How to make employees feel safe at work during COVID-19

Welcome to a new era of workplace safety

If you asked someone 12 months ago what they most wanted in a workplace, “safe” likely wasn’t the first word that came to mind. That’s not because a safe workplace isn’t important—safety is one of our basic needs as humans—but it’s something that many of us take for granted.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced all of us to shift our priorities, including what people need and expect from their employers.

To better understand people’s current mindsets about their workplaces, we surveyed 1,000 workers in the US about what they need to feel safe at work. The audience included people in all stages of returning to the workplace: from those who never stopped working from their workplace to those who continue to work remotely.

Our findings show that people have major concerns about working on-site. 73% of people are worried about going to the physical office. Most companies are taking these concerns seriously, and for good reason: over half of people would consider leaving their job if their employer didn’t prioritize their safety. As the pandemic continues, it’s imperative for employers to make sure employees feel confident coming to work in the first place.

In this report, we’ll look at which employees are most concerned about returning to the workplace and what those concerns are. We’ll dig into how frequently employees want to work from the workplace and what they miss most. Finally, we’ll cover what safety measures aren’t working from employees’ point of view and what they see as non-negotiables for returning.

Survey methodology

For this report, we partnered with Wakefield Research to survey 1,000 full and part-time employees over the age of 18 in the United States. Survey responses were collected between August 27th and September 1st, 2020, using an email invitation and an online survey. The data was weighted to ensure an accurate representation of full-time and part-time employees.

1. Concerns vary by age, industry, and company size

The majority of workers (73%) are concerned about going to the physical workplace. However, the level of concern varies by age group, location, and the type and size of the workplace. Here’s how people responded when we asked, “How worried for your health and safety are you with regard to going into the workplace?”

Level of worry by age group

People in their thirties expressed the most concern about their health and safety at work. Although still concerned, respondents in their twenties and over fifty were most likely to be only somewhat worried or not worried at all. People in their thirties are most likely to be parents of young kids, which may be the source of their heightened unease. It’s possible that people in this age group fear bringing the virus home or are anxious about arranging for childcare in their absence. Despite being the most at risk, people over the age of 50 were least concerned about returning to the workplace.

Level of worry by region

The people who are most concerned about their health and safety live in the Northeast followed by the South. These areas were hardest hit by the pandemic, which is probably why the people who live there are most concerned about their health and safety. Folks in the Midwest and West are less concerned, which correlates with their lower case counts in those areas.

Level of worry by type of work

Peoples’ concerns about working on-site with others also varies based on the work they do. One unexpected finding is that people whose work requires them to go to their workplace are less concerned overall. This group includes people who work in retail stores, assembly lines, or hospitals. People who work in technology or business service roles worry most about returning. This group is least likely to be back in the office, so their anxieties could arise from a fear of the unknown. Technology and business service jobs tend to take root in cities, where illnesses spread faster.

Level of worry by company size

Last, people who work at smaller companies are more concerned than those who work at larger companies. Employees at smaller companies may assume that their employer has fewer resources to devote to health and safety.

If your company is tight on resources, look for tools that automate workplace safety. Screening employees and keeping count of occupancy are important but can become burdensome. There are plenty of free tools out there that can take this work off your team’s plate.

2. People are concerned about sick employees coming to work and workplace overcrowding

Research shows that COVID-19 spreads person to person and when people are in close contact with one another. As expected, people want to avoid a situation where they’re near a sick person at work. People are most nervous about coming into contact with a sick person at work. People also don’t want to find themselves in a crowded workplace where they can’t keep a safe distance.

Top concerns about working in the workplace

Workplaces can ease these anxieties by taking control of who and how many people can come on-site. The CDC recommends that workplaces conduct daily in-person or virtual health checks.

To ensure too many people aren’t on-site at once, companies should consider implementing work schedules or enforcing capacity limits. Companies can ensure occupancy stays below a certain threshold by keeping count of everyone who comes in and out of the building.

Ensure that only people who certify they’re healthy can enter your building by connecting your screening process to your access control system. If an employee doesn’t complete or fails your health, they won’t be able to unlock the doors or elevators that let them access your space.

