Blog - Cambridge Chamber of Commerce

It’s not easy to operate or manage a business, even during the best of times.

 

But add in a worldwide pandemic, and the stresses many employers and employees face quickly become magnified.

 

“I have found over the past two years the one thing that is negatively impacting leaders is the societal expectations that they have all the answers,” says Lynn Charlton, proprietor of Lynn Charlton Business Solutions in Kitchener, noting COVID-19 did not come with a ‘playbook’ for businesses. “There is no historical data available that is comparable to our current circumstances.”

 

Lynn, along with Jim Moss, Executive Director of YMCA Workwell, will provide expert insight at our virtual event May 3 entitled A Difficult Conversation. Let’s #GetReal About Mental Health regarding the stresses employers and employees are now facing in the workplace.

 

“I think during the pandemic we’ve become a little shortsighted about the human experience,” says Lynn, noting that many employers are also employees themselves. “We forget about that part and that they are going through this just like everybody else. Everyone has been negatively impacted in circumstances unique to them, regardless of how we may present ourselves at work.”

 

When it comes to ‘big’ stressors for employers, Lynn says many are faced with turnaround pressure trying to translate the latest directives from a medical perspective and apply them to an employment perspective, explaining the Employment Standards Act has always been a very reactive piece of legislation.

 

“Employers are getting minimum support from the Employment Standards Act on how to interpret this information because we can’t keep up,” she says. “No one is letting anybody down and I think the expectation may be out of line of how quickly these things can be determined.”

 

Another stressor for employers is looking at the larger picture overall of how businesses must quickly learn to adapt.

 

“The pandemic has completely stressed our old norms and redefined expectations from both the leadership side to the employee side,” says Lynn. “The resiliency of our leadership has been dramatically challenged over the past two years and resiliency is not an infinite resource.”

 

She says having empathy in the workplace is key, especially now.

 

“It is important for both leaders and employers that empathy needs to be a two-way street,” says Lynn. “As much as we as leaders need to be empathic, our teams also during times like this need to be empathic towards their leaders.”

 

Jim, who will share the spotlight with her at the webinar, agrees and says employers must be able to read the signs when it comes dealing with their employees’ mental health.

 

“Mental health issues have a tendency to first show up in our behaviours and appearance,” he says. “Leaders with higher emotional intelligence often pick up on these types of signs more quickly as they are both consciously and subconsciously paying attention and prioritizing this kind of data all the time.”

 

To help the situation, he recommends employers be as adaptable and flexible whenever they can.

 

“When you can’t be flexible any further, be honest and upfront with people so they can make the best decisions for themselves,” says Jim. “Replace the golden rule with the platinum rule; treat your employees like they want to be treated not how you want to be treated. If people need to change jobs, talk about it early and make it work as best you can.”

 

At the webinar, he hopes to refer to specific data to give participants an even better understanding of surrounding some of these issues.

 

“Ideally, we hope that people will see themselves in the data that we share,” says Jim. “It will help them understand some of the ways that they might be feeling are the same as some others in the community while also realizing that many others feel similar, but for very different reasons.”

 

Lynn says she hopes participants will come away being able to identify some of the ‘red flags’ surrounding burn out in successful and productive leaders.

 

“We all have stress and it’s OK to have stress,” she says. “But it’s about how do we manage that work stress without negatively impacting our team and the people relying on us to be that ‘solid’ person in trying times.”

 

 

'A Difficult Conversation. Let’s #GetReal About Mental Health' takes place virtually Tuesday, May 3 from 11 a.m. to noon. Sign up at: https://bit.ly/3MjQcwm

 

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The lifting of provincial and regional mask mandates is welcomed news for businesses and customers alike.

 

While restrictions remain in place for public transit, long-term care and retirement homes, shelters and jails, the decision to keep masking, vaccination, or daily screening policies in place has basically been left up to individual employers who must also consider their obligation to protect workers under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

 

When it comes to businesses that wish to keep masking in place, setting out clear expectations in a policy is essential – especially for businesses that are public-facing, says Dr. Nadira Singh, Chair of Business at Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning.

