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The return to the workplace trust deficit - a lot of employees need convincing despite new tech solutions

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan July 9, 2020
While there are credible tech solutions on offer to facilitate a return to the workplace, there are also some trust issues that need to be overcome by employers according to Salesforce data.

(Salesforce Research )

Trust as an essential enabler to encourage employees back into the company office was a topic diginomica covered two weeks ago. At the time, I said: 

There’s going to be a question of trust here - your employer says it’s safe to return, that precautions have been put in place and there’s a new health-centric working model at play. But still, are you entirely convinced that the promises of being able to return to the office environment can be done safely?

While tech firms, such as ServiceNow, Siemens, Workday and Salesforce, have pivoted to delivering platforms that are pitched at enabling organizations to manage a safe return to the workplace, that question of trust remains a complicating factor, as data from Salesforce’s own latest research makes clear.  

According to the firm’s latest update to its ongoing general population survey of 3,548 adults from the United States, the UK France, Germany, Brazil, and Australia, barely over half of those polled appear to trust their employers to maintain a safe and healthy workplace - 56% agree they can trust them, 17% disagree, leaving a sizeable minority needing to be convinced. It’s the same story when respondents are asked whether they feel they could trust their employer to respond to an emergency - such as a localized COVID outbreak? - quickly/effectively, with 53% saying they do and 10% saying they don’t. 

The skepticism on show is pretty evenly spread across employee demographics, with Baby Boomers the least trusting (41%). Given the correlation between COVID-19 infection and older age groups, that’s perhaps unsurprising. Millennials are the most willing to trust their employers (63%), while Gen Z and Gen X come in at 55% and 59% respectively. 

Worried workers

But when asked about the basic idea of returning from remote working to go back into the office, three quarters of all respondents expressed either major or moderate health-related concerns  - 40% major, 35% moderate, with only 17% classing it as a minor issue. And it’s the Gen Z-ers and the Millennials who express the most acute concern, 43% of respondents in each group, while only a third of Boomers (33%) voice major worries. 

Geographically there are differences in attitudes, clearly influenced by the impact of the virus and how well (or otherwise) its containment has been dealt with by governments. In Germany, for example, only 28% of employees say they have major concerns about returning to their workplace, compared with Brazil, where the pandemic is out of control and that percentage shoots up to 62% while a further 32% have minor concerns. Meanwhile in the US, where reaction to COVID-19 and re-opening has varied from state to state, 34% of respondents have major concerns and 36% minor worries. 

By business sector, those in life sciences express most concern (47%), followed by consumer goods (45%), retail and financial services (both 43%) and manufacturing (42%). 

On a more positive note, overall 45% of respondents agree with the proposition that their employer is ready to bring staff back to the workplace, while 43% say they’ve been given clear communication on a reopening plan. The bad news - this positivity varies from sector to sector. 

While 67% of financial services respondents believe their employer is ready to bring employees back into the workplace, only 44% feel the same in the life sciences sector. In terms of how well employers have communicated their return-to-the-workplace strategies, finance organizations have done best (61%),  while only a third (34%) life sciences respondents feel in the loop.

So, convince me!

Overall, it’s clear that employees need to be convinced on the subject. In retail, for example, only 56% of respondents believe their organization is ready for a workplace return and only 55% believe they’ve heard a convincing plan being put in place. 

What employers need to do to reassure their staff varies from sector to sector. Overall, the general checklist of action points includes enhanced cleaning (40%), employee health monitoring (37%), reduced workplace capacity (36%), daily wellness checks (36%), redesigned workspaces (36%), team shift scheduling (34%), contact tracing (34%), alternative commuting options (33%) , temperature screenings (33%) and staggered arrivals (33%).

Again, there are sectoral divisions in evidence. Office workers see enhanced cleaning as the top priority, followed by employee health monitoring, reduced capacity, re-designed workplaces and contact tracing. In contrast, retail workers - in regular contact with large numbers of random shoppers - rate daily wellness checks as their top priority, followed by reduced workplace capacity, redesigned workplaces, enhanced cleaning and then team-shift scheduling. 

Interestingly given the problems encountered with contact tracing apps and programs in various countries, only office workers actually cite contact tracing as a top 5 priority. But over half of workers (52%) say they would be comfortable sharing personal information, like health data and personal contacts, if they believe that such information will be used to keep the workplace safe. Millennials are the most open to sharing such information (59%), whereas Boomers are the least inclined (40%).

As for the prospect of a long term shift to working from home as an alternative to the traditional company office, Boomers are the most keen to stay remote (39%), followed by 37% of Millennials and 36% of Gen X, but only 31% of Gen Z. That said, only 26% of Gen Z want to go to the office full time, with 43% favoring a hybrid pattern of part home/part office. Boomers are the least keen on such a new working model (26% in favor), while Gen X and Millennial respondents take a middle ground (31% and 33%). 

Whatever shape the working week takes in the coming years, office space isn’t going away, so employers should heed the advice of Accenture CEO Julie Sweet and not rush to sell off the real estate just yet. Less than a third of all respondents (32%) expect their employers to reduce their physical office investment. 

And while there’s considerable debate about the appeal of urban centers post-pandemic, only 40% of respondents who live in cities say they have lost their appeal, with younger people predictably more keen on urban living - more than half (52%) of Gen Z and Millennials, compared to less than a third of Boomers (30%).

My take

Nobody said it was going to be easy. Quite the reverse in fact. A safe return to the workplace is going to be a long term process that will require executive leadership, HR skills and tech-enabled solutions. While there’s clearly an unhealthy degree of lack of trust among this study’s respondents, that in no way negates the potential of ‘back to work’ offerings from tech firms; in fact, it can be said to validate the business case for the same. But employees are going to need proof that the route back to the office is a safe one and that demands effective communication and outreach to the workforce as well as investing in tech solutions. 

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