Return-to-Work Issues That Unsettle the Brain

As employees re-enter the workplace, what’s top of mind for CEOs and CHROs?

By Alexander Alonso May 24, 2021
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Return-to-Work Issues That Unsettle the Brain

​As I spend time talking to CEOs and CHROs, I’ve come to realize the myriad considerations they now live with more than one year into the pandemic.

Some question whether they will ever return to the worksite. Others wonder what efficiencies they will realize with a fully remote workforce. Most are considering how best to maintain their organization’s cultural values as they persevere.

And for many business leaders, the primary question is how to make a safe return to the worksite possible. As a researcher, I find this last issue is the one that unsettles my brain.

Vital Questions

Providing data for the multitude of employers considering a return to the worksite is paramount. Let’s take a look at what leaders at organizations have been deliberating as they make return-to-work decisions.

How many workers are back in the workplace? As of March, 70 percent of U.S. employees were back, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, and that number is growing. U.S. workers who have returned feel more comfortable at work now than in 2020. 

What makes these employees most comfortable about being back at the worksite? Here are the most influential factors affecting U.S. workers’ comfort levels regarding health and safety at work:

  • The number of people wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) (cited by 58 percent of respondents).
  • The quality of safety policies or procedures (52 percent).
  • The amount of social distancing occurring (48 percent).

What are employers doing to prepare their workers to return? Organizations are maintaining precautions such as PPE mandates, enhanced safety protocols and adherence to social distancing rules.

But increased communication is the biggest driver of readiness for returning to the worksite, according to 80 percent of employees. The good news is the majority of employers have increased the frequency of their communications and improved transparency to help make their workers comfortable with decisions that are made. 

Clarion Call for Data

I recall sitting in on a private conversation between leading retail CEOs and hearing the clarion call for data over mandates. Specifically, the leader of a Fortune 250 enterprise was asking for more information rather than opinion. During this call, I was reminded of the most important part of my role in research: to deliver data to support better decisions.

My graduate advisor was fond of saying, “Data is the double-edged sword upon which leaders mount their successes or impale their legacies.” The words were a bit dramatic, but the point was a good one: Leadership is about the ability to access data and determine what it means.

More than one year into the pandemic, we see a daily cache of data at our disposal, but it is what we do with it that will sustain our enterprises as we look to preserve our workforces and collectively move forward.  

Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, is chief knowledge officer for SHRM.

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