization and don’t feel physically or psychologically safe to return, that resistance increases.

With financial strain also increasing, especially for small to mid-sized businesses, and the continued opening of the US economy despite more COVID-19 activity, companies are at a point where they are running out of options and can’t afford to lose any staff or have them sidelined and unproductive. So how do you keep moving forward if there is resistance from employees to return to the workplace?  Here are a few things to consider when dealing with this situation.

Physical safety

First and at the foundational level, your people must feel they are physically safe when returning to work. Without physical safety, there is no chance they will want to come back to work. Physical safety involves things like PPE, hand sanitizer, hand washing, social distancing, and other similar safety protocols. Organizations need to take every measure to ensure a physically safe environment when employees return.

Over the past few months we’ve talked about these kinds of safety standards constantly, as well as how you monitor their implementation. So let’s focus more deeply instead on how these standards can flow into and reinforce another key component in helping your people return to work – psychological safety.

Psychological safety

Psychological safety is impossible to have without physical safety, which is why I mentioned that first – but securing it requires more than just having physical protections in place. It really comes down to how you build the trust between your organization, your managers, and your people. Does your organization demonstrate that it has its employees’ best interests in mind? This is a question that must be asked repeatedly as you define return policies. Trust is certainly built over time and can be increased if organizations are intentional about it.

It's all about practical processes

So what can you do to communicate and put processes around physical safety to help build up psychological safety, and what steps can you take beyond the physical to secure it?  Here are a few methods that can be put into practice:

1. Communication

Create a return to work communication plan that outlines all the physical and psychological safety measures the organization has put in place to safeguard their employees when they return.  Continue to communicate to employees early and often, and automate as much as possible through your HR technology so communications are consistent and scheduled wherever possible. Repeat what you’re communicating over and over again. One time is not enough. Use different mediums like email, newsletters, social media and video. Communicate to people managers and provide them with the tools on how to communicate to their teams. Do not assume they have the skills or know how to communicate, especially during the times we are in.

What should you be communicating? Well, just what we discussed above. What are you doing about physical safety? What are your protocols? What are you providing to employees for their protection, and what’s the process for getting access to it? How are you going above and beyond, such as by providing mental or financial health resources?

From a psychological standpoint, informing your employees that you have their best interests in mind and how you will increase that focus over the next few weeks and months will go a long way to giving them confidence in returning to the workplace. Remember, a key aspect of psychology is that people respond well to routine and repetition. The more you can reinforce your standards, the better your people will feel about the situation at your organization.

2. Protocols and procedures

Put into place additional protocols and procedures to help increase physical and psychological safety. For example, consider implementing a hybrid work model for employees physically returning to work. A hybrid work model can provide a safer work environment while keeping employees productive.

A potential model for this could be that half of your employees would work physically for two weeks in the office then the other half comes in for the next two weeks. During the time they are not in the office they can be working remotely. A hybrid work model is a flexible way for employees to feel secure, both physically and psychologically. With the right HR technology, you can even reflect these shift cohorts and the locations from which your people will work on a given week in their schedules and give easy self-service access if they want to make changes, ask for coverage, or swap their shifts.

Something else to consider, if you can, is keeping employees at home if they have been or if they can work at home. Why bring them back to work? What is the purpose? Keeping employees remote increases safety and decreases any fears around contact they may be experiencing.

Another way to increase physical and psychological safety is to implement contact tracing, and preferably have it built directly into your HR, workforce management, and payroll processes so it’s automated and simple to manage. This will give employees peace of mind that they will be alerted should someone test positive for COVID-19. It will also give employees confidence that their employer is doing everything they can for their employees and putting their people first.

These protocols and procedures may look different for each organization based on the needs of the business.  Evaluating where you can make additional adjustments can build trust with your employees, especially if you’re able to consolidate and automate the steps you take for consistency. Repetition, remember?

3. Empathetic leadership

One of the best things an organization can do for their employees is to develop empathetic leadership. Know your employees. Organizations cannot be empathetic if they don’t try to understand what their people go through on a day-to-day basis and actively align to their concerns. Pulse surveys are a great way for organizations to get to know their employees and any issues they are experiencing. In addition, encourage your managers to build deeper relationships with their teams, if they haven’t done so already. Provide them with practical skills and tools to do so.

Each person at your organization is different and has a different set of circumstances. Allowing for individuality and flexibility during this time will allow empathy to come through in your processes and help you retain employees. A big way to strengthen the employee-employer relationship and deliver on this empathy, beyond just surveying employee opinions, is creating a robust and accessible self-service strategy. The more options your people have to get to the information they need, change when they work or take time off, manage their pay, and stay plugged into their performance goals anytime on any device, the more they’ll feel you’re looking out for them and helping them succeed even in a difficult environment.

Conclusion: Resistance to return is real, and you need to adapt

While there are no easy answers here, these three methods can help increase and build trust between the organization and employees.  When organizations are intentional about increasing the physical and psychological safety of employees, they are able to reduce an employee’s resistance to return to work.
It will not only help in the short-term to bring them back to the workplace, but also the long-term goals of retaining talent and opening businesses fully.

If you’re wondering how to get there with your people, HR technology is a great place to start. Check out our Complete Playbook for HR Technology During Times of Crisis for a host of practical tips on making the processes that foster physical and psychological safety in your workplace repeatable and sustainable.

Download your playbook