Workplace Safety Takes Center Stage

How can you help employees feel more secure in today’s insecure, uncertain world?

With so many shootings in the news, I thought prevention of gun violence could just as easily have been the safety concern as COVID-19 when I saw this headline: “What Psychological Safety Looks Like in a Hybrid Workplace” in Harvard Business Review.

“When it comes to psychological safety, managers traditionally have focused on enabling candor and dissent with respect to work content. The problem is, as the boundary between work and life becomes increasingly blurry, managers must make staffing, scheduling, and coordination decisions that take into account employees’ personal circumstances—a categorically different domain…For one employee, the decision of when to work from home may be driven by a need to spend time with a widowed parent or to help a child struggling at school. For another, it may be influenced by undisclosed health issues (something COVID brought into stark relief) or a non-work passion, as was the case with a young professional who trained as an Olympic-level athlete on the side,” authors Amy C. Edmondson and Mark Mortensen write.

None of the hypothetical employee scenarios highlighted above is particularly scary or unsafe to me. While professional workplace consultants and analysts wonder how to make employees returning to the workplace feel “safe,” I wonder if they may be missing a lot by focusing primarily on the impact of the pandemic. Many employees have anxieties about COVID, but many are—or soon will be—fully vaccinated against the virus. The vaccines in use in the U.S. have proven effective so far against all the known strains of the virus. With booster shots on the way that will take into account new variations of COVID, employees may not be as scared as the experts think. It may be other things getting under their skin, such as workplace violence.

With pandemic fatigue setting in and people out and about again somewhat normally, gun violence is back in the news on a daily basis, including a recent shooting by a former employee at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. How secure is your workplace against not just germs, but this kind of violence? While we circle the wagons against the virus, we also should think about the prevalence in modern times of workplace violence. It can happen anywhere. In the summer of 1999, I was an intern at a newspaper in north-central Florida. My editor told me a story to explain why the paper had instituted security protocols such as keeping the door to each floor locked. Years earlier, a woman showed up brandishing a gun as she complained of the unfair coverage her little brother had received in the newspaper. The editor laughed as she told the story. It had a happy ending, with the woman, who also may have been slightly tipsy, peacefully led away from the building. However, the incident was jarring enough to change how the newspaper approached protecting its employees.

In addition to gun violence, there may be more feelings of insecurity and anxiety among female employees than company leaders realize. Blatant, egregious sexual harassment appears to have become rarer, but there are more subtle forms of harassment, especially in an open-plan office. I have experienced this myself—those prying, persistent eyes right next to you, behind you, or across from you. As much as many of us complained about cubicles, you could sit inside one and know that on three sides no one could see you. Open-plan offices can feel to some women (and maybe men?) like a bar or club in which you are being surveyed as possible prospects.

With germ transmission easier without cubicle walls, and people easier targets in shootings and for other forms of physical violence, I’m surprised there hasn’t been serious talk about the return of the cubicle. Companies have squeezed in additional workstations by eliminating cubicles, but maybe an opportunity exists for mini-cubicles that would consist only of three borders around each desk, rather than a box, or “cube,” like in the old days. If you combine the health and safety concerns with the social and noise discomfort presented by the open-play layout, it seems like a great time to reconsider it.

Beyond germs, guns, and sexual harassment, there is job insecurity. With the economy in the early stages of recovering from the pandemic, how secure are your employees’ jobs? Even for employees who you know have nothing foreseeable to worry about, there may be feelings of anxiety about how long their jobs will last. Like all safety concerns, you can’t make any promises, but what can you do to make the uncertainty less scary? If the pandemic taught us anything, it taught us that—for better or worse—we don’t know what’s around the corner. For Learning professionals and Human Resources executives, the ongoing challenge is working with employees to transparently manage risk, so when the unexpected comes, there is a plan in place to blunt the blow.

What workplace issues do you think keep your employees up at night? How can you help them feel more secure in an insecure world?