Returning to Work: Ways to Improve Workplace Reconnection and Safety

After allowing employees to work from home due to COVID-19 global pandemic safety concerns, many employers are now asking employees to return to the office. Some companies are adopting a hybrid approach while others are asking everyone to work back in an office environment full time. For many,  this is a massive adjustment. From integrating back into an office with co-workers to safety concerns, many employees are concerned about a return back to the office.

Felix Nater, the head of Nater Associates in North Carolina, led a discussion for USA Manufacturing Hour Chat on Twitter, discussing some of the ways to improve safety and workplace reconnection. Nater is the head of Nater Associates, an independent security management consulting firm that mentors leaders & trains workforces on how best to mitigate the threat of workplace violence, and the employer against the threat of civil liability through high-level advice; assistance. More information about the firm is available at

When speaking about insuring safe and healthful workplace working condition, the discussion moved to which organization comes to mind related to workplace violence prevention and worker safety.

Janice Mckee from Burger & Brown Engineering in Missouri said, “I guess that would be OSHA.”

Phil Samuels of Intuilize agreed.

Gina Tabasso from Magnet said I always think OSHA when I think safety in manufacturing.

Kelly Pernicone from North American Coating Laboratories in Ohio said, “I don't have a lot of experience in this area, but top of mind to me is OSHA and Bureau of Workmen's Comp. I'm looking forward to learning about this topic from everyone!”

Neil Hussey from Denco Lubrication Ltd in the UK said, “For us over in the UK I guess it would be the Health & Safety Executive.” 

Chase Bodnar from Plastics Plus Technology, Inc said, "We're thinking hospitals are one example of an organization that deals with not only hazardous working conditions but also security and violence protection. Hospitals are notorious for limiting who gets past their frontline personnel, and managing dangerous situations."

Sue Nordman from Obsidian Manufacturing Industries, in Illinois said, “OSHA would be the first one that comes to mind for me. It's the only organization that works with workplace safety that I know of.”

Val from Monofrax in New York said, “OSHA, of course, and Homeland Security.”

Erin Courtenay from Earthling Interactive in Wisconsin said, “That's interesting! I knew OSHA oversaw safety but hadn't realized violence prevention is part of their charter. The more you know! “

Manufacturers' News, Inc. said, “Definitely OSHA...But in these times, companies are also relying on the CDC & local health departments for guidance on worker safety. Also, partnering with trusted HR sources.“

According to Nater, OSHA's “General Duty Clause,” states that, “Each employer shall furnish each of their employees’ employment, and a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”


Hazards That Lead to Conflict

The next topic of discussion was about providing for a safe and secure workplace during this pandemic period. Talk turned to what would be a recognized hazard that may lead to conflict and confrontation.

Dan Bigger of Custom Profile in Michigan said, “Forcing people to get vaccinated in order to work. I hear about this everyday.”

Dave Meyer from BizzyWeb said, “You know, I think the biggest hazard in the workplace right now is polarization and a lack of empathy toward our fellow teammates. This year has been tough on everybody and social media isn't helping bring us together.”

Kirsten Austin from DCSC Inc. in Missouri said, “Dave I could not agree with you more. As social as I am I still think the media stirs things up and instigates. People are really scared now and constant gloom, doom and fear are not helping.”

Phil Samuels of Intuilize said, “Use of SM to bully, denigrate or otherwise harm co-workers online.”

Kati McDermith added, “I'll say it... politics can be a hot topic and cause major issues!”

Julie Basello from Radwell International answered McDermith with “So true!”

Bigger added, “And that is why I don't EVER bring that up.”

Bodnar said, “So true. And the alienation of those who do or don't (depending on the culture) is disheartening.”

Tabasso added, “PPE aka face masks and social distancing.”

Pernicone added, “PPE as well as the policies and procedures surrounding Covid-19 prevention could lead to conflict. We were lucky to not have any issues with safety compliance and respect.”

MFG Talk Radio said,” I think not having a proper COVID strategy in place at any place of work is a hazard in and of itself during the pandemic. Not having a hard set of rules to refer back to can potentially cause a lot of problems if an issue arises. #USAMfgHour

“Right now, vaccination status & mask wearing,” said Manufacturers' News, Inc. “Companies are dealing with very strong opinions on both sides of the issue.”

Shannon Simpson from DuraTech Industries said, “Displays of Cold or flu symptoms- not masking- vaccination requirements are all things that could lead to workplace conflict.”

Courtenay said, “It’s a delicate topic but it starts with an "m" and ends with an "ask"

Samuels added, “Use of social media to bully, denigrate or otherwise harm co-workers online.”

Obsidian Manufacturing Industries said, “Currently it could be differing opinions about and vaccination status. At first, it was more of masks.”

Nater questioned, “How about perceptions of being picked on. Being singled out. Being harassed. Being embarrassed?”

Ruby Rusine of Social Success Marketing replied, “What this tells me is that it looks like we will always be divided in just about anything. “

Bigger added, “That pretty much sums it up nowadays.”

Rusine questioned, “What happened to unity in diversity?”

