The Future of Work After COVID-19: Easing Employee Concerns

Employees have a lot to worry about. The future of work after COVID-19 includes technology replacing or radically changing jobs; organizational culture change due to the hybrid workforce; the future of remote working; job security in the evolving post-COVID environment; health and safety concerns; financial worries, and on the list goes. This is all an ideal setup for labor unions to step in and leverage those worries. However, it’s also a perfect opportunity for employers to employ a positive employee relations strategy that includes addressing and easing employee concerns. We’re all talking about not going back to normal in the workplace, making it an excellent time for your leaders to demonstrate the genuine care they have for employees’ welfare and happiness under any circumstances, including the very stressful conditions of today. Staying productive and union-free will depend on how well you are able to ease employee concerns through effective leader communication.

Following are some suggestions to help you address the future of work after COVID-19.

First Things First: Recognizing Employee Worries

Employees are trying to cope with the stress, uncertainty, and fears about the future. The pandemic led to an emphasis on health and safety over the past year, temporarily pushing other significant concerns to the background. As the country emerges from the pandemic and companies eye the post-pandemic workplace, all employee worries are merging, challenging employers to re-imagine the future of work after COVID-19. We’re asking workers to be more resilient, but we need to be aware of the challenges they’re experiencing.

Great Place to Work surveyed 79 executives on the changes they are making to prepare for employees to return to work in-office. The executives worked for 56 Fortune 500 companies and named a set of employee concerns they must consider.

  • Fear of getting sick or feeling unsafe – 20 percent
  • Maintaining schedules and care for school-age children and other dependents – 38 percent
  • Commuting on public transportation – 20 percent
  • Maintaining 6-feet spacing – 14 percent
  • Other safety policies like wearing a mask and cleaning – 12 percent
  • Prefer working from home and don’t want to change location– 8 percent

Your workforce may have some or all of these concerns or different ones. The key is to pinpoint your employees’ worries and respond to them through your positive employee relations strategy. Keep in mind that any employee worry can become a union issue.

Employee Concerns in Post-Pandemic Workplace

Second Things First: Accept a New Normal is Here

The future of work after COVID-19 means you can’t go back to normal. It’s the reality of the situation. You must create a bridge between the rapid crisis response and the new normal of a changing workplace. Following are some suggestions for transitioning to the future.

  • Review the crisis response and think about what was learned
  • Bring in diverse employee perspectives and voices as contributors to strategic planning for the future
  • Identify the people priorities and align them with the organizational priorities
  • Reaffirm the commitment to the physical and mental well-being of employees
  • Determine what must be changed in work processes, workspace, and work responsibilities
  • Identify union vulnerabilities to develop an action plan to stay union-free
  • Re-engage employees as crucial to future success


Third Things First: Strengthening Positive Employee Relations

There is one way to effectively address a broad range of employee worries at once and continue to avoid unionization. That way is developing a comprehensive  positive employee relations strategy. It has several elements, and the following are just some of the major considerations.

Workplace Socialization is Not Just for Fun

Various business, education, and psychology experts were interviewed for Worklife about pandemic-inspired workplace changes, he future of work after COVID-19 and employee needs. Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, was asked if remote working is overhyped. The response gives you one signpost to managing a hybrid workforce.

Dunbar notes the workforce place is a social environment, and business is a social phenomenon. Face-to-face engagement and casual meetings in a workplace are essential to workflow, employee commitment to the organization, maintaining workgroup focus, and creating a sense of inclusion and belonging.

Reetika Khera, Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, was asked if jobs still provide value. She answered that people are missing “going to work” because of the social value of work. Khera points out that people are socialized into thinking work is about money, but work is also about interactions with other people.

The remote workforce will remain much larger than it was pre-pandemic. It will be crucial to train your leaders in utilizing all technology tools and procedures for connecting people no matter where they work. (Unions have figured this out and are increasingly using virtual union organizing to connect employees.)