 

“The first thing you have to be clear about is posting your signage. You have got to let people know you are protecting your staff and your customers,” she says, recommending businesses also post any policies on their social media channels as well. “You want to make sure they feel safe being in your business.”

 

Carrie Thomas, founder of Nimbus HR Solutions Group, agrees and recommends changing the wording on signs to ‘freshen’ that messaging and suggests even moving them to another location in the business to draw renewed attention.

 

“Sometimes, we get so used to seeing something that we don’t see it anymore,” she says. “That’s how humans are built.”

 

Consistency, says Carrie, is key and that really knowing your customer base or employees can assist employers anticipate any potential reactions.

 

“You have to make sure you communicate your policy to them,” she says, noting that conveying to them the policy may be reviewed considering how rapidly public health directives can change may allay concerns, especially if someone is confrontational. “That would not be an untrue statement because many businesses may decide to review their policies on a monthly basis, while others may look at it on a weekly basis.”

 

Having a well-thought-out policy in place that employees can clearly deliver and understand will provide them assistance when working with customers.

 

“As individuals enter a business, hopefully they have seen the signage and will comply. But if they don’t, then we need to ask them for compliance,” says Nadira, adding training employees to read verbal and non-verbal cues has become vital during the pandemic when it comes conflict resolution. 

 

She says offering alternatives to customers, such as providing them with masks if they don’t have one with them or offering curbside pickup, may help. 

 

“You want to make sure you are keeping your customers and that at the end of the day, you are also protecting everybody,” says Nadira.

 

Carrie agrees and suggests keeping the politics surrounding COVID-19 out of any policy decisions, noting talking with employees should be the first step.

 

“You need to talk to your staff and figure out where the comfort level is for all of you,” she says, explaining that focusing any policy on the health and safety of your employees and customers sends a more positive message.

 

She says showing employees they are valued will go a long way.

 

“Trying to find employees is tough right now,” says Carrie. “I said at the beginning of the pandemic, how an employer treats their employees through this is going to determine how easy it is to find staff after it ends. The employers who have taken care of their people during COVID-19 are not the ones who are going to have a problem finding staff.”

 

For more about Nimbus HR Solutions Group, visit https://bit.ly/3DgoWve

 

 

Key pieces to a mask policy:

  • Education & training
  • Creating a clear policy
  • Offering alternatives to customers
  • Referencing Occupational Health and Safety Act regulations

 

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While working remotely has created new opportunities for many businesses since the start of the pandemic it has also put a spotlight on some concerns employers must now address as they continue to adapt to the seemingly relentless presence of COVID-19.

 

Among these is time theft, an issue which human resource experts say was already well known in workplaces but has become more apparent since employees began working at home.

 

Time theft occurs when an employee receives payment for time that is not spent doing their work, which could include conducting personal activities during work hours or taking long lunch breaks without telling their managers.

 

While there doesn’t appear to be any clear financial amount this type of activity costs Canadian employers, according to the accounting software site QuickBooks, in the U.S. time theft costs employers at least $11 billion annually.

 

“In certain scenarios, where trust was not there to begin with when employees were in the office and proper procedures were not in place, this remote element has just amplified the gaps between employers’ expectations and employees’ responsibilities,” says Kiljon Shukullari, a Certified Human Resources Leader at Peninsula Canada. 

 

His colleague, Peninsula Canada Account Manager Victoria Vati, agrees.

“For real time theft to occur the action must include an overtly fraudulent act, such as altering a timecard, punching in for each other, failing to record or falsely recording hours on an attendance management system,” she says, adding much of this type of time theft can be alleviated by software and refers to a system from BrightHR her company relies on.

 

This system, which does have a ‘check in and check out’ component, also includes an array of features to assist employees and employers regarding scheduling and accessing various documents. “It’s software that can assist in everyday HR related practices,” she says.

 

But there are a variety of aspects to consider when it comes to time theft, which requires setting out proper remote working policies.

