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What CEOs are Missing in Motivating Employees to Return to Work

Small differences in communication can influence perceptions of safety in big ways.

“It’s just a never-ending theme. Some of these CEOs are at their wits’ end as to how they deal with it. ‘How do I get people back in?’” said CNBC’s David Faber recently in regards to his meetings with CEOs who are struggling with how to motivate employees to return to the workplace.

It has been a year and a half since the appearance of the COVID-19 virus in the United States ushered in a large-scale move to remote work. This fall, many employees are preparing to return to the office in a full-time or limited capacity. Many of these employees, regardless of their vaccination status, have concerns about the return to work. According to a Conference Board study conducted August 2021, 42% of employees feel uncomfortable about returning to work, marking a jump from 24% in June prior to the introduction of the Delta variant. The rise of these variants, overloaded healthcare infrastructure, and the lagging approvals for vaccinating children have prolonged feelings of hesitancy among employees slated to return to work this fall. The Yale Center for Customer Insights conducted a series of studies to understand perceptions of safety.  While these studies were conducted on the consumer experience in returning to stores, we found that the insights can be easily applicable to how companies communicate standards of safety to employees, particularly when returning to work.

While we know that keeping employees safe in the workplace is on the minds of executives right now, the focus is often on physical health, when in fact, it is critically important how those initiatives resonate with employee judgments.

In considering the return to work, therefore, there are two factors that matter. The first is creating a safe workspace. The second is how you communicate that safe workspace to employees. Assuming you are a business who has adequately installed protective measures according to the latest guidance from experts, how can you effectively communicate this level of safety to your employees? We have outlined 7 steps based on our research with consumers that can also be applied to help employees feel safer in returning to work.

As Behavioral Science has demonstrated, many judgments, including those of individual safety, are often influenced by one’s feelings, rather than careful, rational analysis. For instance, memories of seeing horrific plane crashes on the news may make air travel seem much more dangerous than driving, but driving is much riskier according to the evidence. Still, despite knowledge of the risks, those who are afraid to fly may still be willing to drive to work every day. Similarly, our perceptions of risk and safety related to the COVID-19 pandemic may be driven more by feelings than facts. For example, even with social distancing, limited occupancy, mask wearing, and other precautions in place, a consumer may still rely on their gut to determine whether to enter a store and they may turn away at the sight of a long line or crowded parking lot. The same way that we might make a decision about whether or not to fly in an airplane or enter a store during a pandemic applies to how we behave as employees in considering a return to work:

1 – Leverage the voice of authority in employee communications. Communications that acknowledge guidelines and recommendations from the CDC, EPA, or other health authorities, have the potential to be more powerful in driving perceptions of safety. In a study that tested generic messaging about sanitizing surfaces against messaging that included wording that the sanitizer had been “validated by the EPA” against the virus that causes COVID-19, there was a significant increase in how people rated their feelings of safety eating at a restaurant from 55% to 72%. Many common household cleaning products have been shown to be effective at killing SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, this list is readily available on the EPA’s website. While many companies may already be using these types of products, there is power in making this information explicit to your employees. 

2 – Identify the brand associations that enhance trust. Amid the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic, people have naturally gravitated towards familiar products and brands, and this is especially true when it comes to disinfecting.  As the list of recalled sanitizers has grown, being specific about what safety/cleaning products (e.g. Purell, Clorox) you are using can tap into pre-existing beliefs about brands and make employees feel safer. In our research, one study showed that adding the brand name Purell to messaging about hand sanitizer resulted in a 10% increase in feelings of safety regarding returning to the gym.

3 – Look for opportunities to go beyond official guidance. Communicating how practices exceed official recommendations may make employees feel more confident about their safety. Our studies on consumers have demonstrated that adding language which emphasizes that store guidelines are “safer” or “lower” than “local” or “CDC” guidelines can significantly increase a feeling of safety among shoppers.

4 – When exceeding expectations, be concrete about how you do so. Efforts to provide detailed information like cleaning checklists, wait-in-line markers, and frequency of cleaning or sanitization, among other examples, can help people feel more confident about practices. For example, feelings of safety increased by 10% in one study where generic signage regarding sanitation was modified to mention the use of a 10-point checklist.

5 – Use visual cues or relative framing to reflect your best practices. For some employees, the very idea of returning to work may be stressful. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic suggests that employees walk through various scenarios returning to work, noting that “Imagery is powerful in helping people to cope with anxiety-filled situations.”  Similarly, employers can help employees to visualize what a safe return to work might feel like by providing images of the workspace. Areas to focus on might include areas that feel particularly clean and highlight safety measures. When tested on consumers, showing a vivid image of a safe scenario featuring clear dividers between consumers and staff increased feelings of safety by 15% over the same description of the safety dividers using words alone.

6 – Emphasize your enforcement of the protocols. Highlighting how your company is enforcing safety helps people know protocols will be followed. Including language that the safety measure is being “enforced” rather than simply being put in place can increase feelings of safety. If the company chooses to designate a manager as responsible for enforcement, showing a visual of the manager responsible can change how employees perceives the safety of the workplace—for good or bad. Keep in mind that people make decisions about their safety in the same way that they make other decisions—using the brain’s System 1.  An employee may shape their perceptions of safety based on their perceptions of the person enforcing the protocols.

7 – Provide (social) proof points by sharing positive reflections from other employees. Allowing employees to review and/or rate their perception of safety may provide confidence if workspaces are rated as clean and safe. In an online study, signage with an online rating feature highlighting that social distancing protocols were being followed at a specific location helped drive perceptions of safety.

While each of these measures in isolation had an impact on perceptions of safety in our studies, it is important to also consider that these measures may work differently when in combination with each other and in the context of different types of work environments. Interviewing employees, piloting new ideas in individual locations and soliciting feedback, and surveying employees to test various communications are all useful methods to help you better understand how your employees are feeling about the return to work. 

If there is one piece to take away from this article about how behavioral science can help in ensuring a safe return to work, it is not the granularity of these seven points, but rather it is the following: psychological safety does not always match physical safety. While companies may be working hard to create a safe work environment, it is still possible for employees to feel unsafe. To ensure psychological safety matches physical safety, executives need to carefully consider how they communicate their efforts to the workforce.