Can focusing on employee trust help end the pandemic sooner?

With employees becoming more open to COVID-19 safety measures, business leaders can ramp up messaging on vaccines, masks and more.

With the COVID-19 virus at a crisis point, business leaders are ready and eager to help end the pandemic and reopen the economy. Some are donating use of their facilities as community vaccination sites, while others are lending employees with operations and logistics expertise to help speed up distribution of the vaccine. But there’s also a simple yet powerful action business leaders can take right now: use the trust and influence you’ve built with your workforce to encourage reluctant employees to get a vaccine so they’re ready and willing when their turn comes.

Our latest Workforce Pulse survey of about 1,000 US workers found that only 54% of employees are “very willing” to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination to work on site. That means nearly half the workforce has reservations about getting the vaccine, whether that’s due to misinformation, fear of the vaccine itself or some other factor. Given that research shows employees trust businesses more than the media or the government, employers are in a prime spot to tap into this trust and build confidence in the vaccine as it becomes more widely available. This trust can also help leaders combat misinformation and encourage adoption of other measures aimed at slowing or preventing the spread of the virus, such as testing, contact tracing and wearing masks.

There’s an urgency to reach herd immunity if the US is to fully reopen the economy, and scientists believe a high percentage of the population will have to have acquired immunity in order to get to that point. Vaccination is the fastest way to get there. Employers can work alongside other healthcare leaders to help close the gap between individuals who have already decided they’re ready and those who are still on the fence—and in the process, begin to get their business, consumer confidence and the economy back on track.

From temperature checks to contact tracing, employees are more open to adopting safety protocols—a good sign for vaccination

Employees have come a long way in becoming more accepting of safety protocols that previously caused some hesitation. According to our survey in May 2020, only a third were comfortable with getting their temperature checked at work. Now, 70% of employees say they’re “very willing” to do that. Only 21% of employees in May said they had no concerns about trusting their employers to use contact tracing devices on their phones to track their locations and proximity to those infected with the virus. That number’s now up to 35%. Nearly half (49%) of employees said they would be “very” or “somewhat concerned” if their employer required COVID-19 tests. That’s flipped, with 58% saying they’re “very willing’ to get an employer-provided COVID-19 test and an additional 28% saying they’re “somewhat willing.”

What’s behind this shift in sentiment? It may be that as they encounter some of these requirements, such as temperature checks in gyms or the use of contact tracing in some cities, they’re becoming more comfortable with them.

Employees also show some willingness to participate in employer-provided vaccine clinics. While such clinics aren’t yet available—and likely won’t be at least until June, if at all—77% are “very” or “somewhat” willing to participate if they do become an option.

Not all groups are on board, though. Only 42% of employees in the Midwest told us they’re “very willing” to provide proof of vaccination, compared with 54% of all respondents. Employees aged 18-34 would be far less willing to participate in an employer-provided vaccine clinic (43%) said they’re “very willing” (versus 49% of total respondents who say the same). And Black employees indicated a notably lower willingness to participate in employer-provided vaccine clinics (42% versus 49% of the total population) or agree to employer-provided COVID-19 testing (47% versus 58%). It’s unclear what’s precisely behind these rates, though it may be due to concerns about a sufficient sample in clinical trials, or it may be systemic distrust stemming from a long history of medical exploitation.

Takeaways: These significant increases show that while change takes time, people’s sentiment—and their behaviors—can shift, even toward health measures that initially make some uneasy. That bodes well for the vaccine rollout, especially if people see trusted leaders modeling behaviors and communicating about the benefits.

Meanwhile, though employee attitudes may be shifting on some fronts, employers should remain mindful of the high levels of misinformation about the virus and mistrust toward authority and government figures, including scientists and public health officials. This sentiment may influence some employees to avoid vaccines, masks and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Leaders should anticipate polarized opinions within their workforce and own the messaging on preventative measures. That includes encouraging workers to engage in safe behavior outside of work. Be prepared to take action, too—such as not allowing those who won’t comply with required safety measures to return to work on site.  