 

“Other activities, such as surfing the internet too much, to running errands during the day can be alleviated by proper oversight from management and setting proper expectations in terms of production from employees,” says Victoria, adding after nearly two years into the pandemic many employers should now have these policies in place. “But it’s a matter of how you monitor that without micromanaging because that trust goes both ways.”

 

She says transparency is key when it comes to creating policies to manage a remote workforce.

 

“If that wasn’t there to begin with, now is a good opportunity to implement them,” says Victoria.

 

Kiljon agrees and says establishing those ‘core’ documents – including contracts and employee handbooks – form the basics of a good working relationship which could reduce the threat of time theft.

 

“It’s easier when an employer and employee start a relationship. It’s a lot harder when employees are already part of the business,” he says. “Existing employees is where we spend a lot of our attention to begin with because for a new employee and employer they are already starting on the same page.”

 

Kiljon says when it comes to introducing new work policies, communicating them well and acknowledging potential concerns from employees is a good approach. 

 

“The employer needs to be open to that two-way conversation with their employees and then the policy can be updated because at the end of the day, the employer does have the legal right to introduce any type of policies,” he says, adding some may be more straightforward, while others could appear harsh. 

 

Whatever the policy, Kiljon says being open to questions from employees and setting the right expectations and clarifying what the outcomes are for non-compliance can go a long way.

 

“Those are key things,” he says.

 

Trust, says Victoria, is at the core of the employment relationship.

 

“A company should start with the position of trusting their people,” she says. “It’s all about fairness and consistency in how employers treat their employees.”

 

To help the situation, both say providing the necessary supports to employees who may be struggling working remotely is a great way to build a better and more productive working relationship. This could include helping them setup a backdrop for virtual meetings, or ‘recreating’ their office space at home by providing them with more equipment, such as a second computer screen.

 

“Employers need to be aware of the contexts their employees are working in at home,” says Kiljon, adding encouraging employees to communicate via video rather than an email or text is a good way to maintain a more personal approach to contact. “Also, congratulate them for their achievements and help them through their difficulties and always keep an open-door policy. These are things that will help.”

 

For employers looking to introduce or revamp work policies, Victoria recommends using the services of an expert will help them in the long run.

 

“Employers are expected to be HR and health and safety and labour law experts, and it’s next to impossible,” she says. “If you can get free advice that’s great, but ultimately if you want to make sure your business is 100% protected it’s best to speak with a professional, even if It’s a consultation.”

 

For more information on Peninsula, visit https://peninsulacanada.com

 

Tips to prevent time theft: 

  1. Install time and attendance software 
  2. Keep open lines of communication between all staff
  3. Improve accountability at work
  4. Be understanding
  5. Do away with paperwork (handwritten timesheets) 

 

A few facts from Benefit Canada:

  • A study by Aternity Inc. found overall productive decreased 14% between Feb. 3 to July 9, 2020, as high levels of remote work were maintained due to the pandemic. 
  • According to the 2021 Benefits Canada Health Survey of approximately 1,000 workers, 66% said they feel less connected to their co-workers and employers since switching to a remote system.
  • 73% of respondents said they weren’t satisfied with their jobs, while 74% said they have a high level of stress. 
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A ‘ding’ indicating a new text or email has arrived on your cellphone or laptop is often too tempting to ignore for most people, especially when it’s work-related and even if it’s outside of what’s considered regular work hours.

 

The creation of the Working for Workers Act, 2021 aims to change this by requiring employers to develop a policy related to the right for employees to ‘disconnect’ after work, as well outlines prohibition – with a few exceptions - on non-compete agreements. 

 

“Ultimately, it’s about mental health and making sure people can have that perspective on it and companies are supporting those decisions,” says Frank Newman, who operates Cambridge-based Newman Human Resources Consulting. “The end result is a more productive work environment, but we’ve got to change our habits because we’ve gotten so used to emailing or texting late at night.”

 

The new Act requires that as of Jan. 1 of any year, employers with 25 or more employees must have a written policy in place before March 1 of that year with respect to having workers ‘disconnect’ from their jobs. As it stands, employers will need to have a policy prepared by June 2 of this year.