Bigger said, “People are all over the map. I blame technology. People hear or see something, true or spun, and they believe it, and go over the edge. Then you have everyone on the other side. Media is doing it, PERIOD.”

Rusine added, “Technology is just a tool though. It is only underscoring how broken we are.”

Bigger responded, “True, but technology now allows things to be spread quickly. Remember when you heard a rumor, and everyone had to pass it person to person. It took a lot longer to grow and become a problem. Now, you just hit send and bam.”

Nater chimed into their brief interaction with his agreement. Simpson also agreed.

Rusine questioned whether mental health and wellness would be considered a recognized hazard with a lot of people stressing out.

Simpson commented, “That is a good question and very true. “

Rusine added, “Our outward behavior is a reflection of what is happening inside us. “

Nater added that unclear risk mitigation instructions and perceived impressions of unfair enforcement of company policy may lead to conflict and confrontation within a workplace.


Employee Perceptions and Possibly Negative Impacts

He next raised the topic of whether employee perceptions of unclear risk mitigation instructions and allegations of unfair enforcement of policy negatively impact employee – management relationships

Bigger said, “Everyone is taking to social to blast companies for this sort of thing. In this case, bad publicity is not good.”

Austin added, “This one is so tough Felix. Probably the most trying times in my career.”

Simpson said, “It may create animosity, disrespect, and disregard for other policies. Creates a lack of trust.”

Bill Garland, a Manufacturing Industry Supporter said, “Bingo” in response to Simpson’s comment. He then added, “A lack of trust and an everyone for themselves approach. An invitation to chaos.“

Courtenay said, “Lack of clarity = danger, red alert, no go in all situations, but especially HR enforcement.”

“Clear communication, transparency and leadership is what we all need right now, “said Meyer “And of course empathy for your teams. I own/run my small marketing agency - and the only way to do this is to be clear and fair.”

Tabasso said, “Potential employee attrition. Job dissatisfaction. Resentment. Reduction in incentive to do best work or be loyal. “

Samuels added, “It could result in fewer managers to argue with.”

Austin added, “In a time when people should try even harder to understand one another's differences of opinions and work together, it seems the opposite is true.”

Pernicone said, “Inconsistent enforcement of policies causes rifts to form between teams and management. It can also cause issues in employee morale.”

“This one is big, “ said VirtuDesk. “Employee retention is definitely at the brim. No one wants to come to work if they feel unsafe.”

Nater added, “Much of what I hear revolves around safety and security issues that were never resolved.”

Obsidian Manufacturing Industries said, “I could see the relationship deteriorate over time with possible altercation occurring at the tipping point. This would affect the team operating as one and create a possibly irrecoverable divide between the two parties.”

Pavel Stepanov said, “Just putting ourselves in their shoes, of course, they wouldn't come to a workplace that doesn't give importance to their safety.”

“I'm going to draw from my days of beer distribution,” said Bodnar. “You really lose faith that management is out for your best interest. When you feel neglected- you also feel resentment. Have you ever wanted to work with or for someone you resented?”

Olga from NJMEP said, “Clear communication is always needed at the end of the day we are all in this together and are moving towards a similar goal.”

Manufacturers' News said, “Perceptions of unclear risk mitigation can threaten the trust an employee puts in management. It's very important to observe & preserve this fundamental. Especially now!”

Sam Gupta from ElevatIQ in Toronto, Canada said, “I work with the rule that perception is reality. So when you are talking about communicating about risks etc, you really need to go out of your way to communicate and make them understand. Or it could fire back with consequences as severe as negative PR.”

Nater added that an employee who feels they are not being treated fairly can escalate their frustration, resulting in discipline for not following instruction, insubordination and/or disrespect.


Employer Preparation


Nater next asked the group how employers can prepare for conditions and unintentional consequences of COVID-19 Risk Mitigation policy.

Bigger said, “Think about what you are doing before just fast forwarding a policy that has not been thought through completely. Sometime the best action is planning.”

Tabasso said, “Policy and communication as well as respect for employee fears and concerns.”

“I think being straight-forward with any and all policies in the very beginning is key, “said Nordman. “Communication can solve many issues, and in the pandemic, it is essential to communicate above all else.”

Courtenay added, “This is where county public health offices are helpful. Even if there is disagreement with the guidelines or mandates from those offices, it is a "true north" for management. We do not violate the rules, nor do we go over and above. “

Freight POP in California said, “It comes down to having a clear plan and being respectful. If everyone is communicating and doing their best to get on the same page, conflict and confusion can be avoided.”

“Choose an authority and be compliant,” said Samuels. “CDC, IOH, state government etc. At least you have a reason for the changes you make. “

Kati McDermith in Illinois said, “I think we have options at MNI. I really appreciate and respect that-working in the office or from home or a hybrid. There are options to accommodate within the guidelines set by government for example.”

Gupta added, “Executives need to watch for warning signs and communicate the expectations and risks very carefully. Communication, communication, and communication. “

Nater said, “I like this very much, Sam. Can I add that management has to foster an environment that creates trust and confidence in reporting? Coworkers won’t report observations knowing discipline is the tool.”