Gary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology & Health at Manchester University, said, “We will need more managers from shop floor to top floor who have emotional intelligence and social skills if we are to manage people more remotely.” From the CEO to the frontline supervisors, all leaders need new skills training in socializing the workforce of the future.

  • When possible, periodic face-to-face exchanges are recommended.
  • Some employers will let employees work from home for several days a week and come into work one or two days a week. Even if face-to-face interactions are not possible, your managers and supervisors need to utilize technologies like video calling and ZOOM group meetings and collaboration platforms that enable remote workers to participate in group projects.
  • It’s equally important to hold inclusive social events and offer social activities. Include remote workers by developing team-building “games” accessible by anyone online or encouraging entertaining chat or other types of tech-based sessions.
  • In the workplace, develop common areas for collaboration, including technology that gives virtual employees the ability to join in.

Pay Attention to the future of work after COVID-19

Have you considered the impact on your organization’s culture in the future based on decisions made for the post-pandemic workplace? It’s imperative never to lose sight that culture matters to union organizing and general organizational success.

In the post-pandemic future, some employers will choose to bring all employees back to the workplace, and others will maintain a hybrid workforce. Some employers had to permanently lay-off employees due to lost business. Coworkers must accept that people they liked, trusted, and worked closely with are not returning. The workplace dynamics are changed, and that will impact the organization’s culture.

The Great Place to Work survey of executives considered the benefits of bringing people back to the office. Only 14 percent expect better productivity when employees return to the office. They had to consider what other benefits the company and the workforce could experience by returning people to the office or facility. The results were:

  • Stronger camaraderie and morale – 61 percent
  • Better collaboration – 45 percent
  • Improved creativity and innovation – 15 percent
  • Better training and onboarding– 14 percent
  • Better productivity – 14 percent
  • Improved work-life balance – 6 percent
  • Better information sharing – 3 percent

All of these factors drive workplace culture. To maximize a positive culture, you can pay attention to each of these areas. Following are a few suggestions for specific actions.

  • Show appreciation for employee patience, support and effort during this period of transformation and re-emphasize the importance of their work to organizational success
  • Provide collaboration opportunities and collaborative resources
  • Ensure employees can bring their authentic selves to work, which includes expressing perspectives based on their unique experiences, which leads to creativity and innovation
  • Onboard new hires into the new normal, which requires updating existing onboarding programs
  • Train employees on changes made to accommodate the new normal
  • Review how well the benefits program reflects employee concerns about things like caregiving and work-life balance
  • Increase transparency in decision-making

Develop a Louder Employee Voice

The importance of employee voice was highlighted during the pandemic. People in specific industries and jobs came to believe they did not influence workplace health and safety. They were forced to work to continue earning an income but faced higher health risks than those who could work at home. These workers included health care, restaurant, grocery store, and essential manufacturing workers.

At the same time, many employees believed their employers did not give them adequate information, protective equipment, and revised workplace safety policies and procedures. Some on-site employees had to work in enclosed spaces, like office workers and salespeople. Even remote workers had issues like being required to come into the office periodically when they believed it was safer to work at home all the time.

The long-term fallout has been large numbers of employees believing their lack of voice and influence endangered them, and giving employees a voice is crucial to staying union-free in the future of work after COVID-19. Another person interviewed for Worklife was the Inequality & Social Policy Scholar at Harvard University, Anna Stansbury.

She shared this insight, “This desire for a greater voice in the workplace has manifested itself with strikes and walkouts across industries and countries, from warehouse workers in Milan to bus drivers in Detroit, food packers in Northern Ireland to nurses in Hong Kong. It has manifested itself with calls for greater unionization or employee representation on workplace health and safety committees. And, I expect, it will manifest itself over the longer term, in a generation which has viscerally experienced the risks of not having a meaningful voice in their workplace – and who will put substantial emphasis on organizing for, advocating for, and voting for measures to strengthen employee representation and workplace democracy in the future.”