 

“Most will start from scratch and there will be quite a few policies that can be impacted by this,” says Frank, adding employers could begin by examining any current hours of work, or overtime policies they may already have in place.

 

However, he says the process doesn’t have to be a daunting task and should begin with some clear discussion between employers and their employees around expectations, on both sides.

 

“This is a great opportunity to really have an open dialogue with employees and start working on the question of what can you do to increase their performance during office hours, and how do they feel about disengaging,” says Frank, noting it’s hard, especially for those working at home, from keeping close watch on their cellphones or tablets.  “This is not a ‘do or die’ policy that deals with laying off people or increasing wages. This is basically looking at the working environment to see if it’s productive and are employees happy and feeling comfortable after shutting down.”

 

He says many organizations are still trying to find their ‘groove’ in terms of hybrid working arrangements since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting there are simple steps they can take to improve productivity when it comes to managing a remote workforce.

 

“For example, look at the way we structure emails. Do you always put ‘urgent’ in the subject line? Do you copy all your co-workers in every email?,” he asks, adding some workplaces have created times during the week where no meetings are scheduled to give employees the chance to work, or encourages them to take breaks. “There is a whole bunch of productivity protocols that companies can look at as part of this. But companies need to be creative with this, otherwise people are just going to fall back into old habits.”

 

For starters, Franks says it’s imperative that companies define what are ‘regular’ working hours and the expectations they have for employees surrounding them. 

 

“But more importantly, it’s about how you define what those expectations are after working hours and during emergencies,” he says, adding this is especially important for companies with offices located in other time zones. “You also have to think about how you contact with people when they are on sick or maternity leaves, again, respecting their right to disengage.”

 

Also, Franks says companies must define if this policy will apply to everyone.

“For example, if you’re vice-president of finance you may not be able to disengage during off hours,” he says. “But obviously, the intent of this is to turn everyone off if you can which is very difficult in this day and age.”

 

In terms of setting up a policy, Frank says it should start with a shift at the management level explaining leaders of the company may have to try and curb themselves from sending emails or messages after hours.

 

“Even if they’re texting or sending emails among themselves at those times, that’s going to filter through the organization,” he says.

 

But ‘disengaging’ is only one aspect of the Act. Another is the banning of non-compete agreements that prevent employees from exploring other opportunities, apart from ‘C-Suite’ executives.

 

“This is a good thing,” says Frank. “But it could be a little challenging for companies because they could lose some of their talent to competitors.”

 

However, he says having a comprehensive policy in place could also become a valuable tool to entice new talent, a bonus considering the ongoing labour shortages in many sectors. 

 

“It’s also a positive way to be able to attract employees because many are looking for more time off and more flexibility,” he says. “Companies can develop these policies as a positive way to say this is our values and this is our work culture. There’s really no risk to this.”

 

However, Frank admits it remains yet to be seen how the Province can enforce this Act, noting it will probably fall under governance of Employment Standards.

“This is going to be a challenge,” he says. “Trying to get the government to respond at the best of times can be a challenge.”

 

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

 

 Working for Workers Act at a glance:

  • Require employers with 25 or more employees to have a written policy about employees disconnecting from their job at the end of the workday to help employees spend more time with their families. 
  • Ban the use of non-compete agreements that prevent people from exploring other work opportunities in order to make it easier for workers to advance in their careers. Help remove barriers, such as Canadian experience requirements, for internationally trained individuals to get licenced in a regulated profession and get access to jobs that match their qualifications and skills. 
  • Require recruiters and temporary help agencies to have a licence to operate in the province to help protect vulnerable employees from being exploited. 
  • Require business owners to allow delivery workers to use a company’s washroom if they are delivering or picking up items. This supports the delivery drivers, couriers and truck drivers who have kept our essential supplies and economy going throughout the pandemic. 
  • Allow surpluses in the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s Insurance Fund to be distributed over certain levels to businesses, helping them cope with the impacts of COVID-19.  
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A shortage of rapid antigen screening kits threatens to hamper the ability of local Chambers to assist Waterloo Region businesses stay safe over the next few weeks, says Cambridge Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Greg Durocher.

