Expect to see Covid-19 safety performance added to organizations’ corporate social responsibility reports. Specially-designated paragraphs will detail how companies are keeping their people safe, how they are measuring the impact, and the results.
As the Covid-19 crisis unfolded, I talked about the Big Reset – a new way of thinking about work, life, business, and leadership. One of the major dimensions of this is the need to reaffirm employee trust. It’s something so many organizations assume they have, but does that bear out – especially now? As businesses reopen and employees are called to return to work, can they trust that they will still have a job, and that their employer will keep them safe?
I’ve learned a lot about trust through the Edelman Trust Barometer – the iconic research in this area. It shows that, over the last decade, there has been a tremendous erosion of the public trust – in politicians, in the media, and beyond. The big exception is our employers, which turn out to be by far the most trusted institutions in our lives.
Now more than ever, we have to live up to that trust. Employees have a lot to worry about at the moment, and we need to do everything we can to listen to and allay those fears.
What is trust?
So how might we understand trust, and how do we bolster it among employees right now? I think it comes down to three simple elements, all of which resonate particularly in the context of Covid-19.
The first is ethics. Do you level with people? And do you tell them the whole truth? Do you listen to people’s concerns and ideas, and consider the impact of new decisions on their lives? Can individuals express their opinions if they don’t feel comfortable about something the company is doing? These considerations should form part of an ethical framework – something every company should have.
The second dimension is competence. Trust in a company is eroded when its product breaks, or a service doesn’t live up to expectations. In the current climate, trust in employers will be eroded if they do not keep their people safe. We have to be exceptionally competent at this time. If we don’t do the right thing – if we don’t sanitize buildings and work spaces or prevent people from infecting each other – how can we expect employees or the wider world to trust us? The policies and practices you put into place around safety must be well thought out and detailed. And you, as a leader, must enforce and model them, be open to iterative improvements, and be accountable for communicating all related information to employees.
The third aspect to ensuring trust is giving people a voice. If a friend fails to listen to you, your trust in that person is diminished. The same applies to companies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a problem with an organization, only to find I couldn’t get hold of someone to express my dissatisfaction. Customers resent that, and so do employees. Listening to your people isn’t just about employee pulse surveys or annual feedback mechanisms. You must work to develop a culture of listening, one in which employees observe that their feedback is carefully considered and acted upon.
So let’s come back to how companies will be managing employee trust as lockdown measures begin to ease and businesses get back to work.
Seeing is believing
Initially, as the implications of Covid-19 sank in, many companies issued statements – at pains to let the world know they would be ‘doing their utmost’ to maintain the strictest standards of hygiene and of care for their employees. But actions speak louder than words, and only time will tell whether businesses have got this right.
I’ve been speaking to many executives all over the world about their post-COVID plans. At a major national power infrastructure provider in Europe, the head of HR has outlined new measures for its crisis teams which provide a 24-hour emergency response. The company has had to look at how to resource these without putting people at risk. Its strategy is to test a group of employees, house them on site for 30 days, then give them two to three weeks off as the next shift takes over. This has gone down well: the people involved feel safe and taken care of, and the new measures offer them something rewarding in return for the disruption to their home lives.
In the case of a major airline, which has recognized it must work hard to win the confidence of employees as well as passengers when resuming post-Covid flights, HR is working with the health and safety function to implement a ‘Swiss cheese’ approach to its safeguards. That is, teams are working on the assumption that each layer of protection added will be penetrable somewhere or somehow, but that if enough barriers are stacked on top of each other, the overall risk will be miniscule.
Poor Covid performance: the new business risk
Some organizations will say all the right things, without following through. But the truth will out. If employees don’t feel safe, word will spread: people’s low opinion of their employers will be exposed through negative social and media commentary.
Even aside from any direct impact on health outcomes for employees, a poor Covid-19 response in the workplace could rank as the latest form of business risk for organizations – due to the potential for reputational damage and the reduced ability to attract and retain desirable talent.
By contrast, companies that see the value in being as rigorous, vigilant and transparent as they promise have much to gain. With everyone in a state of heightened alert and fear, employers and their HR teams have a chance to be heroes. They can demonstrate their commitment to staff safety and to their physical and emotional wellbeing by first hearing and then proactively addressing and allaying their fears – demonstrating what they are doing, why, and with what impact.
Expect to see Covid-19 safety performance added to organizations’ corporate social responsibility reports. Specially-designated paragraphs will detail how companies are keeping their people safe, how they are measuring the impact, and the results. And perhaps a platform that ranks workplaces based on their ‘virus-free’ status or virus-prevention credentials.
Certainly, reinforcing employee trust in the wake of Covid-19 is so urgent that companies can’t afford not to take it seriously.