Employee trust: Critical for a safe return to physical workplaces

Markus Heinen says trust is crucial to the new workplace.

As countries around the world went into lockdown, businesses were forced to close their offices and, those who could, started working from home. For most businesses, it has proved to be a massive operational, technological and logistical challenge, the likes of which not many had seen before.

While going into lockdown was difficult, emerging from it and getting people back into the physical workplace is going to be far more complex and challenging.

Central to any return to physical workplaces is the need to keep workers safe. But even this comes with its challenges, as many workers are still concerned about returning to physical workplaces.

A survey conducted at the end of April 2020 by software company Qualtrics showed that 66% of US respondents weren’t comfortable going back into the workplace. Likewise, in the two months to mid-May, nearly 5,000 people in the UK contacted the regulatory body, the Health and Safety Executive, with workplace safety concerns related to Covid-19.

In this context, trust is the only currency that will convince employees to come back and stay back. And that means not only ensuring that employees are physically safe but also that they feel safe. However, how employees experience any return is key to gaining their continued confidence and trust.

Businesses will need to listen closely to their people, some of whom may not actually want to return to the physical workplace yet.

Building trust in a Covid-19 world

The authorities are already putting in place the requirements that need to be met for employees to return to physical workplaces. Through training and education, businesses are going to have to implement those requirements while keeping people front and centre of any decision-making process.

To lay the foundations for the future of work, there are three key immediate priorities for businesses when considering a safe transition: planning, profiling and protecting.

Planning a safe return

Planning a physical return to work is complicated as there are high levels of uncertainty around external factors that are beyond a business’s control. These include government directives based on responses to scientific data, as well as factors such as the availability of public transport and personal protective equipment (PPE).

More importantly, businesses will need to listen closely to their people, some of whom may not actually want to return to the physical workplace yet. As such, adaptive planning and leadership will be key, and several factors will need to be addressed.

Instituting social distancing regimes will reduce occupancy levels – this is a major area of planning, especially as maintaining social distancing won’t always be possible due to spatial constraints. Notwithstanding social distancing, cleaning will be crucial, and risk assessments should dictate the depth and frequency of cleaning specific surfaces and high-touch items.


Segmenting teams, flexing schedules and alternating shifts are all useful ways to reduce transmission risk. Procedures to govern collective interactions, especially meetings, will also be important.

Finally, a comprehensive communications strategy will be crucial in enabling safety and building trust. This will include a pre-return staff consultation, day one and emergency protocol comms, and day-to-day communication to maintain confidence and trust.

Who should return and why

Another central part of the planning process is establishing exactly who should return to physical workplaces, at what time, and at what risk.

First, businesses will need to establish what is critical. Which people physically need to be back in the workplace ahead of others? These will be in roles that are essential for operations and can’t be undertaken remotely.

To determine this, they will need to consider what is possible. For instance, the number of employees within any given physical location, and rules on public transport and travel.

They will also need to evaluate what is safe. Primarily, they should look at employee’s Covid-19 status, or whether they are in an ‘at-risk’ category. This should also include consulting employees on whether they want to return to the workplace or would rather continue to work remotely for the time being or, indeed, permanently.

It’s vital that businesses design a strategy based on employee feedback. Any other approach will hinder trust.

Safety comes first

It’s essential that employees feel safe both before and after they return to the workplace. Much of this will come from practical safety measures being put in place, but it may also come from how businesses are managing customers or visitors to the workplace.

Beyond any initial plans, employees need to trust that their employer is going to keep them safe once they are back, and as time passes (especially as more colleagues return to physical workplaces). The need to feel protected is likely to continue for some time.

Trust cannot be taken for granted. In the results of an Edelman poll of 13,000 people released in early May, only 44% of respondents said they believed companies were protecting their employee sufficiently from Covid-19. The study noted that ‘business is being questioned about both its ability and its integrity, the key building blocks of trust’.

Safety and trust are clearly linked – so communication, listening, consultation, behaviour management and engagement are vital. Employee listening will be critical, and this can be done face-to-face or through virtual platforms to gather real-time feedback.

Business should evidence safety-thinking in their communications. Be clear and be bold – build safety priorities into every aspect of communication and leadership. It is the foundation upon which to build trust.

Likewise, it is vital that employees see that businesses are making changes in response to feedback and concerns. Listening to employees but failing to act will quickly undermine any trust that has been built. Business will need to continue to adapt, be agile and be transparent.

Reimagining work 

While significant time has been spent reacting to the crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic has also created the opportunity for businesses to transform and reimagine not only the physical workplace but also future relationships with their people.

There is a distinct opportunity to upskill, reskill and plan for new working patterns, utilising people who may need to do something different. Businesses who look after their people in this way will also further enhance the trust they have built in the immediate term.

Central to any changes will be the physical and mental health of employees. These were already in the spotlight prior to the pandemic, and they will need continued focus and investment in order to maintain trust and create an effective working environment.

This period of time will be remembered for a variety of reasons, and employees will remember how their organisation treated them and how they felt during the transition and transformation of work. Businesses that create a new work experience based on safety and trust will find they reap the rewards long after the pandemic has receded.


About the author

Markus Heinen is GSA People Advisory Services Leader for EY.


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