January 27, 2021

To Get People Back to the Office, Focus on Safety First

A significant portion of the workforce has been working from home for most of a year. What is it going to take to get them all back in the office? If we want workers to feel enthusiastic about their return to a shared work environment, managers have to start thinking about the fundamentals—starting with safety.

Starting from the Bottom of the Pyramid
Workplace safety has long been a priority for industrial and manufacturing facilities. But in the white-collar workspace, basic safety has long been taken for granted. Office work is generally not considered to be dangerous.

The pandemic upended those assumptions. Since March 2020, working in close quarters with other people has suddenly felt very dangerous indeed. While vaccines are on the way, anxiety about working in shared spaces is likely to be with us for the next several months or even longer.

That means that managers have to think about the needs of their workforce differently. If you’ve ever taken a psychology course, you’re probably familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s insight was that people can’t focus on higher-order needs (such as self-actualization and esteem) until basic needs for physiological comfort, safety and survival have been met.


While managers in office-based professions have typically been focused on the top of the pyramid—self-actualization and esteem—reacclimating your workforce to shared space in the COVID era will require a new focus on the elements at the bottom of the pyramid. Workers will not feel comfortable coming back to the office until they are assured that they will be safe.

Luring Them Back from the Home Office
As Tracy Brower, PhD, Principal, Applied Research + Consulting, Steelcase, explains in a recent Forbes article, workers have had several months to get used to working in the home environment—and a lot of them have gotten pretty comfortable there. They may miss some things about the office, but at least they feel safe. The home office can have some pretty nice perks, too, in terms of comfort and flexibility (not to mention an unbeatable commute). What’s it going to take to make workers not only comfortable with but actually excited about returning to the office?

First, managers should look to the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid and focus on measures to improve employee safety, wellbeing and comfort. For the immediate future, that means taking steps to reduce the risk of virus transmission. These steps may include enhanced cleaning and sanitizing procedures, daily health screenings, reduced occupancy levels, physical barriers between workstations and other design and layout changes. Making small changes can go a long way towards building trust and reducing any fear or anxiety that may cause employees to resist coming back to the office.

Once these basic needs are taken care of, managers should look to the higher levels of the pyramid. What does the office provide in terms of connection and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization that workers can’t get from home? A holistic approach to employee wellbeing includes not only physical safety and comfort but also higher needs such as empathy, purpose and connection. When people are getting their physical, cognitive and emotional needs met, coming into the office feels not only safe but also satisfying—and even fun. That translates into real benefits in terms of productivity and retention.

Are you planning to bring workers back to the office full time? Download our Return to Space guide for more strategies for a smooth transition back to shared workspaces.