3. People want more flexible working arrangements looking ahead

An overwhelming majority of people want to work from their workplaces once restrictions lift. 94% of respondents said they’d like to spend at least one day on-site each week. Yet, the majority expect much greater flexibility in their work schedules looking ahead.

Almost half of people prefer to work on-site for a full five-day workweek post-pandemic. The remaining 54% would ideally work on-site none or part of the week. In this same vein, 20% of respondents said they would consider leaving their current jobs if they couldn’t have a flexible work schedule.

Workplaces will need to account for the fact that up to half of their workforce may be out of the office, working from home on any one day. With fewer employees in the workplace, more square footage and desks will go unused. Companies will need to reevaluate how they lay out their space and make it available to employees.

People miss their work friends and watercooler chats

Working from home has its perks; however, most people miss the experience of being in their physical workplace. Of people who spent at least some time working remotely, 90% reported they miss or missed something about their workplaces.

Spending time face to face with co-workers is far and away what people miss most about going to work. Almost two-thirds of respondents long for the social interactions that come standard in the workplace. People missed spending time with teammates and casual catch-ups in communal areas like near the coffee maker or at the lunch tables.

People miss workplace events almost as much as free snacks and drinks. And over a fifth of respondents appreciated having the time away from their families.

A majority of workers expect greater flexibility in their work schedules looking ahead.

4. Not all workplace safety measures are working well

Almost everyone back at work sees their employers taking steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. Even better, 58% of people say that all of their employer’s safety measures are effective and enforced. That said, 42% of people feel their employers’ efforts have room for improvement.

Safety measures in use and effectiveness

The most common safety measure is requiring that people wear a mask in the office. Many workplaces also provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees. People feel that workplace-provided PPE, frequent cleanings, and temperature screenings are most effective.

Help employees keep a safe distance by monitoring workplace occupancy and enforcing capacity limits. Have employees sign in when they arrive to keep an accurate count. Automate this process to save your team time with an employee sign-in tool.

In line with CDC guidelines, 60% of workplaces ask employees to stay six-feet apart on-site. Yet, 33% of people said this measure has shown to be ineffective—the second most of any tactic. Respondents saw adjusting commute arrangements to avoid public transit as least effective.

For the most part, workplaces are doing the right things in their employees’ eyes when it comes to safety measures. However, companies may want to revisit how they can better enforce social distancing. Workplaces should consider spacing out work stations, enforcing capacity limits, or providing detailed guidance to employees about how to interact with others.

Safety, flexibility, and privacy are non-negotiable to return

Similar to workplaces’ requirements for coming on-site, employees have their own list of requirements to return to work. If employers don’t meet employees’ needs, 75% of respondents said they would consider leaving their jobs.

Employer actions that would make one consider leaving job

The majority of people are worried about going to their workplaces. It’s therefore no surprise that 55% of respondents would consider leaving if their employer downplayed COVID-19, didn’t follow safety measures, or urged employees to return before they’re ready. Privacy is also a sticking point to 37% of respondents. Many would consider handing in their resignation if their employer asked for and improperly shared or stored health information.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) temporarily allows employers to ask employees if they have COVID-19 symptoms. Workplaces should create a screening process that keeps employees’ responses private to them.

Retaining top talent is critical, especially during our current financial downturn. To keep employees happy and away from the job boards, companies need to take employees’ health and privacy seriously.

Almost  1/3 of respondents would consider leaving their jobs if their employer didn’t follow safety measures.

Workplaces need to put employees’ safety first

Stylized illustration of the employee badge in Envoy Protect.

People see that their employers are doing their part and trust them to continue. 89% of respondents trust their employers to take all the necessary steps to keep them safe.

That said, people still have anxieties about their safety at work. Companies need to do more to ensure employees feel comfortable returning. If companies don’t take action, they risk losing employees to a company that does. Companies should take a hard look at the breadth effectiveness of their health and safety measures.

Employees also have hopes for a more flexible workplace when they return. These expectations will demand that companies reimagine the role of the office and how people use it. That may mean scheduling which days employees can work in the office and moving from assigned desks to hot-desking.

No matter if your employees are back in the workplace or working from home, companies need to take action to keep them safe now.