HR issues amid COVID-19: Returning to the workplace

Written on Jun 04, 2020

By Steve Black, MSE, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, senior HR manager, Brixey & Meyer 

“I’m scared to come back into the office.” 

“There is no way I am wearing a mask.” 

“How often will workstations be sanitized?” 

“This whole pandemic is ridiculous. We never should have shut down in the first place!” 

“I’m making more money on unemployment, so I do not plan on returning to the office quite yet.” 

Have you heard any of these comments? Work is taking place throughout American businesses to get things back to “normal.” “Normal,” though, will be anything but normal. Plastic shields, face masks and taping off social distancing reminders are now normal tasks for HR and business leaders. As plans roll out, the workplace will look very different than it did three months ago. As leaders overcome physical obstacles, a greater obstacle will need attention: the psychological mindset of workers across the nation. 

What felt like overnight, the safety needs (as defined in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) trumped other personal needs (e.g.—self-actualization). According to Maslow, it is almost impossible to move into the higher reaches of his hierarchy (Love and Belonging, Esteem, and Self-Actualization) before first meeting the lower needs (Physiological, Safety). Right now, employers must recognize the psychological challenges many employees face with returning to the workplace. Successful transitioning depends upon ensuring employees both are safe and feel safe. Employers can mandate face masks and have people follow this guidance. Employees, though, might still feel unsafe. Time, ongoing communication and consistent safety measures will go a long way in winning the psychological battle many employees face. 

Employers can purchase equipment, post signs, and hold meetings with little difficulty. This is what good employers will do. The best employers will recognize the psychological battle many employees face and work to address these needs. Here are some recommendations to consider: 

1. Form a committee to build your transition plan 

Employers need to hear from multiple voices. In addition, all businesses need advocates to build the plan, implement it and help employees address challenges. The more buy-in and opportunities to hear from key employees will go a long way in having a successful plan that helps all employees transition well. 

2. Communicate early and often 

Many companies have already built their plans. It is vital to communicate what has been done, what is being done and what will be done on a regular basis. Employees need to hear from their leaders often. Emailing a plan to employees and hoping they figure it out will not ease the psychological adjustment many employees will need. 

3. Take time to listen…REALLY listen 

There may be times where employees need to vent or express concern. When struggling employees know they are heard and respected, bringing up issues as they arise will help in the process of healing. 

4. Accommodate employee needs when you can. When you can’t, explain why. 

Many employees will face childcare and healthcare issues. We are far from being done with this pandemic as many employment laws run through Dec. 31. Not all childcare and healthcare concerns fall within the reaches of the FFCRA’s Paid Leave Provisions. Helping employees balance work-life challenges will go a long way in retaining them. When requests cannot be met, many employees appreciate empathetic feedback and a conversation that might allow for a compromised solution. 

5. Be nimble and flexible 

Governmental guidance, regulations and legislation will change as we move through this pandemic. Adjusting transition plans to meet these recommendations and requirements will need ongoing discussion, communication, and implementation. Doing this well shows that employers are in touch with reality. 

Employers and employees need time to adjust to whatever the “new normal” is. This will take more than hand-sanitizing stations, masks, and hand-washing signs. These are good, but employees need employers, who recognize and support the psychological obstacles many employees face. 

Now, put on a mask, sit six feet apart from your team-member, and enjoy being off a Zoom call! 

This series explores HR-related areas needing consideration as leaders deal with the current COVID-19 disruption. If you missed part one of this multi-part series, please explore it. 

Hang in there! This will pass! We are in this together! 

Need assistance with addressing short- and long-term HR needs for your business? Contact me at, and we will address them proactively. 

Disclaimer: This blog is not legal advice, but merely informed opinion or general information meant for no particular purpose. Issues addressed in this blog often implicate federal, state, and local labor and employment laws. This blog is not intended as a substitute for legal advice. Readers should consult labor and employment counsel to determine whether their particular policies, procedures, decisions or courses of action comply with such laws. 

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