Employees willing to join employer efforts to combat COVID-19


Wear masks around colleagues/customers
%
Let employer take temperature
%
Agree to employer-provided COVID testing
%
Provide proof of vaccination in order to work on-site
%

Q: How willing would you be to do each of the following if implemented by your employer? (Responses to “very willing”)
Source: PwC Workforce Pulse Survey
January 11-13, 2021: base of 994

Privacy concerns may be driving wariness on some safety measures

While employees may be generally willing to go along with measures that clearly speak to public safety, like wearing masks or having their temperature taken, measures that seem more related to their lives outside of work have less support. In our survey, 20% said they’re only “somewhat” or “not at all” willing to share their personal travel history with employers. Forty percent said they’re “somewhat unwilling” or “not at all willing” to wear a device that tracks their location and proximity to colleagues infected with COVID-19.

Takeaways: This reluctance may simply be about a desire to maintain some boundaries at a time when the divide between work and home has all but dissolved. It may also speak to a broader sentiment among consumers at what they see as an invasion of privacy by employers. Many of us have been asked to provide location-tracking information in our personal lives (such as schools requiring students to quarantine if they’ve traveled to certain areas, or doctor’s offices inquiring about out-of-state travel when patients make an appointment) and may be more comfortable with also doing it at work. But others are still adjusting to such requests and may be uncomfortable with supplying personal data to their employer.

Gather sentiment from employees to better understand their hesitation and use that data to implement appropriate solutions, review your communications to make sure your broader messaging is consistent and lead with empathy to help build trust. It may also help to target early adopters who are comfortable sharing such information in their consumer lives, too.


Employees less willing to share personal data


Give details of personal travel history
%
Participate in an employer-provided vaccine clinic
%
Take employer-provided transportation to avoid public transit
%
Use a contact-tracing app on my phone
%
Use a contact-tracing wearable
%

Q: How willing would you be to do each of the following if implemented by your employer? (Responses to “very willing”)
Source: PwC Workforce Pulse Survey
January 11-13, 2021: base of 994

Employees see silver linings in the pandemic, but some groups are struggling

In some ways, the pandemic has changed work for the better. Our survey found that employees, especially millennials and those who’ve had no choice but to work from home, see great improvement in areas such as autonomy and flexibility. Some even told us they’re seeing a greater sense of caring from their employers. This view isn’t universal—fewer baby boomers and Gen Xers said these factors have improved—but these responses indicate some positive outcomes from adopting new ways of working.

What’s gotten worse? For some, it’s the inability to disconnect, a skewed work-life balance and a growing overall workload. Gen Zers—many of whom may be living with parents or with roommates—are also struggling to carve out uninterrupted time. In addition, a quarter of our respondents report that their physical and mental health has gotten somewhat or much worse during the pandemic.

Takeaways: The challenge for leaders is to sustain improvements as work continues to evolve, while also addressing areas that are falling short. It’s important to understand the challenges faced by the quarter of employees who feel like certain aspects of their professional life have deteriorated. Gather employee sentiment data to understand their personal situations and use that data to make improvements.

Given the intense stress employees are facing, it’s critical to offer support for physical and mental health. Recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so a range of support options may be necessary. Among the possibilities you might consider providing: opportunities for in-person therapy sessions, virtual counseling or support groups; free or discounted access to mental-health apps; or virtual workouts or discounted gym memberships. In addition, encourage and model time off that allows your employees to truly step away from work and recharge.

Meanwhile, take note of aspects of work that haven’t necessarily worsened but have become more important in a hybrid world. For example, only 10% of employees told us their ability to seamlessly use work-related technology, apps and tools has gotten worse during the pandemic, while 40% say that their tech experience has stayed relatively the same. But for people to work effectively away from the office, those results indicate improvements are needed.