This supports the idea that employee voice quality is a significant factor in determining your company’s ability to stay union-free. But in the future of work after COVID-19, it must be a meaningful voice. Some ideas for increasing employee voice include:

  • Making sure employees feel free to give feedback to leaders on anything of concern via an open-door (online or face-to-face) management policy and an anonymous communication system
  • Asking employees what they need to successfully need to transition into and adapt to the new normal
  • Setting up employee groups that are focused on keeping in tune with how people are feeling
  • Establishing a Q-and-A webpage where employees can ask questions about anything, including unions
  • Conduct pulse surveys to keep employees engaged

Keep Focusing on Health and Safety

Employee health and safety have been major concerns before the pandemic, but in the new normal, people want demonstrable proof their employer has addressed the health and safety threats from the current pandemic and have developed policies and procedures that provide better responses to future events.

For example, employees across the country were upset they were not given personal protection equipment quickly enough when COVID-19 became a reality. They want to know what their employer has done to make sure employees get the appropriate equipment in a timely manner in the future. Here are a few suggestions to strengthen the focus on employee health and safety in the new normal.

  • Review and review as necessary all health and safety policies and procedures to incorporate employee concerns and lessons from the pandemic, i.e., paid leave policies
  • Design common areas that reflect principles of a healthy environment
  • Support employee mental health in the new normal by adding new services or assisting employees with finding resources
  • Support employee physical health through activities like wellness challenges
  • Give employees space to prioritize their circumstances
  • Clearly communicate decisions in the context of maintaining employee safety and helping them achieve goals that can take the sting out of decisions they don’t particularly like

Leadership Makes or Breaks Success

Unions commonly tell employees that their managers “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.” Your managers and supervisors must have the emotional intelligence mentioned earlier, but they also need training in specific areas to leverage that intelligence.

  • Train managers to recognize the signs that employees need more support or are having difficulties adapting to the new normal
  • Train managers on identifying signs of unionizing and the actions to take
  • Support leaders  by teaching giving and getting productive feedback
  • Develop leadership listening skills
  • Ensure managers and supervisors are skilled in change management and can lead people to meet needs created by technology, i.e., reskilling, upskilling, working in a co-located workplace, etc.
  • Prepare Human Resources professionals and managers for an increase in employee complaints from employees with continuing concerns
  • Train leadership on using data to identify potential trouble areas in the workforce that could lead to unionizing, redesign workflows, develop action plans for rapid adaptation to changes, identify productivity blockers, and so on
  • Ensure employees have access to the technologies and training they need to succeed

Leaders need to understand empathy is a key quality all the time but will make or break success in the post-pandemic work environment and be a major determinant of your ability to stay union-free. Empathy means understanding:

  • All employees are going through the pandemic, but each person’s experience was different, i.e., some employees may have medical conditions that increased their risk of a serious illness, so they will return to the workplace with more risk or fear than others
  • Some remote workers will not want to return to the workplace
  • Some remote workers now have caregiving responsibilities they can’t easily manage if they must return to working on location
  • Remote employees need time to adapt to the workplace again, and any changes that were made
  • Remote workers, people returning to the workplace, and those who continued working on-site need a shared vision about the workplace

Addressing Employee Concerns About The Future of Work

Communicate, Communicate and Communicate

It could be said that communication, leadership, and employee training comprise the foundation on which the positive employee relations strategy is built. People fear the unknown when it involves their livelihood. It is important to regularly communicate why decisions are made, technologies implemented, workspace changed, and any changes to address particular employee concerns around the future of work after COVID-19.

People decide to unionize because they believe their employer isn’t meeting their needs in a fair and just manner or is ignoring their needs. As your workplace designs a new normal for success, employee engagement will become the glue that holds the bridge together that is connecting the crisis mode organization to the new normal one. Put people first. Train and communicate with your employees and train your leaders to be empathetic change agents. Projections, Inc. focuses on providing the tools and resources people need because it’s people who matter the most.

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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