As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to linger on, many companies are attempting to balance the need to return to office with safety concerns in their workforce, especially among parents of children who can’t be vaccinated yet or employees still at high risk of illness.
According to a recent InHerSight survey, 39 percent of women feel that if they express their workplace safety preferences related to the pandemic, such as mask or no mask, vaccination or no vaccination, it will impact how they’re perceived at work, and 33 percent believe it will impact their opportunities at work. A third of women stressing over job security and safety means anxiety as people return to in-person work is at yet another all-time high.
Leaders, managers, and even employees themselves can help bring this conversation back to baseline. Here are seven ways leaders can start these hard conversations in the workplace.
7 ways to open up conversations about workplace safety amid COVID-19
1. Ask people, ‘How are you doing?’
Sometimes simply having a conversation that leads to asking a question and hearing what the response is can go a long way. “Ask the question, ‘How are you doing?’ Then pause for an answer. Often that is a trigger that lets people know that you truly want to hear from them,” says career coach Nicole Nichols.
Dr. Carrie Graham, an adult learning consultant and instructional design strategist, adds, “Start with asking, ‘How has the pandemic impacted your life and lives of your loved ones?’ Actually listen to the response with compassion and empathy. Their response will provide an indication of their preferences for workplace safety. Engage in conversation without an agenda to immediately share corporate guidelines.”
2. Use active listening skills during a 1:1
It can be hard to hold a meeting with a group of people and garner a response regarding safety concerns. Often, it’s best to bring it up in a 1:1 type of meeting so that it’s a more personal yet direct way to put everything on the table. “[These] should be coordinated as a conversation and not an interrogation,” says Dr. Graham.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), using active listening techniques can help both leaders and employees understand and build empathy. OSHA suggests mirroring or repeating what the person is saying, by paraphrasing the message, asking for clarification, acknowledging feelings, and avoiding reacting with criticism. Here are several ways to phrase questions:
“What is your biggest safety concern?”
“What can we do to make you feel safer?”
“If you could address one safety concern, by adding sanitary measures, or changing a work process, what would it be and why?”
“Ask about their preferences and actually listen to fully understand,” adds Dr. Graham. “Then if and when appropriate, identify mutually agreed safety preferences. Reiterate why they have been agreed to.”
3. Talk about the elephant in the room
One of the ways to talk about what’s going on in the world, like COVID-19, is to tackle it head on. “Share local and statewide headlines to open a discussion,” says Dr. Graham. “Provide recent CDC and local statistics of positive cases across different safety precautions.”
Another way to broach the subject is to share similar stories that people can relate to. “In meetings, tell the stories of women who struggled with the trauma of returning to the workplace. Assure them that their concerns are normal and valued, then ask the women to discuss how they can relate. As you have this discussion, be quick to acknowledge the concerns that resonate with you. Showing vulnerability as a leader will help to calm fears,” says Nichols.
4. Ask for confidential submissions
It can be hard for employees to open up to their boss when it comes to conversations about COVID-19 safety in the workplace. Often, an anonymous survey can get people to open up about their concerns and suggestions. “If using an [anonymous survey], be transparent about how confidentiality will be maintained,” Nichols says. “Find ways to make their submission of ideas confidential. Perhaps use a blind survey or old-fashioned Dropbox.”
Dr. Graham echoes the power of confidentiality, but suggests doing it more frequently. “A monthly pulse survey where people can voice their concerns can be a big help,” she says.
5. Set a good example
Dr. Graham says one way to create an open and honest conversation about workplace safety is to start by admitting to your own concerns as a leader. “Assure employees that the only way to create a healthy environment is by them being forthcoming about their concerns.” Even how you communicate sets an example. According to OSHA, “raising sensitive safety issues with skill, respect, and a caring attitude shows other workers how to do the same.” If you ask for feedback, make sure you can handle constructive and negative feedback.
6. Hold a town hall meeting
There are some pros and cons with hosting a town hall meeting to discuss workplace safety. Two pros are that managers get to present new information, which ensures everyone receives the same knowledge, and employees can contribute to the conversation in an open forum.
