Blog - Cambridge Chamber of Commerce

The pandemic has created new opportunities for many workplaces.

 

The terms ‘hybrid’ and ‘flexible’ have become commonplace as companies and businesses formulate plans for their staff to return to a work environment that’s going to be far different than the one many left when the pandemic first struck in March of last year.

But that return won’t come without its challenges.

 

“We’re seeing a ton of anxiety out there right now as more and more employers start thinking of having people come back to the office,” says Frank Newman, who operates Newman HR. 

 

A survey conducted by KMPG Canada in the spring as vaccinations began to ramp up showed that 81% of Canadian workers were worried their employers and managers were not equipped to handle a return to work properly, and nearly two thirds of those surveyed wanted to go back to their workplaces but COVID-19 remained their core reason for reluctance. In fact, 68% said that working alongside colleagues who may be sick or asymptomatic was a top concern.

 

People have gotten very comfortable and generally quite productive working at home,” says Frank, adding the comforts of home and no commuting have become big draws for many. “I would say people are 90% to 95% as productive as they were working in the office. But clearly, we’re missing some of those creative exchange of ideas that come from sitting next to someone or from random conversations.”

 

In effort to quell the concerns of returning employees, he has been recommending to clients they create an open dialogue with their team to identify their worries or fears.

 

“It’s a little like when an employee returns from a maternity or parental leave. We just assume everything is the same but what we don’t realize is that they have undergone a bit of profound psychological change and I think we kind of had that experience working at home,” says Frank. “Companies have to try and understand what might have happened in employees’ lives while they were away. Some of us may have had loss and some of us may have had catastrophic things happen.”

 

Therefore, he says employers need to create or enhance their Employee Assistance Plans, especially around access to counselling, financial or legal supports – not just health, RRSPs and dental benefits. 

 

“I think more companies have recognized how stressed people have been,” says Frank, noting some employees may be reluctant to access these supports fearing word may spread in the workplace. “These programs are run with the highest sense of ethics in place in terms that nothing gets shared, even with your HR department. There shouldn’t be any fear about utilizing an EAP program if you have one.”

 

As well, he says vaccination policies are a huge concern and appear to be ‘all over the map’ in some workplaces and stressed that whatever stance a company takes regarding its own policy, it should be clearly defined for the employees.

 

“You want to make sure you’re talking about why you’re doing a policy, regardless of what it is because people need to know,” says Frank. “We want to keep people feeling safe at work.”

 

He says optimism appears high right now regarding bringing workers back and expects to see even more people return starting in January.

 

“I’ve got clients in virtually every sector. And the most challenging time right now is in the restaurant and food services industry,” says Frank, explaining vaccination passports and the fact fewer people have been dining out are continuing factors hitting this industry hard.

 

Also, he says workplaces with an office and a production/manufacturing component also may see the natural divide between the two widen since the office workers likely were allowed to work from home during the pandemic.

 

“Companies have to be thoughtful about how they show appreciation to those people who’ve been at the workplace every day,” he says, adding celebrating the return of employees in a positive way would also be beneficial. “I like the idea of giving something tangible, like a gift card perhaps.”

 

Frank says connections must be cultivated as people return to their offices.

 

“What we’ve learned from this whole process is that finding ways to connect with people is so important,” he says.

 

For more information, visit Newman Human Resources or contact Frank Newman at 519.362.8352.

 

Things for employers to consider as outlined by the Harvard Business Review:

 

Do:  

  • Ask - anonymously, if necessary – how people are feeling about returning to the office so you can respond directly to their concerns

  • Allow people to experiment with different ways of working so the shift to in-person or hybrid work doesn’t feel sudden. 

  • Continue to be compassionate — to your team members, and to yourself.

 

Don’t:  

  • Assume people are going to tell you that they’re feeling anxious

  • Neglect to make clear why in-person or hybrid work is beneficial to employees (not just to the company).

  • Make promises you can’t keep, such as assuring people their careers won’t be impacted by working from home or that they can do so indefinitely.

 

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The concept of remote working was something many employers never entertained, or wanted to entertain, before the world changed in March of last year. 

 

“A lot of people didn’t think working from home would work so there was a huge amount of skepticism as people went into this,” says Frank Newman, owner of Cambridge-based Newman Human Resources Consulting. “People were pretty suspicious.” 

 

However, he says the fact what some considered to be an ‘experiment’ is working out so well has resulted in new issues. 

 

“People may be reluctant to go back to the way things were so it’s having an impact on companies, and even an impact on home sales as buyers ensure their house has a home office.” 

 

As well, after more than a year operating in this new reality many employers may have productivity concerns when it comes to managing a remote workforce and continue to look for ways to ensure staff is performing at their optimum best. 

 

“What I have told my clients first of all is that people are not going to be 100% as effective working from home. They are going to be subjected to certain amounts of distractions, or disruptions,” says Frank, adding 95% effectiveness is a more likely figure. 

 

He says there are ways companies can help employees achieve their goals, without monitoring emails or logins or using various types of tracking technology. 

 

“If companies are trying to manage their employees’ work each minute of the day that’s not going to be very successful,” says Frank. 

 

Instead, he recommends setting out clear expectations in an agreement. 

 

“Do they have clear performance expectations and what are they accountable for delivering on a daily, weekly or monthly basis,” he says. “For example, if an employee is working from home does the manager expect a response to emails within an hour or 24 hours? It’s important to create some service level of expectations so people can gauge their performance and also managers can ensure employees are accountable for those standards.” 

