The Value of Understanding Employee Sentiment About Returning to the Office

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Many organizations are actively planning a return to the workplace.  As part of this planning process it is critical to consider employee sentiment as a significant factor in the decision-making on who returns and when.  Most of the planning so far has been focused on methods for keeping occupants of facilities properly distanced to minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19 as well as policies and procedures for ensuring safe and clean spaces.

There are also business considerations when deciding which employees should return to the office in the initial phases, such as the criticality of the position that the employee holds which may require them to be in the office to perform their function.  But, one of the most critical questions for organizations to ask is are their employees prepared  to return or do they have issues at home which may inhibit their ability to come back such as:


  • Do they need to stay at home to care for children or others?
  • Do they have to take public transportation to get to work?
  • Are they emotionally prepared to return or are they experiencing anxiety and concern?
  • Do they have underlying health conditions which might make them more susceptible to infection?



The following are ideas to consider that can help you to determine how your employees are feeling about the return to the workplace:




The best way to understand individual employee sentiment is simply to ask.  If you have many employees that you need to reach out to consider using a survey that enables them to provide direct feedback on how they are feeling about the return in a structured manner which can help you with your planning.  Phrase your questions clearly and concisely and allow survey participants an opportunity to provide free text feedback.  This will allow them to provide additional color for their responses and ask  questions which could be used for follow up 1:1 conversations.



This will help you to better understand who is ready to return, who isn’t and who is unsure.  Because this feedback needs to inform your decision-making it is recommended that you require your survey takers provide their name. In the survey instructions be sure to reassure them that the survey is being used as an input to the decision-making process and survey feedback will not be used for other purposes.


Acknowledging non-work stress


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a global impact and has affected employees in many ways that may not be understood within the workplace context. In a recent study by Forrester, 41% of people responded they were afraid to go back to work due to COVID. Try to understand the broader context for issues your employees may be dealing with outside of work on a personal level.  Has an employee had a personal experience thus far with COVID – if for example they know someone personally who has had a severe case, this may be a stressor. It’s also best to think of the door-to-door experience for your employees where additional stress could be occurring as the employee travels back to your place of work including the need to use public transportation and potential challenges where your employees may not feel entirely comfortable on their journey.



Consider other areas which may be causing anxiety such as companies that have offices in shared space, vertical transportation such as elevators in high rise buildings which may be congested.  Additionally do you have offices in building with other tenants who may have inconsistent guidelines and policies in areas such as direction of travel, face mask use etc., or who may not be following those guidelines  All of these items could potentially be causing stress with your employees before they even enter your front door.


Measure and Adjust


Understanding the sentiment of your employees during the COVID-19 return to work process is not a one-time effort.  It is recommended that you survey periodically to gain an understanding of potential areas of concern or success as occupants begin to return to your workplace.  Your organization may need to adjust its plans, and phased approach timeline based upon sentiment as well as additional incoming information.



This information could include regionally increasing or decreasing infection rates, new guidance on sanitization measures or possibly even medical information that could affect your planning and how your employees are feeling about the return.


Re-exit Planning and Communication


Communication is key to not only understanding employee sentiment but is also a key mechanism for letting your staff and occupants know what measures you have taken to best ensure a safe workplace and that you have placed the need for health and safety at the very top of the priority list for your facilities.  Occasionally your plans may need to be adjusted and you should determine what your re-exit strategy is in case things are not going well or new information becomes available.  It’s essential to have  re-exit strategy and you must communicate the parameters that could trigger it to your staff.


Start creating your return to work strategy today with our Safe Space Playbook. 



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