Reopening After COVID-19: How to Support Employees’ Safety Behaviors

Reopening After COVID-19: How to Support Employees’ Safety Behaviors

As companies explore reopening operations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the safety of both workers and customers remains a top priority. Limiting the transmission of the virus in the course of business operations means adjusting normal protocols. Depending on the nature of the business, it could mean wearing masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace, maintaining six or more feet of distance between workers, staggering shifts to limit the number of people on-site at any time, limiting face-to-face interactions, more frequent handwashing, or increased sanitization of equipment and surfaces.

In addition to the workflow management solutions that will help organizations figure out the mechanics of reopening, it’s important to consider the employee experience. Behavior change science can help employers create a playbook for conditions where employees are supported and enabled to be safe. The COM-B model has specific implications for what the employee experience might look like.

The COM-B Model of Behavior Change

At the heart of the COM-B model of behavior change is a simple but powerful insight: In order for any behavior to occur, people must have the capability, opportunity, and motivation to perform it. In order to increase the likelihood of a given behavior, designers should look at where barriers currently exist in those three categories. Those barriers then become targets to be addressed by the design. 

The COM-B model is accompanied by the Behaviour Change Wheel, which links intervention categories to barrier types. This means that designers can use the Behaviour Change Wheel to determine the type of design that might be most effective based on the barriers they’ve observed in their research. Once the types of interventions have been selected, the designers can layer in the specific feature sets that are right for the problem set and audience.

When thinking about reopening after COVID-19, employers can use the COM-B model to identify likely barriers to safety behaviors and implement procedures that mitigate them. Here are some examples for each category of the COM-B model. While the specific implementation will depend on your business, these examples should offer some guidance for the types of factors to consider.

COM-B Methodology

Designing for Capability

Capability refers to a person’s ability to perform the behaviors in question. It can be broken out into physical and psychological capability. The types of interventions that tend to work well for capability issues at a high level are education, training, and enablement.

Physical Capability

In assessing physical capability, ask whether employees are physically able to perform the safety behaviors asked of them. For example, some people have health concerns including respiratory or behavioral health conditions that make it impossible to safely wear a mask. In cases where these barriers exist, it may be most fruitful to look for alternatives to the difficult behavior or determine how the employee might be safely exempted. There also may be opportunities for enablement, which is the use of tools or assistance to accomplish a behavior. Could employees whose breathing is hindered by a mask sit behind a plexiglass partition instead, for example?

Other safety behaviors may lead to physical discomfort, especially over time. Consider supplying hand lotion to soothe skin that’s dry from thorough washing. If someone’s mask or other PPE becomes uncomfortable during a shift, is there a private or well-ventilated area where they might safely take a break from it? 

Psychological Capability

Psychological capability refers to the knowledge necessary to perform a behavior. In terms of supporting employees’ psychological capability to engage in safety behaviors, instructions can go a long way. The visual handwashing instructions the National Health Service adapted from the World Health Organization are a great example of easy-to-understand instructions; if your organization has a humorous culture, consider setting the instructions to a song to make them that much more memorable.

Proper Hand Washing Technique

Part of supporting psychological capability is making sure people have the knowledge they need in the right time and context. So be sure that instructions are visible posted in close proximity to where a behavior needs to occur; handwashing signs might be in eating areas and restrooms, while equipment sanitization reminders should be near the equipment. If any existing processes have changed to incorporate new safety steps, take the time to update documentation wherever employees typically reference it so they are always availed of the most recent process. 

Designing for Opportunity

Opportunity refers to the environment in which a behavior takes place and how it might either enable or hinder the behavior. We consider both physical opportunity and social opportunity. The categories of interventions that can influence opportunity factors are training, restriction, enablement, environmental restructuring, and modeling.

Physical Opportunity

To understand the physical opportunity factors associated with safety behaviors, survey the workplace environment. How does the physical layout facilitate safety--or make it challenging? Some things to look  for:

  • Where are supplies like gloves, masks, and cleaning materials located? They should be readily available in locations where workers are likely to need them, such as the entrances and exits to workspaces.

  • How are workspaces laid out? Can individual workspaces be relocated to add more space between them, whether in an office or on a manufacturing floor? If not, would it make sense to consider adding physical barriers like cubicles to protect people from potential infection?

  • What are the paths people move on to get from one place to another? In a retail environment, it might be helpful to make aisles one-way to limit traffic jams. 

