Make these expectations simple, visible and easy to understand. Whenever possible, include employees in setting the new health and safety norms. Provide orientations, training and reminders of the criticality of adjusting their behaviors for the health and safety of the workforce and community. For critical or essential work environments that have been open or partially open, ensure guidance is current and take steps to ensure complacency is not setting in and that behaviors aren’t slipping back to the “old social norms.” When feasible, make it easy for returning employees to get the supplies they need to follow safety practices.
Employees will take notice of whether leaders are following corporate policies and practicing the behaviors being asked of the broader organization – in particular, mask usage, social distancing, not touching one’s face, hand washing, and personal work area disinfection. Now more than ever, it’s critical for leaders to “walk the talk.” According to a recent article in Scientific American, “Norms include both the perception of how a group behaves and a sense of social approval or censure for violating that conduct.” 3 This means that leaders will also need to determine what the consequences are for those who fail to practice established protocols – particularly when they put others at risk.
COVID-19 transmission primarily occurs from person to person, which creates the need to build a culture of self-care and caring for others in the work environment. The concept of protecting others as well as oneself resonates in a powerful way around the world.3 As one simple idea, consider posting “Codes of Caring” in lieu of “Codes of Conduct,” to make the “why” behind the required new behaviors evident.
Use clear, credible, actionable advice. Simply highlighting risks and creating fear without offering practical, fact-based guidance can cause people to dismiss the risk and disengage. Linking the advice to the greater-good message (as discussed above) can be especially impactful. For example, a recent study designed to determine what message would encourage doctors to improve their handwashing habits found that signs near hospital sinks reminding them to protect patients by washing their hands were more effective than signs reminding them to protect themselves.3
When possible, develop communications and training for employees that cover circumstances both inside and outside of the work environment. Examples include alternatives to coming into the work environment, preparing to come into work, commuting to work, encountering people in a non-work setting, and even traveling by air (if allowed or required). Guidance may also address the practical realities of returning to work, such as child and elder care, or safe commute practices. By providing employees with information about how to manage situations such as these with practical, credible advice, leaders can signal their focus on helping employees safely navigate the work environment and beyond.2
Offer employees new, creative ideas for collaborating and working to ensure success in a more fluid approach to work. Examples include encouraging walking meetings (e.g., in a campus setting or while on audio calls) rather than sitting in confined conference rooms, getting off the bus or train a few stops early and walking the remainder of the commute, or riding a bicycle to work to limit public transit interactions, taking the stairs rather than using elevators when practicing social distancing may be difficult, packing picnic lunches in lieu of visiting the cafeteria, and continually sharing innovative practices that support a safe and healthy work environment and culture. Where possible, leaders should provide the necessary supplies (e.g., bicycle racks) and guidance about how to do implement these activities the safest way possible to reinforce a culture of safety, learning and caring.4
Establish two-way communication channels that create an opportunity for employees to provide feedback about what’s working, where they need additional guidance, what’s not working – as well as share suggestions and ideas. Equally importantly, find ways to provide positive reinforcement. Just as many work environments reinforce safety success through practices such as promoting number of days without an injury, leaders can look for new ways to adapt this practice by sharing fun facts about the number of outdoor meetings held, steps taken, bicycle rack utilization, and other metrics that reinforce positive adoption.4
Realize that employees have a myriad of experiences they bring to the workplace. Some will have had a direct experience with COVID-19, and others will know friends and family members who have been affected. COVID-19 has also disproportionately affected African Americans and other minority members of our community. During this time, it is even more important to show compassion when interacting and communicating with others.2