 

Since the start of April, the Cambridge and Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chambers have been working with Health Canada and the Province to provide free self-screening kits to small and medium-sized businesses throughout our Region.

 

Since that time, more than 700,000 of the kits have been distributed, not to just to Chamber members but all SMEs with less than 150 employees. The goal of the program was to identify asymptomatic or presymptomatic individuals from spreading COVID-19 in the workplace, at home and around the community.

 

“Up until December, everything was running very smoothly, and people were ordering kits and they were keeping workplaces safe,” says Greg, noting a provincewide shortage has altered that at very critical time for businesses. “There are a number of workplaces that are in a very vulnerable situation that are essential and it’s very important they screen employees every couple of days. You can’t have an essential business close their doors for 14 days.”

 

The Chamber initiative, which began as a pilot program and was quickly implemented provincewide by other Chambers through the Ontario Chamber of Commerce network, is waiting on a delivery of approximately 150,000 of the kits to fulfill orders placed by businesses through its Chambercheck.ca portal.

 

“But the fact of the matter is we have at least 1,600 businesses who are now waiting in the cue to get their kits and we don’t have any,” says Greg, noting that leaves approximately 70,000 employees in Waterloo Region without access to rapid screening until at least mid-January.

 

“Even when we receive our order that still won’t be enough because to test that many employees we need at least 280,000 kits,” he says, explaining proper screening requirements call for employees to use the kits at least twice a week.

 

The Chamber’s last order of 50,000 kits – a week’s supply - arrived Dec. 6 and was quickly allocated to businesses or re-allocated to other businesses (including restaurants) if they were not picked up. 

 

“We know there are many workplaces that have to have them,” says Greg, adding a decision by the Province to distribute a single box of screening kits containing five tests to students over the Christmas break may not have been the best method. “It’s a great idea, but not enough has been handed out. Five tests aren’t enough and there isn’t a real strategy attached for their use and to even retain some tests for going back to school. Just handing them out is no real strategy.”

 

He says distributing through workplaces has been a great way to reach more people. 

 

“We’ve always said from the very beginning of this to the Province that about 63% of Ontarians are in workplaces so if you make rapid screening kits available for employees you have the potential to reach 63% of the population,” says Greg, noting not all employees may wish to take part in the screening program unless it was mandated. 

 

He says it would have proven cheaper for the Province to distribute more screening kits to workplaces and even curtail the resale of the kits for exorbitant amounts online.

 

“The BESTWR (Business and Economic Support Team of Waterloo Region), along with the Chambers, started encouraging the Province to do rapid screening in May of 2020 and it took them almost a year to get out and going because we stepped up to the plate and said we would do the pilot program,” says Greg. “We literally wrote the playbook so they could pass it on.”

 

He says running the free screening program through the Chambers has also ensured all the necessary safety protocols are followed.

 

“We have all the safeguards in place to make sure these kits are being used correctly and continue to be accessible to answer any questions if businesses have had a problem,” says Greg. “It really has been a seamless program, but now we’ve seen an unnecessary pause during the most critical time for these businesses.”

 

For information, visit Chambercheck.ca

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The decision by Premier Doug Ford’s government to extend its COVID-19 sick days program has pushed the issue of paid leave back into the spotlight for many employers and their employees.

 

The province announced Dec. 7 that it’s COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Benefit, which require employers to provide up to three paid days off related to the pandemic and was to expire at the end of December, will continue until July 31.

 

But what happens after that date remains unclear, especially as the pandemic continues to drag on.

 

“In terms of what we do going forward, this is a question that deserves debate and discussion because on the one hand, there is a sound rationale to having a program like this in place, but the government can’t be footing the bill for everyone endlessly,” says Daniel Safayeni, Vice-President of Policy for the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. “And on the other side, small businesses have been disproportionately impacted by the crisis and the cost of doing business has gone up.”

 

He says it is worth noting the government budgeted $1 billion for the provincial program and that less than one-tenth – approximately 10% - has been used since it was launched last April. Under the program, employees receive a maximum of $200 per day, with the province reimbursing the employer. To date, employers have submitted more than $80 million in wages for sick pay claims for more than 235,000 workers.