The pandemic is improving some aspects of work—but other aspects fall short

What’s gotten better

Ability to work from anywhere
%
Flexibility
%
My employer’s sense of caring for all stakeholders
%
Autonomy
%
Having a voice at the table regardless of seniority
%

What’s gotten worse

Physical and mental wellbeing
%
Ability to disconnect
%
Work-life balance
%
Workload
%

Q1: How much better or worse have each of the following work-related experiences been during the pandemic compared to before? (Respondents who say “much better”)
Q2: How much better or worse have each of the following work-related experiences been during the pandemic compared to before? (Respondents who say “somewhat worse” or “much worse”)
Source: PwC Workforce Pulse Survey
January 11-13, 2021: base of 994

Anxiety and uncertainty are still weighing down employee confidence

In our June 2020 Workforce Pulse Survey, only a third of employees told us the measures their leaders were taking were making them feel more confident in their ability to do their jobs. Today, that sentiment has barely shifted—a likely reflection of the grim mood that hasn’t eased up amid social unrest, political divisiveness, anxiety about the economy and fears of the virus. Employers have been working to boost that confidence. Many are leading with empathy, providing more frequent communication, rolling out wellbeing initiatives, launching new safety protocols and more. But so many factors influencing employees right now are beyond what employers can control, challenging leaders to consider new ways to close the gap.

Takeaways: Take stock of the measures you’ve taken to help your employees feel more confident. Safety, wellbeing, caring leadership and transparent communications are all critical. Are you engaging on every one of those fronts? If you aren’t, ramp up support where you can. And if you are, it’s time to double down. Even with an end to the pandemic in sight, stress generators like political divisiveness, social unrest and an uncertain economy aren’t going away quickly. It’s vital that firms continue providing empathetic leadership, mental and physical wellbeing resources, and other support.

Ask your employees what would make them feel more confident, and focus on what you can control. If employees are worried about losing their jobs, consider a commitment to no layoffs or being more transparent about the financial health of the business. If social unrest or political divisiveness is weighing on their minds, consider making public statements, committing to diversity and inclusion improvements or hosting forums that enable employees to have difficult conversations. In our November 2020 Pulse Survey, 52% of CHROs said they plan to increase diversity and inclusion training for employees and create new opportunities for employees to have conversations about difficult social issues (41%) in an effort to help address systemic racism.


Employee confidence in their ability to do their jobs isn't improving


June 2020
Jan 2021
Prioritizing employee and customer safety
%
%
Investment in wellbeing programs
%
%
Open & frequent communication with employees
%
%
Caring leadership behaviors
%
%
A clear and fair process for tough decisions
%
%
Transparent communication about the financial health of the business
%
%
Investment in upskilling
%
%
Network opportunities with other employers
%
%

Q: Which of the following could your company provide that would make you feel more confident in your ability to do your job? Select all that apply.
Source: PwC Workforce Pulse Survey
January 11, 2021: base of 994
June 11, 2020: base 347 (those forced to stop working, but still being paid; and those forced to work remotely)

What your workforce expects in 2021

What do employees need most to help you meet your strategic goals in 2021? Here are the highlights from our Workforce Pulse surveys, offering considerations for HR leaders as businesses refine recovery strategies and transition plans in 2021.

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2:12

Key insights from earlier surveys to help HR Leaders navigate 2021

About the PwC Workforce Pulse Survey

PwC conducted an online survey of 994 US-based adults from a general population between January 11 and 13, 2021. The PwC Workforce Pulse Survey is conducted on a periodic basis to track changing sentiment and priorities among employees.

Contact us

Bhushan Sethi

Bhushan Sethi

People & Organization Joint Global Leader, PwC US

Julia Lamm

Julia Lamm

Principal, Global Workforce Strategy Leader, PwC US

Karen Young

Karen Young

US Health Industries Leader, PwC US