 

Regular communication is very important says Frank, noting that ‘blasting’ employees with emails is not the answer.  

 

“For managers, to worry about whether employees are checking their emails is not necessary,” he says, adding platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Slack are great tools to cultivate engagement. 

 

“This is really the time to make sure you’re connecting with your employees if you’re worried about productivity,” he says. “That (productivity) will be the first thing to go if people are not engaging. They’re going to ‘check out’.” 

 

Lack of engagement is one of many warning signs experts say can indicate an employee working remotely could be struggling. Others can include unusual errors, poor work quality, missed deadlines, increased sick days, or being withdrawn during team meetings, in some cases keeping their cameras turned off.  

 

“They may stop volunteering for things and that’s a key sign, especially if you have someone who was always keen in the past to put up their hand and volunteer,” says Frank, adding  

the occasional one-on-one meeting can be very beneficial for both parties as long as it’s not conducted in an intrusive way.  

 

“Make sure you’re checking in on your employees to see how they’re doing, not just from a work point of view, but to find out how are things for them at home. Are they struggling trying to work with their kids at home?” 

 

He says this could lead to talks about mental health – which should be documented on the part of the employer – and possible supports or tools that could increase their productivity, such as an additional monitor or a new office chair. 

 

Keeping a company’s work culture thriving is also very important which is why Frank says many of his clients are utilizing a variety of ways to ensure employees stay connected. 

 

“I have one client that holds a virtual reality ‘drink’ every week for its employees,” he says, adding another client hosted a very moving online memorial service to celebrate the life of an employee who had passed away from an illness. 

 

“I’ve also been encouraging my clients to provide a physical appreciation for their employees,” says Frank, noting a coffee mug or a gift card can go a long way to keeping the lines of communication open. “And include the spouse because for many of us, the spouse is the one who is seeing all the work that we do.” 

 

He says many employees working remotely may now be ‘re-evaluating’ their career choice, which could spell trouble for some companies. 

 

“People will remember how companies behaved during this time and if you’re not taking the time to connect, there’s going to be a price to pay at some point,” he says. “Once the pandemic ends, I suspect we’re going to see a huge spike in people who are discontented with their jobs and say now is the time to move on.” 

 

For information, visit https://newmanhumanresources.com 

 

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Working from home has become the norm for thousands of people since the start of the pandemic and many may wish to continue that practice.

 

However, the question of work location is just one of many items on a growing list of work-related issues that are likely to capture additional attention as more of us are vaccinated lowering the risk of the spread of COVID-19, allowing employers to begin to try to get back to “normal”.

 

“A key issue right now is for employers to review their employment contracts and policies,” urges Melissa Roth, a human resources, labour and employment lawyer at Pavey Law LLP in Cambridge. “It’s a very worthwhile investment.”

 

She says changes in general, with respect to termination provisions, as well as changes brought about since the initial shutdown in March 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, have made it imperative for employers to revisit their employment contracts and policies.

 

“At first we didn’t have any plans for this in terms of a structure for what was going to happen when businesses were closed,” she says, referring to the laws that were in place in accordance with the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA) at the time of the first lockdown. “At the end of the day, when you lay off someone you are terminating their position if you do not recall them back to work after a specific period of time.”

 

She says the introduction of the deemed Infectious Disease Emergency Leave (IDEL) changed that from an ESA perspective, allowing those temporarily laid off under the ESA due to COVID-19 to be classified as being on a job protected leave.

 

“But if you didn’t have that right reserved in your employment contract, then this is still known as a constructive dismissal in the courts,” says Melissa, noting many employers are now facing potential legal claims from employees.

 

As well, the continued ability to work from home, like other aspects of the working relationship, is a function of the individual’s employment contract, job duties and other factors.

 

“You, as an employee might be excited about continuing to work from home and may want to keep doing that but if the employer tells you that you have to come back to work, you likely have to come back,” she says, adding employees, under certain circumstances, may be able to request to continue working remotely based on protected grounds under the Human Rights Code. These requests could centre around disabilities or family issues, such as children being too young to be left at home alone since changes to the Education Act have permitted parents to keep their children out of schools.

 

“There are a lot of factors that play a role in a request to stay home and continue to work from home,” says Melissa, adding if there are no human rights grounds to remain home and it was not written into the contract, there is likely an expected obligation that an employee will return to the workplace. “There’s a lot to consider and the answer is never a black and white issue.”

 

She says some employers already had telecommuting policies in their work contracts because working remotely was already part of their regular business, but that even these policies may need updating.

 

“As an employer, you are going to have to consider if it is essential for your employee working at home to be available during core hours or whether they can make up their time throughout the day,” says Melissa. “In turn, the employee will have to know what the expectations are when working from home.”

 

As well, she says the Occupational Health and Safety Act and WSIB concerns have to be taken into consideration when assessing the possibilities of continuing to work from home.

 

“A person may be working from home and an employer still has certain obligations to take every precaution that’s reasonable under the circumstances for the protection of their worker,” says Melissa. “All of these issues have to be taken into consideration.”

 

She also encourages these considerations be included in the contracts of new hires and in employment policies.

 

Melissa mentioned that employers should turn their minds to other issues such as rapid testing and vaccination policies as they pertain to the workplace.

 

“You should have this in writing,” says Melissa, noting businesses should provide their employees with clear messaging and embrace this time as the opportunity to update their policies and contracts. “I’m just speculating, but the next pandemic is likely not going to take 100 years so let’s be prepared for this to happen.”

 

For more, visit: https://bit.ly/3hnBb0b

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