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Employee Experience

How to protect the health and safety of your on-site and frontline employees

This is the second post in a two-part series about supporting on-site employees during COVID-19. Read part one about listening effectively to these essential on-site and frontline workers.

As things change rapidly with the COVID-19 crisis, the importance of keeping employees safe and healthy has emerged as the top priority for companies across the globe. While many employees are able to shift to remote work, most of our essential services need employees to be physically present.

We know it’s critical to listen to feedback from on-site workers. Active listening not only helps to look after employee health and safety, but also makes sure they have everything they need to continue to work productively. And as conditions change day to day, swift and effective communication between on-site employees and their leaders has never been more important.

We’re all learning new ways to stay socially connected, but physically distant, which means adapting the communication tools and techniques we have available to us.

But once you start listening and gathering this important feedback from on-site workers, what are the best ways to ensure you are getting insights in an ongoing and consistent way? And how should you turn those learnings into action?

Here are some practical steps for HR teams and leaders to protect the health and safety of their on-site employees.

Step 1: Promote an environment of two-way feedback

Things are moving fast, so stopping to check in with your on-site employees, or asking them to pause and give feedback, is an increasing challenge.

Traditional methods of emailing requests for feedback and reminders are no longer effective alone, as most employees in on-site roles are not always in front of a computer. The intensity of their work and immediate nature of demands means they have limited concentration spans for non-essential tasks, like providing feedback.

Company leaders who practice and promote two-way feedback—by leveraging relevant technologies to listen and flexible communication methods to show action—will build a workforce that is better connected to each other and to the overall company mission, especially during times when anxiety and stress is heightened.

Build trust and confidence with two-way feedback

  1. Understand what’s important before asking for feedbackand be specific in your requests.
    Keeping employees safe and healthy requires deep insights into things such as clarity of safety guidelines, accessibility of resources or equipment, safety of the environment for employees and customers, and effectiveness of communications, so be direct and specific when requesting feedback on these topics. Finally, prioritize the questions you really need answers to and ensure the feedback takes no more than a moment to provide. This will help respect employee time when they’re facing intense work scenarios (and intrusive questionnaires will not be welcome).
  2. Foster a “speak up” culture by gathering feedback often.
    During these times, those who raise concerns or remind others of safe behaviors need to be seen as advocates and free from retaliation. But you don’t have to wait for people to have the courage to speak up—ask them how they feel, what they see, and what would make them feel safer. This can be as simple as a supervisor asking, “What’s one thing we can do to help you feel more supported during this time?” during regular rounds.
  3. Add flexible feedback and communication channels where necessary.
    Increasing connectedness with on-site employees requires flexible communication styles and channels such as email, SMS, in-person communication, on-site signage, and the employee intranet. Finally, make sure feedback requests and communications are flexible to work within their schedule, both during and after work, to ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate.
  4. Act on employee feedback and clearly link it back to what you heard to show employees the organization is listening.
    Only ask for feedback on areas you intend to take action on. Otherwise employees will start to view it as a waste of time. And once this is done, leaders must demonstrate that the organization is taking employee feedback seriously by clearly linking its impact to their decisions and actions.

Step 2: Be clear about when to stay at home

Keep in mind that some employees will lose pay or feel insecure not coming into work, so they’ll be motivated to do so even if they're not feeling well. Therefore it’s important to provide options to support these employees, letting them know about sick leave or other relevant policies.

Also take into consideration that each team within an organization will have slightly nuanced norms around whether or not it is acceptable to take time off work when an employee needs it— or if the team encourages each other to “push through.”

Now is the time to break down inconsistencies and communicate clearly about when employees should not come to work and what their options are. Clear expectations are critical. Shift the narrative to let employees know it’s okay to take time off if they are feeling unwell or have caretaking responsibilities, and ensure managers are clear on these messages too so they can reinforce.

