We're nearly two years into the pandemic, and many employers are still figuring out how to bring employees back into the office safely, if at all. Return-to-the-office plans initially slated for the spring of 2021 continue to be pushed back, with some companies like Google, Apple, and Starbucks now delaying their return until January 2022.

At the core of each company's decision lies employee safety, a concept that has changed dramatically over the past 18 months. Employees have new expectations of their employers and workplaces, including the freedom to continue to work remotely. According to a recent survey by Morning Consult, one in three American workers would not want to work for an employer that requires them to work on-site full-time.

The attractiveness of remote work lies in the ability to ditch the daily commute, gain more freedom and family time, and perhaps save some money without expenses like gas, dry-cleaning, or buying lunch. But it's also reassured employees that they're safe inside their homes, limiting their exposure to Covid-19 as well as other common seasonal illnesses, like the flu. ​

Whatever the reasons, it has become clear that workforce dynamics are shifting and may never go back to the way they were pre-pandemic. Employers today need a new framework for how to keep employees engaged, connected, and safe.

Revisiting Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for the Modern Workforce

When we think about safety and what humans expect on a most basic level, Abraham Maslow still explains it best. His hierarchy of needs, first introduced in a 1943 paper titled "A Theory of Human Motivation," outlines the five categories of needs that dictate an individual's behavior. These include physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization needs. The basic premise is that humans must meet their physiological needs first before they meet their safety needs, and when these two needs are met, humans intrinsically move to seek love and belonging needs, and so on. Safety needs represent our health and well-being, a place to shelter, and job security.

Businesses have long used Maslow's hierarchy to help their employees reach their highest potential and achieve success in their field, but how we've approached the theory in the past no longer applies. Safety specifically can no longer be easily guaranteed.

Instead, it's time we redefine our needs under Maslow's hierarchy through the lens of a pre- and post-Covid world. In exploring our new normal and how employee expectations have changed, employers will be better able to attract and retain talent and ensure their workforce remains engaged, connected, and satisfied.

Physiological and Safety Needs

Starting with the first and second tiers of Maslow's Hierarchy, let's explore how physiological and safety needs have changed. Before Covid, these needs included salary, job stability and security, and a stable work environment. But when the pandemic took hold and the world moved into lockdown, some organizations responded with layoffs and reduced pay. Others were left navigating employee questions about what to do when they didn't even know themselves.

Fast-forward to today, and nearly every industry is suffering from a tight labor market. Employers have had to increase pay or add new benefits as incentives to attract talent. At the same time, employees report feeling more anxiety and stress than ever before and are looking to their employers for resources to support their mental health.

The pandemic may have fundamentally changed how we conduct business and where work takes place, but it hasn't changed an organization's legal and ethical "duty of care" to keep its employees safe from unnecessary risk of harm. Fulfilling employees' physiological and safety needs today starts with efficient communication. Be transparent about the steps you're taking to address our "new normal." Outline the steps you've taken to make working conditions as safe as possible--including tangible efforts like policy changes and new tools, like implementing a mass notification system specifically for emergencies or threats. While no company can prevent an emergency from happening, they can--with a robust emergency communication plan--prevent them from escalating into a crisis and mitigate their impact on employee safety.

Belonging Needs

Belonging needs in the workplace include healthy work culture, cooperative colleagues, and supportive bosses. Before the pandemic, these needs fell primarily to HR and senior executives responsible for creating a feeling of camaraderie among workers. But today, with so few of us back in the office, the flow of communication is compromised. Employees can no longer bond over impromptu in-person meetings or discuss work over a cup of coffee.

Employers must take care to ensure these types of activities continue even in a virtual world. At my company AlertMedia, one way we've addressed this is by encouraging employees to participate in virtual coffee chats every month. For 20 minutes, those who participate hop on a video/phone call and talk about any subject of their choice. As information has become more siloed, this has helped colleagues get to know one another and learn something new about work happening outside of their immediate team or department.

Esteem Needs

In addition to a feeling of belonging, employees also want acknowledgment for the effort they put into their work. Receiving recognition from their co-workers and feeling a sense of accomplishment are vital for staying engaged and fulfilling employees' esteem needs. Before Covid, bosses and colleagues appreciated and recognized one another in regular group meetings and town halls. Today, managers often struggle to keep the feedback loop going or remember to acknowledge their remote employees' efforts in real-time.

When nearly every U.S. employer is struggling to fill jobs, it's vital to keep a pulse on employee satisfaction. Consider establishing a Teams or Slack channel designated explicitly for recognition and team praise. Set aside 5-10 minutes of each virtual staff meeting to acknowledge the previous week's most significant wins. Encourage your teams to express gratitude and provide recognition to each other. Employees want to know their hard work is seen and appreciated, even when miles apart.

Self-Actualization Needs

Self-actualization needs can be harder to define and even harder to measure. They involve the desire to develop skills or become an expert in an employee's respective field, which can vary significantly from person to person. Before Covid, these needs were generally managed by the individual but in a conducive work environment. Now, our limited infrastructure and communication channels affect the pace of self-actualization, and motivation is compromised.

Review your learning and development program to keep employees feeling as though they are still progressing in their careers. If you can offer virtual training or access to virtual industry conferences, let employees know where to find that information. Ask executives within your organization if they are willing to host a virtual lunch-and-learn session, and if the budget allows, bring in external speakers as well. It's also worth recommending that employees network within the company, scheduling virtual coffee breaks with managers or colleagues they admire for the opportunity to continue learning from others in their field.

A Sixth Need

Maslow's original five needs continue to be relevant at work and in our personal lives. However, there's also room for an additional, sixth need: psychological safety. According to psychologist William A. Kahn, this is being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career. Before the pandemic, this meant freedom of expression in the workplace without fear of repercussion. But today, having to wear a mask or hide part of who they are results in employees feeling as though they can't bring their whole selves to work, leading to additional stress and anxiety.

Employees are already dealing with burnout and exhaustion as a result of the past 18 months. In addition to the pandemic, we've also seen numerous wildfires across the western United States, a record-setting hurricane season, and an extreme winter storm in Texas with record-low temperatures and massive power outages. As a result, many people are dealing with "disaster fatigue," a term that NPR states is a type of emotional tiredness that comes from dealing with an abundance of bad news.

Workforce mental health can have a significant financial impact on a company, with employees choosing to leave because of burnout and stress. HR leaders need to prioritize their commitment to employees' mental well-being in addition to physical well-being by offering mental health resources. This can include mental health days or access to trained therapists, but it also requires communication. Make sure managers know how to discuss personal problems with their workers and check in with employees consistently to find out how they're feeling from a psychological standpoint.

The pandemic introduced an entirely new way of work for many of us, and it's unlikely we'll ever see a return to a pre-pandemic working environment. But even though the workforce has changed, our basic human needs have not. We still need to feel a sense of safety and security regardless of what the world looks like. However, the way we achieve these needs continues to evolve. As long as companies continue to communicate with their employees and demonstrate their commitment to building a healthy work environment, they'll have an easier time hiring and will better retain their people.