While COVID-19 remains very much a concern, attention, for many, has turned toward a slow and safe return to the workplace. Doing so properly requires a methodical approach to the logistics of office interaction, a coordinated communications effort and an empathetic attitude toward staff anxiety. Recent months have opened eyes to the possibility of work from home and hybrid approaches, which has implications for recruitment and HR policies. For Human Resource departments and company leadership, it is a time of careful consideration for both daily protocol and long term vision.
Preparing Your Workspace for Return from COVID-19
Ensuring workplace safety during a pandemic is a matter of forward thinking, regulatory compliance and attention to detail. HR Consultant Judy Slutsky has been working with clients to ensure that their workplaces are well positioned to function safely and in compliance with legal requirements.
“In company offices, we evaluate and measure each space to identify risks and mitigation strategies,” Slutsky tells us. “In a lunchroom, for example, the risks identified include a social distancing and food preparation/sharing. We measure space between chairs, remove chairs and tables, and put tape on the floor to indicate social distancing and employee traffic flow. We remove or seal fridges, microwaves, toasters, kettles, and remove shared dishes and cutlery. These procedures must be documented, communicated to all employees and form part of your company’s safety plan for an employee’s safe return to work.”
There is much to consider. Social distancing, wellness policies, temperature checks and health assessments, the availability of PPE, and hygiene protocols for common spaces and washrooms all need to be addressed. Then there are transportation issues, such as elevators and public transit. Slutsky recommends the WorkSafeBC website as a valuable tool for British Columbia-based companies, while other provinces have similar resources.
Psychological Challenges of Returning to Work
Optimizing a return to the workspace is not just a matter of addressing physical safety, but psychological well-being as well.
“Leaders must recognize and accept that returning to work is another “change issue” employees will be encountering,” writes Barbara Bowes for the Winnipeg Free Press. “Some may go through the change cycle quickly, while others will stall and struggle. Still others will not be able to adapt. No matter what, your employees will experience some sense of loss that must be recognized and addressed.”1
Company leaders must make themselves available to employees in order to address these concerns, while monitoring their own stress levels as well.
According to Elisabeth Joyce, VP of advisory in the Gartner HR Practice, a proper response to this challenge will be vital to a company’s reputation as an employer.
“As companies contemplate and implement their return to the workplace strategy, the feelings and reactions of their employees will likely play out publicly,” Joyce said. “The decisions that organizations make across the next several months will define their employment brand for the next several years.”2
Communicating with Staff During COVID-19
Companies that did a good job of communicating with their staff as remote working protocols were initiated will want to be equally vigilant about communicating the particulars of the return to the office.
Detailed information regarding policies, safety protocols and business outlook will not only help to ease anxieties about workplace safety, but also provide management with a proactive means of battling rumours that are bound to circulate.
Information should flow in an orderly fashion from top management down, while also providing channels for employee feedback and concerns to filter upwards.
“One of the things that will give employees great comfort in returning to work is knowing that their employer has gone through and implemented government issued directives. These directives by way of written policies, procedures and safety plans are the essence of your ongoing communication with employees,” says Slutsky.
Effects of Remote Workforce on Recruiting
The success many companies have experienced with remote working in recent months has motivated management to consider the benefits of various remote working or hybrid approaches.
“For the employee, it is a virtual job market that’s opened up across the country,” says Slutsky. “If you’re doing remote work, you can now gain access to jobs across the country without having to be onsite on a daily basis. Employers can now engage with talent across the country. Moving forward, we will likely see a national sharing of talent and skills.”
A paradigm change in this regard would bring with it other benefits as well.
“It remains a well-reported fact that women have predominantly taken on the roles of caregivers at home or have not been able to move to a new location to pursue a job or promotion,” writes Mark Barrenechea for Fast Company. “If we can put in place the technology and systems to embrace flexible, remote work that takes the realities of personal and family circumstances into consideration, then we have an opportunity to smash gender inequity within our organizations.”3
Slutsky expands on the potential cost savings for both employer and employee. “In terms of employers paying for overhead and a physical office space, moving forward employers won’t likely need as much of a physical footprint to house its employees,” she says. “The overhead to keep people on-site is a large, fixed monthly expense. With less overhead expenses needed, employers can invest those cost savings to other business priorities. Employees can also benefit financially from remote work. If eligible, employees who work remotely, can ask their employer for a T2200 form to claim office expenditures.”
Returning to work safely and restructuring the workforce remains very much a work in progress and will depend on the progression of the COVID pandemic, as well as the effectiveness of various workplace arrangements. As the next months and years unfold, progressive companies, and their HR departments, will look to stay on top of health protocols and employment trends in an effort to thrive during and after this paradigm change.