 

“What we’ve seen in the numbers, on average by those who’ve used it, is no more than two sick days,” says Daniel.

 

The idea of transitioning this support to a more permanent sick day program of 10 days is something the Ontario Federation of Labour has been lobbying the provincial government to implement. In fact, a poll conducted by Envrionics Research in the last two weeks of November of 2021 indicated that 80% of the 1,210 respondents supported the Federation’s call for 10 permanent employer-paid sick days. 

 

“It is far past time for Ford’s Conservative government to finally do the right thing and introduce permanent, adequate, employer-paid sick leave and Ontarians overwhelmingly agree,” said Patty Coates, Ontario Federation of Labour President, in a Dec. 9 post on the group’s website. “The Worker Income Protection Benefit is temporary and inadequate. While Ontarians face the rise of a new COVID-19 variant and flu season, we urgently need this common-sense health measure to keep ourselves and our communities safe.”

 

But rising inflation and budgetary constraints faced by many businesses at this time would make implementing such a permanent program difficult, which is why Daniel says careful discussion is imperative.

 

“Ideally, there is a balance that can be struck in some future version of this program (Worker Income Protection Benefit) in which the government can still support these three sick days, particularly for smaller businesses that are in-person and don’t have the remote capabilities or don’t necessarily have the resources to fund an additional benefit like this,” he says, adding many larger businesses may already have sick day policies in place. “Perhaps there is some evolution that can occur for those that don’t, and that expense is eventually transitioned over to the employer. But this stuff needs to be done in consultation with the business community and the timelines need to match the economic backdrop.”

 

Daniel says implementing a more permanent paid sick leave program should not be part of any election promises.

 

“Right now, it’s getting mixed up within the context of an election,” he says. “It also has to be thought of within a broader package of benefits and compensation that employers are providing.”

 

And while the pandemic continues, especially for workplaces like smaller manufacturers, Daniel says the need to extend this program is important.

 

“The other backdrop to this is there is a war on talent and labour shortages and you’re seeing businesses trying to compete in the benefits they offer and to try and be an attractive place to work,” he says, adding providing a safe workplace for employees should remain the top priority right now, especially in the ‘essential’ sectors of retail, administration, and manufacturing. “It’s in no one’s best interest for a business to be in a situation in which they are risking the health and safety of their employees and by extension, the continuity of their business operation.”

 

Daniel says now is the time to investigate where this paid sick day benefit program can lead.

 

“It was wise of the government to extend this program, but let’s use the time we have between now and July to determine what the next step for this will look like,” he says. “As a Chamber network, we need to continue to do more work to understand where our members are at this time and what avenues for us going forward could be used to have a productive solution in place.”

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For the first time since March of 2020, the Chamber hosted its first in-person Business After Hours event on Dec. 13 at Four Fathers Brewing Co.

 

It was a great opportunity for our Members to meet safely and reconnect with old friends and new ones.

 

We also took this opportunity to ask a few our guests the following question:

 

What will you remember the most about the pandemic?

 

 “Probably how well we can pivot. People can pivot and basically take a look at things and do things differently.”

- Tony Rossel, Best Version Media

 

 “I will remember missing community and just being able to meet with people and see faces and connect in-person,”

- Heid Brouwer, Galt Osteopathy

 

 “Endless Zoom meetings and learning how to facilitate meetings. It looks a lot easier than it really is. And that the number of kilometres I’ve driven has been cut in half. We’ve discovered some creative solutions and so much work is now being done at home.”

- Murray Smith, Blue Canoe Consulting

 

 “How poorly the government handled this. They contradicted themselves a lot initially with what you should do – wear a mask, don’t wear a mask, wear two masks, or get the AstraZeneca shot, or no you don’t need the AstraZeneca shot. They tried too hard without putting any thought into it and it just never seemed to work. I will remember that indecisiveness – everything’s fine, or no it’s not. They didn’t lead well, and I will always remember how poorly they led us through this.”