However, Dr. Graham says this option may not represent all employees, because only the loudest voices will be heard. To combat that issue, Nichols suggests using an interaction application to help the meeting run productively and smoothly. “Use technology like Slido, where people can enter their questions, [then] everyone can vote the question up or down. This will give you a window into how many people are concerned with the same issue and question.”
7. Provide a variety of options
A lot of times, employees back away from speaking up because they don’t feel empowered. As a leader, it may be fitting to say, “If you have concerns or questions, I’m available through multiple channels, including email, video, in person, or a phone call.” Giving a variety of options for them to reach out to have a safety discussion ensures they know you’re open to continuing the conversation at any point.
How to talk to your manager about workplace safety
Returning to the office can feel scary. If you’ve been working from home, you may be questioning the changes that going back to working in person can bring. Your employer could implement new work policies and encourage or mandate vaccinations. Or they could move toward a hybrid work model, where remote work is still available but either not all the time or not for everyone.
It’s normal to have concerns about safety amid times like these. Here are a few tips for effectively talking to your boss about your safety.
1. Be open about your pandemic experience
Reach out to your boss before returning to the office so that you will know any expectations ahead of time. It can be an effective way to see what will change in your workflow, and how it can affect your everyday work schedule. “Comment about the impact the pandemic has had on society, your state, your local community, and even your organization,” Dr. Graham says, adding that even going as far as sharing how the pandemic has impacted your life will give it a more human feel that could tug at your manager’s empathy.
2. Know exactly why you’re concerned
Figuring out your own wellness boundaries may be helpful so that you can become clear on exactly what your fears regarding safety precautions are. “Don’t be afraid to tell your leader that these are my concerns,” says Nichols. “A male leader may not realize he has a blind spot in regards to the issues women face until emphasis is placed on the fact that women have a different perspective. The same can be said of being a mother. A female leader who doesn’t have children may simply not consider the risks a mother faces in the workplace. We must understand that ignorance does not always equal bias. Assume good intent and make the effort to educate those that don’t know.”
3. Back up your case
Sometimes numbers talk, and it may be helpful to do your research so you have proof to go along with your concerns. “Some managers make decisions based primarily on research and statistics. Your concerns may be better received if you provide research to support the issues you feel need to be addressed. Often, managers aren’t solely responsible for making the final decision regarding cultural changes in the workplace. Providing your manager with evidence-based support may be greatly appreciated,” Nichols says.
4. Negotiate for compromise
Your boss or your employer may be considering a number of scenarios in order to create a return-to-work plan that is safe. But if you’re an employee who’s concerned about working in-person, seeking out alternative work options, if available, may be worth considering.
But if your employer doesn’t have any safety plans in place, then it’s time to negotiate so that you feel safe on the job. However, Nichols says to be realistic as you approach the conversation: “Typically [managers] only welcome changes that maintain or increase productivity of their area of control. While most managers are genuinely concerned about people, at the end of the day, if a suggestion might result in them falling short of their goals, it will be rejected. You and others who feel as you do may have to make certain guarantees. You may have to make assurances that there will not be a drop off in output or that the exception you are asking for won’t be viewed as an attempt to gain unfair favoritism. Remember that in the workplace, perception is often the only reality that matters. For most managers, the reward must far outweigh the risk.”
Dr. Graham adds that if a compromise must be made, try asking for things like six feet of social distance, remote work on certain days, limited interaction by having meetings via video, and others wearing a mask while in your presence if a mandatory masking is not in place. If you are able to reach a compromise, perhaps an agreement in writing is in order.
Ultimately, you have to do what makes you feel safe in the workplace. “If you find yourself with a manager who is unwilling to allow flexibility, there are other companies and jobs out there that will. Women have to be okay with asking for what they need and be willing to walk away if they don’t get it,” Nichols says.
About our sources
Nicole Nichols is a Learning and Development professional with over 20 years of experience in various leadership roles at Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 organizations.She is a graduate of Johnson C Smith University and Nova Southeastern University.
Dr. Carrie Graham is the owner of Carrie O. Graham Learning & Solutions, a published author, researcher and conference presenter. Dr. Graham helps businesses create improved learning outcomes by strategically integrating adult learning practices. She has over 25 years of experience in learning, instructional design, and leadership development across healthcare, higher education, and management.