  • How can activities that used to involve close proximity be reconfigured? One likelihood is that even upon return to the office, meetings may continue to be partially or entirely conducted via software so that large groups aren’t in a room together. For those with access to the outdoors and topics that can be discussed without visual aids, walking meetings of small groups might become a new norm.

In some work environments, the solution may involve staggering shifts so that only some employees are on site at a given time.

Social Opportunity

While physical opportunity has to do with the natural and built environments, social opportunity is about the other people who influence someone’s behavior. People naturally look to others for cues as to the “right” way to behave. In Mad*Pow’s research on safety behaviors at construction sites, a key factor influencing whether workers observed the safety rules was whether they observed supervisors doing so. Management behavior sends a signal above and beyond any stated recommendations about acceptable behavior. It’s vital that management “walk the talk,” especially with visible safety behaviors like handwashing or wearing a face covering.

Behavior adoption among non-managerial employees matters too. Research suggests that once about 25% of people in a group adopt a behavior, it becomes a social convention. Consider asking some more senior or influential employees to volunteer as champions who take an active role in modeling good safety behaviors and explicitly reminding their peers to do the same. 

Designing for Motivation

Motivation refers to the beliefs, desires, and attitudes that influence whether or not a person does a behavior. It can be broken down into automatic and reflective forms of motivation. The categories of interventions that can shape motivation include education, training, persuasion, modeling, and incentives structures.

Automatic Motivation

Automatic motivation refers to the belief system a person has about a behavior and its outcome. If people don’t believe that engaging in workplace safety behaviors will help them and others stay healthy, they are far less likely to engage in them. Therefore, one of the best ways employers can influence employees’ automatic motivation is to vocalize that they take the threat of COVID-19 seriously. This provides a better logical foundation for why employees should wear PPE than taking a position that everything will be ok. 

As employers share information about COVID-19 and any related safety protocols, it’s also important to prioritize credible, current information about the virus, its transmission, detection, and treatment. Use information from the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, or similarly non-partisan science-based organizations rather than sources that might not be as reliable.

Automatic motivation can also be shifted by reframing employee behaviors in the time of COVID-19 as brave and prosocial. Acknowledge employee contributions and thank them for their service at a time when they incur extra risk at work. If appropriate and feasible, hazard pay or a small bonus could reinforce a sense of gratitude for workers who may not feel entirely comfortable about being back at work but want to return to productivity.

Reflective Motivation

Reflective motivation is what most people mean when they talk about motivation: The goals and priorities that a person has for their actions. Assuming that employees believe that taking precautions will reduce their chances of contracting COVID-19, it’s reasonable to think that safety behaviors are a priority. However, other employee priorities don’t necessarily become less important to them. An employee could care about their own well-being but also meeting a deadline or production goal. Mad*Pow has seen how task goals can sometimes push safety goals down the priority order without the explicit awareness or endorsement of either workers or management.

That’s why repeatedly reminding employees in communications that safety and well-being are top prioritiesis important, but not sufficient. It may also be necessary to adjust expectations around employee performance in order to accomodate safety behaviors that take additional time and effort. For example:

  • Do people need to don or remove PPE, wash hands, or sanitize surfaces between meetings or tasks or while transitioning physical spaces? Add 5 minute (or whatever duration is needed) buffers between events so people are able to complete the safety procedure without being late to a meeting or shift.

  • Production targets may need to be adjusted to accommodate changes to safety procedures. In addition to the time it takes to put on and take off PPE, it might also make it more physically challenging to complete a task. Or, if an employer has staggered shifts so fewer people are working at a given time, shift-based production targets should be lowered.

Employees also have lives outside of work that have been complicated by COVID-19 and may introduce goals that take precedence over work. Is it possible to offer flexible options for employees with caregiving or other responsibilities? For example, can employees adjust their working hours so that their child always has an adult available?

A Time for Empathy

Perhaps more than any single process or procedure, what people need in a time of uncertainty and loss is to feel cared for and seen.  When leadership in an organization spends time in acts of care--when they provide employees the opportunity to be vulnerable and acknowledge the hardships they’re facing--it fosters trust and loyalty. Investing time in conversation, being ready with a listening ear, and expressing empathy can go a long way. 

Additional Resources

To learn about a different example of how the COM-B model can help to support workplace safety behaviors, read our case study about IRMI and construction site safety.

Watch a replay of our webinar on reopening after COVID-19 with Pega and Tech Mahindra.

Contributed by
Amy Bucher
Job Title
VP, Behavior Change Design