Preventing workplace violence: Keep employees safe as they transition from remote to in-person work

Last year, employers that adopted work-from-home models due to COVID-19 had to reshape the ways they addressed concerns about workplace violence. Now, with coronavirus cases and hospitalizations falling in Colorado and the vaccine rolling out, it’s time to revisit efforts to combat workplace violence as your employees return to in-person work.

In 2020, more than half of Coloradans worked from home, making it difficult to track workplace violence incidents. A statewide rise in domestic violence has been tied to the pandemic, which is not unexpected since workplaces traditionally serve as safe havens in abusive situations. And while the Colorado child abuse and neglect hotline recorded fewer calls in 2020, the reduction was likely because kids had less in-person contact with mandated reporters. Authorities say abuse is more likely to occur during stressful times.

With Coloradans navigating many new stressors as they return to their workplaces, you should focus on strategies to stop the violence before it starts, including helping workers socialize after months of isolation and addressing psychological safety.

“A remote environment can contribute to an eroding social fabric. That’s a concern for me,” notes Todd Faubion, chief security and fraud prevention officer at Pinnacol. “We may become desensitized to appropriate behavior around others and lose our ability for face-to-face interaction.”

Pinnacol identifies
four main types of workplace violence below. Teleworking has transformed but not eliminated related concerns.

  • Violence that occurs as a result of a crime.
  • By clients or customers.
  • Between coworkers and employees.
  • By domestic or intimate partners. 

Many workplaces are transitioning back to in-person work slowly, so your employees may initially have two or three days of telecommuting each week. Consider their unique needs as you update workplace violence prevention plans.

Concerns for remote workers

While employees working remotely may not physically encounter fellow employees or customers, they still interact with them. Risk awareness is the most critical aspect of protecting your workers.

Employers should remain aware of these critical threats to worker safety at home:

Being targeted in your home

Workers who deal with the public, such as those answering customer calls, may be targeted by unhappy customers, even when they work from home. If a customer hears someone’s name, they can find their address. You can encourage employees to limit the information available about them, but no one can thoroughly scrub their presence from the internet.

Lack of safe space away from home

Before 2020, work was considered a safe space where employees could get away from an abusive partner. Working from home eliminates that daily escape.

Absence of domestic abuse reporting options

Before the pandemic, Pinnacol recommended managers create a safety plan if an employee reported a domestic violence issue or protection plan. For a remote worker, reporting becomes more challenging as those living with them see and hear what they do during work hours. Managers can develop other ways to provide safety plans and check on employees.

Incidents of “Zoom leakage” indicating greater problems

When someone intentionally or unintentionally communicates a violent impulse toward a third party without directly threatening to carry out violence themselves, it is called “leakage.”

Leakage has signaled intent to act on workplace violence or mass shooting plans for years. Now it’s being delivered differently — on Zoom instead of in the lunchroom or during meetings or casual discussions.

For instance, during a Zoom work conversation, someone may make a joke or say another person “deserves” something bad to happen. Employees should report such cases, even if they don’t think the person was serious.

Finally, remember that a lack of communication with human resources or management about a problem doesn’t necessarily reflect a lack of problems. Behavior may not escalate because coworkers are no longer working alongside each other, not because people adjusted their behavior.

Concerns for workers returning to the workplace

After a year at home, employees face new safety issues, many related to the high levels of isolation during the pandemic. Some people had limited or no interactions with others for months.

Stay aware of these critical threats to worker safety as they return to work:

Difficulty reading social cues

Employees may be slower to pick up on things like sarcasm, nuance or body language, which can lead to misunderstandings. Situations may escalate if one person doesn’t realize another is joking and takes offense. Consider early intervention in employee disagreements or offering refreshers on conflict resolution.

Shifts in work culture

Things that were okay before the pandemic, such as coming to work with a stuffy nose or bringing donuts for the office to share, may not be acceptable now. Adapting to these changes may cause frustration, so outlining new expectations will help.

Changes in behavior

The trauma and loss of the past year impacts people in different ways. Someone’s personality may be different when they return to work. Preparing employees for behavior shifts can ease the discomfort of renewing acquaintances.

Different viewpoints about COVID-19 and vaccinations

The virus and vaccinations have become charged political issues, and not everyone sees eye to eye. If conflict arises, make employees aware of how their behavior impacts those around them.

Rising tensions over

With some states lifting mask restrictions and businesses enforcing mask mandates differently, mask disagreements may escalate into conflict. For instance, someone who vacationed in another state may return and wonder why they need to wear a mask in the workplace after going without for a week. Coworkers may be concerned that attitude could lead to a coronavirus outbreak.

Tips for mitigating workplace violence while returning to work

Providing support can ease tension and transitions. Businesses can implement these nine tips for those moving from work-from-home to in-person work:

1. Educate employees on proper procedures.

Demonstrate how to report concerns about other workers, customers and even home life. Put one person in charge of those reports.

2. Create expectations for proper workplace contact.

Employees will need a refresher on appropriate workplace conduct after seeing the lines between home and work blur. Correct inappropriate behavior quickly.

3. Review the employee handbook.

Discuss the workplace violence entries and what, if anything, has changed. For instance, have you added any COVID-19-specific measures, such as prohibiting workers from breathing on someone else on purpose?

4. Take immediate action.

Dealing with workplace harassment or misconduct may have been postponed while everyone worked at home. Prioritize those issues that went on the back burner before bringing everyone back to the workplace.

5. Advise caution on social media.

Remind employees who continue to work at home part time not to share identifying details about their houses or apartments on social media. Anyone, including an angry customer threatening to hurt an employee, could see that post.

6. Exercise caution after a termination.

If the terminated employee still works at home, send a courier to collect their equipment or have the employee mail it back.

7. Make plans outside work to encourage socialization.

Start a virtual book club or hold Zoom happy hours on Fridays to get employees comfortable with each other again.

8. Rebuild interpersonal skills.

Improve awareness of others and revive rusty communication skills by encouraging employees to ask each other questions and listen carefully to the responses.

9. Remain sensitive to varying levels of comfort with returning to work.

Remember that fear, including worries related to the virus, may trigger aggressive or hostile behavior.

Have questions? Contact a Pinnacol safety consultant to discuss how to keep your employees safe as they return to in-person work.

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