With COVID-19 case numbers and wastewater virus readings on the rise, nobody should conclude the pandemic is over. But with hospitalization numbers remaining relatively steady, more than a few Canadians are embracing the opportunity to attempt a return to the old normal—at least in their personal lives. And with crowds once again packing sporting events, theatres, and restaurants, business leaders must effectively communicate to employees what their work lives will look like in the days and months ahead if social distancing doesn’t return.
This, of course, is especially true if you expect the new work normal to look like the old work normal. After all, issuing a return-to-office order involves a lot more than just turning the lights back on.
A recent survey of Ottawa city employees unionized by the Civic Institute of Professional Personnel (CIPP) found roughly three-quarters of the 1,200 respondents hesitant to return to the workplace without enhanced safety measures. “Our members have expressed to us serious concerns about returning to work at this time,” CIPP executive director Peter Bleyer told the CBC. “Obviously some type of return to work will be necessary, but there is no reason for that to be rushed.”
After two years of operating remotely, rushing decisions about the future of work to keep up with the rapid loosening of restrictions is indeed the wrong way to go. There is a lot at stake since the issues to consider go well beyond pandemic-related safety concerns, ranging from office hours and operating costs to employee retention and mental health. There is also a real opportunity to reshape how you think and act toward employees, showing more flexibility, accommodation, and trust than ever before.
With some forethought and planning, along with early and frequent communication, you can get this right, avoid costly lawsuits, and usher in a new era in employee relations in your organization. But first, there are a lot of questions you need to answer. Let’s take a look at five of the most critical.
How will you mitigate COVID-related risk?
The pandemic has turned workplace health and safety into a very hot topic, you need to be crystal clear about your workplace safety rules, including policies related to masking, vaccinations, and quarantine procedures. Setting these policies requires careful consideration of the related pros and cons along with some legal advice on your responsibilities and options. What are your business peers doing? What do your employees expect? In what situations could you require employees to wear masks or to be vaccinated (or fully vaccinated)? What would be the exceptions and how do they impact work-related travel or client visits?
Keep in mind you likely can’t please everyone. Some employees may refuse to come in unless the workforce is fully vaccinated. Others might disagree with maintaining any workplace pandemic policies now that governments have started eliminating COVID-19 safety measures. So, you will need to address employees who don’t agree with how you approach pandemic-related health risks going forward. Perhaps your policies would simply allow for employees who disagree with them to work from home. Whatever decisions you make, you need to communicate them with care, taking an approach that shows respect for everyone’s position.
How much flexibility will you offer?
According to a traditional reading of employment law (see the IBJ Insight “Planning an Employee Recall? Well, Good Luck with That”), management has the right to dictate how and where employees carry out their work. But the workplace response to COVID-19 has complicated things. Simply put, forcing employees to return to an official place of employment against their wishes after years of productively working remotely isn’t just a good way to increase turnover. It opens the door to claims of constructive dismissal.
Keep in mind that your people may have moved during the pandemic. Some employees might have relocated to lower-risk environments. Others might have moved to buy a house, or reduced living expenses by permanently moving to the cottage. Some employees might even have simply seized the opportunity to put down stakes somewhere nice and warm that allows them to avoid Canadian winters (which in my books is living the dream). You can try revoking the flexibility that enabled employees to make these major life decisions, or you can permanently embrace the concept of geographic flexibility, allowing them to make residential choices that suit their personal situation. But only one of these options enhances your reputation as an employer.
Given the tight labour market, employers that care about retaining talent clearly need to consider individual employee needs and communicate how they aim to meet them. And addressing demand for geographic flexibility is just the start.
As Statista recently noted, employment studies indicate the ideal situation sought by many workers, especially members of the increasingly influential Millennial generation, now includes flexibility with respect to working hours.
How will you approach business travel?
The pandemic experience has clearly demonstrated that business can be conducted without the extensive travel that took place pre-COVID. But while some employees would be happy to move forward without having to face the open world, others are eager to hit the road again. So, will you limit business travel? If so, by how much? And what, if any, operational changes need to be made to support things like sales and teambuilding, not to mention stakeholder relations? If you don’t expect to limit travel, what’s the plan?
Simply put, you need to develop and communicate new travel policies that respect everyone’s wishes and comfort levels as best you can. And whatever you decide to do needs to work with your vaccination policies while ensuring legitimate employee choices related to personal safely and work travel do not hamper their careers.
How will you support employee mental health?
When thinking about flexibility don’t forget to consider updating your policies around mental health. Offering mental health maintenance and assistance programs is more important than ever before. And you need to communicate how you will manage related absences. Will you be open and flexible, or strict and rules-based? A consistent approach that promotes trust is key.
How will you support workforce equality?
Throughout the pandemic, many individuals found themselves taking on the bulk of household duties while working remotely, ranging from preparing meals for other household members during the workday to serving as caregivers and assisting with homeschooling. This negatively impacted their work/life balance, forcing some to withdraw from the workforce. More often than not, these individuals were women, which is why progress on the gender equality front has taken a hit over the past two years. Moving forward, socially responsible businesses need to communicate how they plan to support employees who need help balancing work with other equally important commitments. This goes beyond instituting a flex time policy.
“The bigger consideration is ensuring that taking flex time does not affect careers in negative ways.”
The bigger consideration is ensuring that taking flex time does not affect careers in negative ways. So, when rethinking your workplace policies, be open to new ideas that can ensure nobody is held back because they took the time needed to manage their lives. Career advancement has long often relied on putting in significant amounts of face time in the office and client meetings. So, think about adjusting your approach to workplace interactions to level the face time playing field for flex time workers. Perhaps host virtual lunch or afternoon water cooler time that allows flex and remote workers to stay on management radar, or maybe set a policy that dedicates time for them to have the opportunity to add value in meetings.
How will you support your new policies?
There is more to implementing effective workplace policies than clear communication. Once implemented, policies need to be championed by leadership to be taken seriously. In other words, senior people in a business must follow the policies they create. So, if you adopt a hybrid or flexible work environment, you and your management team need to model the behaviours that you say you support. If you allow employees to work from home, but then always work from the office yourself, your flexible policy will fall flat, and you may find yourself losing employees. After all, your actions will subtly suggest that employees are unofficially expected to work from the office “like the boss.”
In thinking through all of the above, I urge you to accept that the work world is evolving. Nobody knows what the future norm will look like exactly. But the days of rigid schedules or constant face time have passed. To keep your best people, you need to give them some ability to custom design their work lives. So, rather than dictating where they work and when they do it, seize the opportunity to build more trust by measuring your employees on their output and value. This will help keep them happy, healthy, refreshed, and productive.