Months of quarantine and stay-at-home orders have led many to experience a variety of stressors related to COVID-19, including illness, anxiety, depression, financial hardship, unemployment and caretaker burnout. As stores and businesses begin to reopen around the country, many people are bringing these stressors with them into workplaces and commercial locations, leading to aggressive interactions among staff members and patrons, or between employees and patrons. The potential for additional conflict in the workplace and public spaces has increased sharply.
In Oklahoma City, a customer shot at multiple employees at a fast food chain after being told the dining room was closed to customers due to COVID-19. Near Cape Cod, teenage workers at a family-owned ice cream shop were verbally harassed on reopening day, prompting the owner to close the shop once again.
Such incidents have highlighted the need for business owners and operators to get ahead of potential conflict scenarios that could escalate to aggression or violence. This can be accomplished with a comprehensive and risk-appropriate combination of physical and administrative controls.
For example, basic physical controls and clear, concise communications to customers in the form of signage and floor markings can help prevent confusion and conflict. Physical barriers can guide people’s movement and ensure adherence to social distancing needs while helping manage flow through spaces. Touchless services can also eliminate points of both potential contamination and possible conflict, and even improve the customer experience. Administrative controls like clear policies, response procedures, and staff awareness training for conflict prevention and de-escalation can go a long way toward preventing and managing conflict.
Instituting Physical and Administrative Controls
A strategic combination of physical and administrative controls in a publicly accessible space is critical to prevent and manage conflicts in a space that is open to the public. Consider the following suggestions:
Assess physical space and risk. Determine the best layout for your physical space that will reduce bottlenecks, slow the flow of customers or create possible points of conflict. Consider a one-directional entry and exit flow and identify places where people may naturally congregate. Do a dress rehearsal to test your solutions. Enlist a few non-employees to help you determine if it is as clear as you think it is. Assessing new processes before opening your doors to the masses can prevent many potential problems.
Foolproof communications and on-site signage. Your process should be clear to anyone who calls to inquire, visits your website or walks in. This is particularly true at the point of sale. Consider flexible options for pay and pickup. If online payment and pickup is an option, utilize it. Make sure your website and social media channels clearly reflect information about your new rules and procedures. If you have a pre-recorded message on your phone service, communicate any updated policies and procedures there as well to avoid confusion. Consider the best ways to implement signage and floor markings to promote clarity around interior and exterior lines and movements.
Update your emergency action plan. You have likely managed aggressive or disruptive patrons before, and you have certainly had at least one “no shirt, no shoes, no service” type of dispute before COVID-19 emerged. Now is the time to review your plan for these types of incidents and get it ready for action. Review the likely points of conflict and consider appropriate responses for staff and managers. All staff should be prepared to contact a manager, security or police as appropriate if a conflict is escalating toward aggression and violence or becoming disruptive for other patrons. Remind workers that they may be trained in respectful communication and de-escalation strategies, but they do not have to stay in harm’s way. Disengaging, creating distance, and contacting a manager or seeking support from other staff is their best option if things escalate beyond their comfort level.
Train your staff to ensure a smooth customer experience. Equipping your staff to work safely and enforce new rules respectfully can also increase the likelihood that your customers have a smooth and conflict free experience. Train your staff on the new processes and empower them to take the actions you have decided are appropriate should they need to enforce a rule or de-escalate a situation. Double down on the customer service mindset; customer-focused de-escalation training can prevent conflict and ensure your staff is empathetic and using communication strategies that do not promote a conflict. When employees remain calm, collected and confident, the situation is much less likely to escalate. Security risk management and business continuity programs have never been more critical. Taking proactive steps can help prevent and manage conflict, protect your business and help customers and staff stay safe and healthy.