2020 will go down in history as the year that has re-shaped the modern workforce and the way people work. Stay-at-home orders raised questions about the meaning of “essential workers.” Closed borders and travel restrictions forced many organizations to shift to remote-work models. And now, as some organizations have begun to re-open their doors, employers are taking new steps to help keep their physical workspaces safe and reduce the potential risk for workplace violence.
With much emphasis on protection from COVID-19, health and safety materials offer guidelines to help businesses mitigate their own unique risks for virus transmission. An array of products go along with these guidelines: hand sanitizer, cleaning solutions, plexiglass dividers and masks are but a few examples of safety measures that may not have previously been used. As employers review their business practices and process to consider opportunities to reduce the spread of the virus, they also have a unique opportunity to take a fresh look at preventing workplace violence.
As this recent Harvard Business Review piece points out, “anxiety is near-universal right now.” As employees return to the physical workplace they may be challenged by fear of getting sick, past-due bills, uncertainty about school, child care or family matters. And while some employees may welcome a return back to work as relief from a period of isolation, others may resent coming back to a physical workplace if they derived any benefits from working remotely. Employers should also be conscious of the varying viewpoints on COVID-19 and the potential workplace conflicts those can cause. There are some recent examples of violent confrontations in retail stores and restaurants that stemmed from people wearing or not wearing masks. It’s vital that employers consider the physical safety of employees in the context of the larger business environment.
Workplace Considerations after COVID-19
Questions to consider include the scope of employee interactions and look for ways to mitigate the risk of violence. If employees are dealing directly with the public, for example, are there any limitations or requirements customers must follow? If the physical workspace capacity is limited, how is that limitation being communicated? If hand sanitizer or masks are required for entry, are employees expected to enforce those requirements? Providing specific guidance, clearly defined expectations and accessible support as needed can help reassure employees that their physical safety remains an organizational priority. The potential for internal conflict and employee-on-employee violence should also not be overlooked. Are there organizational policies that address appropriate workplace behavior? Employers should ensure they have clear standards in place that anticipate areas of potential escalation: disrespectful speech, for example, or the display of certain items or symbols that could lead to conflict between employees. Another area that should be clearly defined is a process for addressing employee concerns: the reporting process as well as whatever employees should expect as follow-up.
As businesses continue to recover from the effects of this recent pandemic, they may find opportunities to make positive, sustainable changes. As the future of work and the shape of the workforce continues to evolve, businesses should remind themselves that a proactive approach to workplace violence, even in the form of small changes, can yield big results in reassuring employees that they can feel safe returning to work.
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