Gupta responded, “Yes that should be the end goal, but as you know, the manufacturing community is not known for trusted culture, etc. The leadership needs to step up in creating a culture of transparency.”

Pernicone added, “Be transparent about policies and changes. It's also important to share why and justify the changes that are being made. Employers also need to be prepared for feedback.”

Bigger questioned, “Yes, but are they?”

Pernicone replied, “It depends on your employer. We're lucky to have a feedback friendly leadership team.”

Nater added, ”Excellent points. It’s hard for a weak supervisor to accept responsibility for errors in supervision. Taking feedback is a two-way street that infrequently occurs.”

Meyer said, “You need a clear communication plan, documentation, and clearly posted details. If you waffle even a bit, you're going to see trouble - and burying your head in the sand/ignoring it won't help.”

Nater responded, “Experience has proven that lackluster leadership emanates from little to no supervisory training in this area, contributing to myths, Dave.”

VirtuDesk said, “Having a robust continuity plan can help you prepare for this kind of situation.”

Bodnar said, “Communicate the message. Be persistent. Answer questions. Resolve doubts and confusion. Clear communication. Make yourself (or expert) available. Identify expectations. Layout a plan for meeting those expectations.”

“We've all had to amp up communications with staff, especially with guidance changing every day,” said MNI. “This is key. It's important also to have a written guidebook or policy on hand to refer to when these issues come up. “

Bigger replied, “It is certainly a challenge keeping up with it when it changes daily. What a mess to keep up with and keep track of.”

Nater added, “Being proactive, anticipating problems, and preparing for hypothetical conditions and situations can help to avoid problems in the future.”


Enforcing the Work Environment

Next, the question was posed: How should employers enforce the work environment in addressing mask wearing, testing and adjudication of employee questions and challenges to test results?

Bigger said, ”I agree with one of the previous answers. Follow the guidelines set forth by the county or state that you are in. That should be the path followed.”

McDermith said, “To me this seems like kind of a no brainer. Forgive me if I am over simplifying, but is there any other way for a company to perform business? They have no choice but to follow and enforce guidelines. Let the individuals choose. It is called at will employment. “

Pernicone said, “Following health department guidelines for minimum requirements is helpful. Enforcement should be consistent, and correction of behavior should be timely so that there is a standard set. Be mindful, be respectful, stay safe out there!”

VirtuDesk responded, “Totally agree with you. We just have to be cooperative because it is for the safety of all.”

Dondi Scumaci, author, speaker and culture shifter in Texas said, “One thought is to get employees involved in the decisions impacting how and where they work (when you can). When people feel involved, resistance decreases. Involvement can give way to higher degrees of commitment.”

Freight POP responded, “I love this answer Dondi!”

Scumaci added, “Of course it isn't always possible. Sometimes the decisions cannot be shared. In these challenging and changing times, whenever we can press decisions to the level most impacted by them, it is appreciated. People feel empowered.”

Olga from NJMEP said, ”Full transparency is key and following the guidelines set by the county and state. This way everyone knows what to expect. “

Samuels added, “Clear communication that is consistent. If the county authorities are selected as “experts”, then when they change guidance, everyone should know how to react in advance. Choose your authority wisely!”

“Not sure what you all feel, “ said Gupta. “And while I respect everyone's personal choice, I find it fair to mandate the vaccination in the office setting as others may be impacted because of this decision.”

Stepanov said, “Explain to them that we have to follow the safety protocols indicated, not only for ourselves and our family, but also for the welfare of other people and our country. All of us were affected and thus, everyone's cooperation is a must.”

Mckee said, “Our management does a good job of communicating expectations and treating everyone the same. We have designated people to ask if there are questions. Rules are in writing and common sense is expected from all.”

Nader added, “Employers should address such matters in an appropriate fashion, fairly within the rules and policies.  Empathy & clarification must be the ultimate goals before rushing to conclusions, and discipline. “


Employer Responsibility 

As a closing question, Nater asked, “What is the employer’s ultimate responsibility in protecting employees, their image, reputations and brand in this Covid-19 environment?”

Bigger said, “The company is just a part of the puzzle in this process. There are many external factors that play a part in in the covid safety protocols.”

Pernicone said, “Follow the guidelines and ensure you have policies in place to protect your teams. Be nimble, be flexible, and most of all be patient.”

Gupta said, “When it comes to social issues such as COVID-19, I feel it should be the shared responsibility of everyone. While employers can do what they can, it is also your company. So treat it the way you would like to be treated. Step up and be a role model for others.”

“I think the employer needs to maintain consistent and clear communication of how they are handling COVID-19 within the workplace,” said Nordman.

Stepanov added, “Proper implementation of safety protocols in the company. If you want your employees to follow you, you as their employer must follow first.”

“Avoiding escalation and litigation are the ultimate goals,” said Nader. “Avoid hasty decisions, be empathetic, give clear guidance, and be as compliant as possible with Federal and state guidance and instructions and you will do ok.


About #USAMfgHour

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