Now the UK lockdown is starting to ease, the question facing many organisations is ‘How do we get back to work safely?’
In order for parents of school-age children to be able to return to a shared workplace, their children need to go back to school. But as things stand the UK Government is asking parents to put the lives of their most precious relatives – their youngest, most protected ones at that – at a very small risk based on a rational scientific analysis without sharing the details of how the risk has been calculated.
Though few children catch Covid-19 and few of those who do are seriously damaged or die from it, are you prepared to take the chance your child is one of those few of the few? Especially without any knowledge of consultation with teachers about how they can make schools ‘Covid-safe’. Doubt still remains over how much children might become carriers who infect other, more vulnerable, relatives if they catch it at school
Parents’ decisions won’t be taken solely on rational analysis of risk calculations made by scientists and used by politicians to promote a return to work – they’ll also be taken partly emotionally, based on all their feelings about the people and issues and on their personal risk appetite for those dear to them. The politicians need to acknowledge that and address it, rather than repeating the purely rational argument for children going back to school.
When it comes to shared workplaces, people who’ve been able to do it have got used to home-working. Many will want to keep doing it, or add it into their regular working mix.
Any move to return to a shared workplace will be a less emotional decision as we mostly accept more risk for ourselves than others we are responsible for (why we accept less safety controls when driving ourselves than when being driven in a plane or train by someone else despite the risk of being in an accident in a car being higher.
How much we trust our employers to make our workplaces Covid-safe will depend partly on our prior level of trust in management and how thorough they’ve been in thinking through required changes to allow for physical distancing and cross-infection avoidance e.g. staff kitchen, toilets, hot desks etc.
What leaders need to do
In 1984, in order to prove his research-based theory that stomach ulcers were caused by bacterial infection, rather than stress or spicy food, Dr Barry Marshall drank concentrated Helicobacter pylori bacteria and gave himself a case of acute gastritis – the precursor to ulcers. He proved that it responded to antibiotics. His work later won him a Nobel Prize.
As it happens, Dr Marshall had been banned from testing his theory on other humans. With Covid-19, we’re being asked by governments to be the guinea pigs for data-driven beliefs about what is safe for a potentially-fatal disease which has killed thousands around the globe. Some fear politicians are asking us to take more of a risk than they would take themselves.
If leaders expect anyone to put their faith in these new data-driven beliefs, they need to first show their personal confidence in the Covid-secure practices and surroundings they’re asking us to buy into, just as Dr Marshall bet his personal health on his data-driven beliefs.
‘Eating your own dog food’
So, rather than trying to persuade us all rationally without having any ‘skin in the game’ themselves, they need to adopt a mindset of ‘eating your own dog food’*– to show they not only think (rationally) what they are asking is safe for others but that they trust them enough to follow the advice personally (emotionally safe) and walk their talk.
So politicians need to show us them taking their children back to school with their recommended measures in place (you’d have to be a psychopath to risk your child’s life if you had doubts about school safety). They could then use social proof to convince later tranches of parents – by showing parents like them trusting their children to the new arrangements and saying what they think about them.
Similarly, if Michael O’Leary wants to convince us on a rational and emotional level that Ryanair’s non-distanced flights are safe, he needs to show us himself by taking his grandchildren on some of these flights. Sounds like the kind of PR stunt he would normally do, but this wouldn’t just be a stunt – it would have real meaning and value.
Leaders in other organisations have a long way to go to convince staff to return to shared workplaces. The Edelman Trust Barometer Spring 2020 Update shows only 35% of employees think measures to protect those unable to work at home are sufficient.
So once they’ve consulted with staff and implemented agreed changes, they need to show they’re prepared to accept the same risk as colleagues most at risk are being asked to.
For as long as the risk of infection in workplaces exists, they need to share the new workplace experience with their colleagues – move out of the C-Suite and corner offices into ‘the middle of the office’ and use the same facilities to show they’re prepared to accept the same risk as anyone being asked to. Leading from the front in this way will not only gain the trust of staff to return but also their respect, as frontline military leaders do in action.
You also need to gain the confidence and trust of your customers and other key stakeholders in your new arrangements – in an earlier survey 71% said if they think a brand is putting profit over people, they’ll lose trust in that brand forever. Edelman later found only 35% of people in the UK think business is doing well or very well on protecting employees unable to work from home.
You need to communicate to those stakeholders what you’ve done (90% of the public want to understand how organizations are supporting employees) and how well it protects staff – to show you walk your talk about caring about staff safety.
Doing so will not only avoid the risk of losing business, but being reputational benefits – Edelman found more than a third of people starting to use a new brand because of the innovative or compassionate way the brand has behaved.
By sharing your actions in B2B media (owned, earned and paid), you can also become a thought and action leader in your sector, if you aren’t already.
At a time when pre-Covid market hierarchies are being thrown up in the air, this should become a contest to show who’s going furthest for the safety of their people and eating their dog food most. The best will become a ‘Covid-19 Best Place To Work’ and gain enhanced staff trust, drive and attract the best talent as those featured in the existing ‘Best Places To Work’ rankings do.
The best leaders will eat their dog food very publicly and gain the reputational and business benefits.
Showing, not just telling, will win hearts as well as minds and gain the trust needed to get children back to school and parents back to work.
*’Eating your own dog food’ is the idea that you prove the quality of your product by using it yourself.
See also my earlier blog about the role of internal and external comms in getting people back to work.