Fear of Returning to Work: When You’re Ready but Your Employees Are Not

For business owners grappling with how and when to reopen their companies, one thing is apparent: Despite what local and national leaders may say, governments don’t open economies–economies reopen when citizens feel safe enough to resume their usual activities. And it’s possible many of your employees aren’t there yet.

Covid cases and deaths are still on the rise in some areas even as states begin to loosen their social distancing restrictions. So it’s not entirely surprising that in a recent survey conducted by global human resources consulting firm Mercer of 735 U.S. employers, more than 45 percent said they are already struggling with workers who are reluctant to return to their workplaces because of fear of getting sick.

Thus, the pandemic has created a monumental dilemma no leaders have faced before–reopening means asking your team to run the risk they may be exposed to the virus; staying closed any longer means you may never have the means to open again.

It’s a dilemma Peter Newell is thinking a lot about. As a former Army colonel, he spent many years on the frontlines in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, forced to tackle ill-defined challenges in high-risk situations, often without the resources he needed. When he retired in 2013, he redeployed that expertise into his company, BMNT, a problem-solving and innovation shop that primarily serves large businesses and government agencies. BMNT is a two-time honoree on Inc.‘s list of the fastest-growing companies, pulling in $8 million in revenue in 2019. As the world began shutting down in response to the coronavirus, the pace at his 50-person company only increased: Clients wanted help figuring out how to adapt to and work in a post-Covid environment.

BMNT co-founder and CEO Peter Newell.U.S. Air Force Photo by Richard Gonzales

“This is going to play out in a couple of different ways. Some [business owners] get it and will take personal responsibility for what happens at their companies,” Newell says. “Others are going to look to the government to tell them what to do, and it might be appropriate, but you’re putting your fate in the hands of someone who may or may not understand your business’s circumstances.”

“No decision is a decision,” he adds. “You don’t get to escape this one.”

Newell’s experience leading troops into combat offers valuable perspective for any leader facing the reopening quandary. Below, he offers tips on how compassionate leaders inspire trust and take responsibility for their teams.

You can’t manage people’s fears–but you can support them.

Fear manifests itself differently in different people. Consider that some of your employees may be worried about their aging parents they’re unable to see face-to-face; others are both afraid of losing their children and at wit’s end because they’re juggling child care and work; and then there’s fear about economic security or contracting the virus.

“You don’t go onto the frontlines thinking, ‘I’ll be the guy that dies today.’ It’s always a shock when someone is killed, no matter how many times it happens. It’s not radically different in assuming I’ll always be healthy but then suddenly I [or someone I know] test positive for Covid,” Newell says.

You can’t eliminate those fears, but you can and should encourage your people to be honest about what they’re feeling. And in return? Listen. Then, give them clear, transparent communication about what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re doing as a business to lower the risks for staff.

Newell says there’s a reason why small military units are so powerful: A tightly connected unit acts as a support network for everyone inside it. “If I’m afraid of something but I’m surrounded by a group of people I trust, I’m willing to put aside my fears and do something,” he says.

Go deep on what returning to work looks like–and all of its ramifications.

Elon Musk recently made headlines for insisting that California let him reopen Tesla’s Fremont factory, and threatening to leave the state if unable to do so. Alameda County gave into Musk Thursday, telling the billionaire entrepreneur that the company must maintain “minimum” operations. Musk may have won the battle, but he’s also creating new dilemmas for his employees, Newell says.

“People have to work, but many of those folks have kids who aren’t in school. So now who’s minding the kids?” he says. “And if someone says no to coming back, do they lose their job?”

A lot of what Newell and his team are thinking about both internally and with clients is mapping out exactly what going back to work will look like for employees. For instance, if you have teams in big cities where employees take public transportation, it doesn’t matter how rock-solid your safety measures are in the office–taking a crowded subway renders them useless. And how will you handle resuming face-to-face meetings with third parties? Responding to employees’ fears means thinking through these scenarios and coming up with alternatives. Perhaps those who previously commuted continue to work remotely or work schedules that involve commuting during off-hours.

As for resuming face-to-face meetings with clients, Newell has banned team travel until the end of June on the basis of conversations with clients. Even if clients begin to open up, however, he says BMNT will do its own threat assessments for each and every scenario based on the distance required to travel, the means of getting there, and where the meetings will take place.

Directly address the stress your employees are going through.

Newell and his team have been working 18 to 20 hours a day because they have clients across multiple time zones. Add on top of that the stress of being on lockdown, and he’s acutely aware that his people aren’t getting many opportunities to take breaks. He’s already mandated no email and no Slack messages on the weekends. Beyond that, he’s having frank conversations with everyone about finding ways to return to work refreshed.

“Nobody is taking vacations this summer,” Newell says. “So I’m asking folks when all this ends, tell me how you’re taking time off to get away. No one has the answer right now, but one of the things that needs to be addressed is making sure people’s brains are refreshed and they’ll be eager to return.”

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