As Covid lockdowns are lifted and workplaces reopen, how can businesses promote employee engagement, productivity, and safety? The authors surveyed more than 350 employees in Wuhan, China a few weeks after the city’s lockdown was lifted to explore how both employees and managers prepared for the return to work. They found that the most successful teams were those where employees mentally prepared themselves to come back to their jobs and where managers proactively and consistently promoted health and safety in the workplace. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, the authors suggest that these findings may be helpful to inform how businesses around the world prepare themselves for reopening.
Much has been written about managing through the lockdowns of the pandemic. But what can managers do to set themselves and their teams up for success when lockdowns and social distancing requirements are eventually lifted?
To explore this question, we surveyed more than 350 employees in Wuhan, China just three weeks after a strict city-wide lockdown was lifted in early April. The vast majority of the respondents had been forced to stop working when their employers shut down during the lockdown, and those employers were motivated to make a speedy return to normal operations while doing everything they could to avoid a resurgence of the virus.
In our surveys, we were particularly interested in how people prepared themselves and their teams to go back to work. Previous research has demonstrated the importance of mentally preparing for work, and so we asked the participants in our study about what they did (and didn’t do) to get themselves ready to return to the office. In addition, we asked employees about the extent to which they felt their managers were committed to promoting workplace health and safety (e.g., wearing masks themselves, communicating the importance of safety protocols, etc.). We then conducted a follow-up survey about four weeks later to assess employees’ engagement and productivity at work, to determine which employee and manager behaviors correlated with employee engagement.
We found that engagement and performance were highest when employees had mentally prepared for their return to work and their managers had demonstrated a commitment to promoting workplace health and safety. Importantly, neither of these factors was enough on its own: Both employees and managers have important roles to play when it comes to making sure employees are engaged and productive post-lockdown. So, what does it take to keep yourself — and your team — engaged in these trying times?
Employees: Take Some Time to Reconnect with Work
First, take a moment to acknowledge the fact that lockdowns have been extremely disruptive to many people’s work. Don’t try to jump right back into the daily grind without pausing to reflect and reconnect. Past research has shown that employees returning to work after large-scale disruptive, traumatic events may have trouble staying focused at work, and that some readjustment is often necessary.
To foster engagement post-lockdown, it’s important to make sure you’re not just physically ready, but also mentally prepared to return to work. In our surveys, we found that it was very helpful when employees spent some time reviewing their past progress, setting priorities for upcoming goals, and creating short- and long-term to-do lists for themselves, before coming back to work. Just as a bit of stretching can get your body revved up for a physical workout, some simple mental preparation can ensure that you stay engaged when transitioning back to the job.
Managers: Proactively Promote Workplace Safety
For many employees, the return to work will be accompanied by the knowledge that a second (or third) wave of the pandemic is possible, and that loosening social distancing restrictions doesn’t come without risk. Concern about their own health and safety upon returning to work is likely to be a major source of stress for employees, and that stress can significantly diminish engagement. While managers can’t directly eliminate these real risks, our research suggests that managers can mitigate people’s concern by going out of their way to proactively promote — and enforce — workplace health and safety.
First, managers should make sure everyone in the organization fully understands and abides by health and safety protocols and procedures. This includes clearly communicating your organization’s guidelines, such as mask wearing and daily temperature checks, and compassionately but firmly correcting those who fail to follow these important workplace health and safety protocols.
Next, managers should ensure that their teams are actually able to follow these rules by doing everything they can to maintain sufficient personal protective equipment and disinfecting supplies. While this can be largely outside individual managers’ control, a little extra planning to determine clear supply lines, rationing, and whatever other factors you do control can go a long way.
Furthermore, because the situation surrounding the pandemic can be so volatile, organizations or even individual managers can demonstrate their commitment to safety by going above and beyond minimum health and safety standards set by local public health departments. For example, a manager may choose to proactively enforce mask-wearing within their organization before it is officially mandated by local regulations, or may elect to use a lower positivity rate than local guidelines require as the threshold for increasing health and safety measures.
Most critically, managers’ commitment to the health and safety of their employees must be more than mere lip service. In addition to listening to what their managers say, employees closely watch what managers do — and that means that announcing your support for employees’ health and safety is a good start, but it is only a start.
A rich body of workplace safety research has shown that the root cause of many safety incidents can be traced back to managerial practices that deviated from stated procedures. Through our studies, we consistently found that when managers fail to “walk the walk,” the inconsistency sends a signal to employees that their organization does not truly care about their health and safety.
For example, if a barista is confronted by a customer refusing to follow safety guidelines, they may look to their manager to support them in enforcing company policies (potentially at the cost of this customer’s business). If the manager fails to support them and instead allows the customer to skirt the rules, the barista may come to the conclusion that their manager prioritizes profit over employee health and safety.
When managers are not genuinely and consistently committed to following their own rules, employees are likely to become more concerned about their own safety, thus increasing their stress levels and reducing their engagement. This ultimately creates a vicious cycle of mounting stress and safety risks: As our findings highlight, a lack of managerial commitment to health and safety can reduce employees’ engagement at work, leading employees not only to underperform on the job, but also to fail to abide by health and safety protocols themselves, further increasing the risk of virus outbreaks that threaten both safety and stress levels.
Of course, it is important to note that our research focused solely on the situation in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged and was effectively brought under control many months ago through strict lockdowns, large-scale testing, and widespread contact tracing. Given the discrepancies in how the virus has spread and been managed in different locations, it is possible that our findings may not be fully applicable to other countries and regions.
For example, in places where the risk of transmission is higher or where local guidelines (or adherence to those guidelines) are less consistent, employees may be even more concerned about their managers’ commitment to health and safety. Furthermore, as some countries are currently going into a second lockdown, a growing sense of “pandemic fatigue” may make it even more important to mentally reconnect with work to ensure engagement upon employees’ eventual return. But regardless of your location, our study highlights the importance of managers and employees working together to effectively promote post-lockdown engagement, productivity, and most importantly, safety.