Security Concerns for Returning to the Office in the COVID-19 Environment
By Dr. Malique L. Carr, SVP, Chief People Officer, and Howard Snyder, Asia Specialist, TorchStone Global
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, each workplace faced its own unique situation. Essential workplaces—grocery stores, pharmacies, food-related businesses, etc.—remained open, while the majority of offices went mostly if not completely remote.
With the rolling out of vaccines and lessons learned from 2020, we now have a body of scientific knowledge and practical experience to help us figure out the best way to return to the office, be it full-time, a hybrid model (the most likely scenario), or continued remote working. Regardless, our goal is the same: to provide an environment that keeps employees and businesses healthy, safe, and allows them both to thrive.
And while all of this is good news, businesses will have to work hard to maintain a safe, healthy, and secure workplace, as employees—consciously or unconsciously—will carry the emotional stress and human loss of the pandemic into the workplace with them.
While some office workers, either through privilege or just pure luck, have made it through the pandemic relatively unscathed, many others have experienced trauma, loss, and stress by the death of loved ones, substance abuse, domestic violence, financial strain, long-hauler symptoms of COVID-19, and other byproducts and tragedies of the pandemic.
The fact that many have been forced to suffer alone and have not had their usual outlets for coping only intensifies the emotional response.
Returning to the office may be a welcome respite from the languishing of the past year. It may be absolute relief for those who have been caring for a gaggle of young kids and dealing with online school.
But for many others, it will mean an increase in pressure that can manifest itself in the workplace. People will still be grieving and recovering from all that 2020 and 2021 threw at them. Not to mention that many will also worry about the increased potential for COVID-19 exposure.
Undoubtedly, a segment of the workforce will have a reduced capacity to cope with new life and work stressors—the daily commute, dealing with different personalities in shared spaces, and the drain of always needing to be “on” in-person.
It is important that a company’s leadership sets the tone and responds in a way that is supportive and empathic as opposed to punitive and incriminating.
We are all aware of the tragedy of recent workplace violence incidents, which seem to make a near-daily appearance on the news ticker.
While these sorts of attacks in the actual workplace may have been inhibited during the pandemic, the stresses of returning to work, potential layoffs due to business downturns or technological advances, and increased social and racial tensions could have an accelerant effect on the next would-be attacker.
People with very different opinions regarding mask mandates and social distancing protocols are comingling in the office. Combine with the bifurcation of belief systems among Democrats and Republicans and continued racial and social tensions that have torn at the fabric of American society, and it is not hard to imagine that stress-induced situations related to COVID-19 could lead to an increase in unplanned incidents of reactive violence.
It is also possible that during this pandemic, differing beliefs have had the opportunity to fester and grow to align with extremist ideologies, and that threat actors may have used this time to establish plans and prepare for a potential attack on soft targets.
Employees are a company’s best assets in helping to identify anomalous behaviors that may signal that a colleague is struggling and needs assistance—or in the worst-case scenario where a colleague may pose a threat to others or themselves.
Employees need to be clearly briefed on what to look for and how and to whom to report such behaviors.
Workplaces may also face increased threats once returning to the office from disgruntled former employees.
While layoffs do not usually result in workplace violence incidents because of their shared and often impersonal nature, an employer’s poor handling of the pandemic and/or insensitivity around downsizings and corporate restructurings in such a supercharged environment could start someone down a pathway to antisocial or violent behaviors.
It is possible that a terminated employee who was left without financial stability, health insurance, and other support during the pandemic may squarely place the blame of their stress and pain on their former employer.
In order to best mitigate the risk of potential violence and to create a healthy, safe, and thriving environment, companies need to focus on supporting their employees, especially during this transition back to the office.
Corporate Security Departments will also play a large role in transitioning back into the office. Our anecdotal research shows that the role and status of Corporate Security Departments have broadened and elevated during the pandemic, as many security professionals rose to the occasion and were able to employ and showcase their incident management and business continuity skills to help manage the COVID-19 crisis.
When the pandemic broke out in March 2020, many companies were caught flat-footed, as COVID-19 was a black swan event that was not in most risk managers’ incident playbook or risk ranking matrices.
In many cases, Corporate Security Departments, which have an inherent bias toward action due to the military or law enforcement background of many of its practitioners, picked up the ball and ran, devising and implementing measures to safeguard the health and safety of employees as well as business continuity strategies.
Cross-functional collaboration with HR, Legal, Facilities, Employee Health and Safety, and Communications—as well as all the way up to the C-suite—was a key success factor in fortifying organizational resilience and has allowed these functions to see the value of Corporate Security professionals in a crisis.
With the return to workplaces, there must be thoughtfulness in planning physical spaces, not only in the sense of preventing the spread of COVID-19, but also to mitigate physical vulnerabilities.
Corporate Security Departments should pay particular attention to ingress and egress points in their security planning, as COVID-19 screening measures may pose vulnerabilities such as employees congregating before entering the workplace.
Corporate Security Departments will also need to be proactive in responding to potential indicators of concern, assess threats while maintaining cross-functional collaboration, and be part of the team that helps circle a wagon around those in need of assistance to best mitigate the risk of an escalating situation and potential for harm or violence.
Make Time for Lessons Learned
Crisis management has three main components—prevention, mitigation, and recovery—and we are now entering the COVID-19 recovery phase.
There should always be a lessons-learned process post-crisis, where companies analyze both how they responded to the incident and whether the crisis management process worked.
Did everyone on the team understand their roles and responsibilities?
Did we forget to bring someone onto the team?
What would we do differently if we had a chance to do it all over again?
A simple way of analyzing the team’s performance, as well as getting input from all team members and functions, is to perform a KISS analysis.
While some of you may think of the “Keep it Simple, Stupid” KISS acronym (which is often used in military settings and remains valid for most complex situations), we are talking about the “Keep, Improve, Start, Stop” KISS analysis framework.
Companies should survey their employees on all of the KISS questions:
- Keep – what did we do well during the pandemic?
- Improve – what are we already doing that could be improved to strengthen our organization?
- Stop – what do we need to stop doing as it is no longer effective?
- Start – what do we need to start doing that would help our organization become more responsive and resilient moving forward?
Companies must focus on providing support during the transition. Pandemic-related stress will be omnipresent as we return to work.
There is the potential for increased risk of reactive violence as people will have less capacity for coping with stress. There is also the increased potential for workplaces to be soft targets for targeted violence as more people return to the office.
Recognizing that employees may be under increased tension, companies must implement prudent countermeasures before violent or antisocial behavior manifests.
The catastrophic impact of workplace incidents is so severe that corporate security professionals must always remain vigilant and take risk mitigation in this area. Programs to deter, identify, and respond to workplace violence are the minimum that a responsible organization should implement.
TorchStone Global is here to help advise on workplace violence prevention policies, threat assessments, and response strategies, as well as any security concerns you may have with the return to the workplace.