How can HR manage coronavirus conflict in the workplace?

As UK businesses start to reopen offices across the country, many employees are sharing workplaces for the first time in over a year, risking a sudden clash of opinions on the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at Gartner, his clients are seeking counsel on how to resolve disputes around pandemic ideologies.

Pandemic related issues, including views on the dangers of the virus, willingness to wear facemasks and socially distance, and the intention to receive COVID vaccinations are causing clashes in the workplace he said.

Kropp told HR magazine because our lives have been dominated by coronavirus-related fears and restrictions for an entire year, it has become a very emotive issue.

He said: “Each person has had different experiences and dealt with the situation in a personal way, and therefore it is an area that is guaranteed to cause conflict.

“Employees have been working in isolation for so long and it will take time for them to adapt to being in shared workspaces again.”

Isolation, coupled with health fears, he said has meant employees are more likely to get angry if they see a colleague not wearing a facemask or failing to socially distance.

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It is important organisations don’t underestimate how much the return to the workplace will disrupt the lives of employees that have been working remotely, said Kropp.

“Our recent workforce resilience survey found 29% of employees have a lower level of change receptivity due to the pandemic.

“Not only will it involve sharing a workspace for the first time in over a year, but many will also have to revamp how they work and connect as part of a team again.”

The Gartner survey also found the disruption of the pandemic has led to 41% of employees having lower trust in their teams and 37% having lower trust in leadership.

“Naturally, there is an increased risk of employee conflict, so HR leaders must be intentional about change management processes.

“This includes communicating expectations, gradually re-introducing staff and treating each employee as if they are new to the company.”         

Kropp advised HR teams to re-onboard employees returning to the office as though they are joining a new company, as their workplaces may look very different to the ones they left.

He advised three key areas of focus for HR successfully do this.

“First, employers must create a philosophy around flexibility. Instead of creating a generic policy such as days to spend in the office, HR teams should share a framework that encourages employees to find a system that is beneficial for them," he said.

“Second, leaders must communicate a new purpose for the office. Prior to the pandemic, the office was the place that employees came together to get work done.

“Now, companies must consider whether it is a meeting place, a secure workspace, or a place to entertain clients, and communicate that to employees.”

Lastly, Kropp said HR must retrain managers on how to work with employees.

“The pandemic has changed the workplace dramatically, and managers need to be able to work with people in different locations while understanding how to support them at an emotional level.

“By taking employees through this process, workers will be better equipped to deal with the trials of office environments once again.”