Here are a few ways to encourage your people to stay at home:

  • Display posters to present clear messages about your health, safety, and sick-leave policies in physical workspaces. Combine this with other communication channels commonly used in your organization or business, like your employee intranet or all-company email updates. 

Tip: Your local public health authority may have also developed campaign materials to promote these messages, like these free printable posters from the CDC:

Step 3: Keep the workplace safe and clean

Combating COVID-19 requires a shared responsibility to keep our workplaces safe and clean. It asks every employee to rise above their normal work requirements and engage in behaviors that will have an overall positive impact on themselves and the community,[1] therefore it’s important to:

  • Ensure employees feel individually responsible, reminding them of how their actions can influence the welfare of many others. Clearly illustrate the difference between safe and unsafe practices with concrete examples and debunk the idea that others will take care of this on their behalf.
  • Reinforce the belief that employees have the skills and autonomy to make a difference. Remind them of the urgency of the situation, keep safe behaviors top of mind with visual and social cues, and reward those who go above and beyond.
  • Make sure staff, contractors, and customers have access to the resources they need, such as places to wash their hands with soap and water, hand sanitizer, and other protective equipment.

Step 4: Make support and guidance readily available

Many companies have Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) or mental health support. In lieu of company-based programs, there are also community-based resources such as counseling and helplines. Here are some ways to help employees quickly get the information they need:

  • Provide reminders on how to access EAP resources. There will be many employees who are unfamiliar with the process, as they are accessing these services for the first time.
  • Start a dialogue among employees to encourage peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. This will empower employees to share information and quickly identify signs of distress in co-workers.
  • Keep managers in the loop. Be sure all people managers receive information specific to their team’s roles and responsibilities to help keep employees safe and informed.
  • Lose the jargon when it comes to personal safety. Not everyone understands what “social distancing” actually is in practice. Use visual cues such as posters for hand washing and markers on the ground for standing in line at a safe distance.

Step 5: Be mindful of their mental health

It is almost inevitable that employee mental health will be a risk for employees who are on-site during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to being clear with your communications and regularly checking in with employees, there are extra steps you can take to address the psychological health of on-site employees:

  • Build the resilience of on-site employees with great leadership, enhanced autonomy, and clear communications.
  • Remind employees that, in order to protect their mental health, it’s ok to take a break, even during moments of high demand.
  • Look for signs of distress among your team and peers. Actively identify opportunities to provide support before burnout occurs.

Many employees will experience higher levels of anxiety, burnout, and trauma during this time. Protecting the physical will, in turn, protect employee mental health, reducing concerns and increasing feelings of control over the situation.

And finally...

With the situation changing regularly, it’s never been more important to check in regularly with your people.

For companies with listening programs in place, there are a few crucial adjustments needed to take the above steps and protect the health and safety of on-site employees. For organizations without established employee feedback channels, there is no better time to start.

Gather essential feedback today using the free Remote + On-Site Work Pulse

[1] Brief, A.P. & Motowidlo, S.J. (1986). Prosocial Organizational Behaviors. The Academy of Management Review.

Tara Belliard // Principal Employee Experience (EX) Consultant

Tara is a Principal Consultant, Employee Experience for Qualtrics, supporting clients in designing and scaling employee experience programs. She has deep expertise helping organizations create workplaces that are both engaging and productive. She has 10+ years of experience consulting with senior leaders and Fortune 500 companies and holds a Masters Degree in I/O Psychology from New York University.

Tika Wadhwa // Principal Employee Experience (EX) Consultant

Tika is a Principal Consultant – Employee Experience for Qualtrics, supporting clients in designing and scaling employee experience programs. She has deep expertise in coaching leaders and organizations to lead change initiatives to significantly enhance the employee experience. A prosci certified change management practitioner, she has 10+ years of experience consulting with senior leaders of many Fortune 500 companies. Tika holds a Masters Degree in I/O Psychology from Claremont Graduate University and a Bachelors in Economics from DePauw University.

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