- Rick Gallinger, Top-Notch Concierge

 

 “I will remember how much I missed being around family and people. Sometimes it makes us realize how grateful we should be when everything is good because we take a lot of things for granted, and we really need to be more thankful and more aware and enjoy every moment that we can.”

- Maggie Herrington, Top-North Concierge

 

 “I just feel so fortunate that we were able to continue to stay open and look after our customers. I feel like we’ve been really lucky,

- Laurie Herald, Cambridge Tirecraft

 

 “The fact we couldn’t have in-person social events.  For me, I miss that interaction and I’m so excited that we are slowly getting back to reality. But the worst part has been looking at your family and friends losing jobs and having to stay at home. I have two stepchildren and the virtual learning was really hard for them. I think it was struggle for them and the teacher so I’m happy they are back in the classroom.”

- Stephanie Jane, Marketing Manager at Four Fathers Brewing Co.

 

 

 

 

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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 war against COVID-19 is far from over, but small and medium-sized businesses throughout Waterloo Region have an important weapon at their disposal that can help bring it to an end much sooner.

 

Since early April, SMEs with less than 150 employees in our region have had the opportunity to receive free antigen screening kits courtesy of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and our partner in this initiative the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce.

 

To date, more than 500,000 of the free kits have been distributed throughout Waterloo Region in hopes of identifying asymptomatic or presymptomatic individuals to prevent them from spreading COVID-19 in the workplace, at home and around the community.

 

“Even though we have a large percentage of the population vaccinated, we can still carry the virus and give it to someone who is unvaccinated,” says Cambridge Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Greg Durocher. “It’s important that we continue to work to identify where the virus is and the simplest and cheapest way to do that is with rapid antigen screening kits that are still free for workplaces.”

 

To access the kits, SMEs can log into https://chambercheck.ca, a joint Chamber website powered by Axonify, and click on the ‘Workplace Self-Screening’ tab to order their two-week supply of Abbott Panbio Antigen screening kits using a very simple form.

 

The business is contacted, and a time arranged for them to pick-up their kits at our office at 750 Hespeler Rd. A designate from each SME is required to attend for the initial pick-up and watch a very short instructional video – only once - explaining how the kits are to be used and safely disposed. (When they attend our office to collect their kits, participants are also provided with surgical grade masks courtesy of Cambridge-based Eclipse Automation and wipes donated by Lysol).

 

Each SME is required to electronically submit screening results after each occasion, and it’s recommended to screen staff twice weekly. The accumulated data is reported to the Ministry of Health bimonthly. If a screen shows a positive result for COVID-19, the employee is required to leave the workplace and notify public health to arrange for a PCR Test and wait for further instructions from Waterloo Region Public Health.

 

“Collecting data is an important part of this process and will go a long way in allowing us to get this pandemic under control even quicker,” says Greg, noting screening non-vaccinated employees isn’t enough to keep everyone safe. “Everybody should continue to be screened because we know an unvaccinated employee who has COVID-19 can pass it on to a vaccinated employee who may show no symptoms.”

 

He says interest in the kits, which are available to all businesses not just Chamber Members, continues to come in waves. Following the success of our program, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce partnered with the Ministry of Health and Chambers of Commerce provincewide to distribute screening kits to thousands of Ontario workplaces.

 

“It’s been a variable thing. I think people get a little bit comfortable when the numbers drop and they decide not to screen,” says Greg. “But they should continue because only 25% of the world’s population have been vaccinated and we’ve got a long way to go yet when it comes to screening and testing before we’re out of this tunnel completely.”

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Having employees return to the workplace will be a welcomed sign for many as an indication the worst days of the pandemic may finally be behind us.

 

But that return will be accompanied by questions and concerns as businesses and their staff learn to navigate what is likely going to be a very different work environment – both professionally and personally - compared to the one they left in March 2020.

 

“There are a lot of employers and HR people who right now are putting together some policies and codes of conduct for their workplace,” says Julie Blais Comeau, Chief Etiquette Officer at Etiquettejulie.com, explaining that these guidelines will be imperative for employees. “At first, generally speaking, we’re all going to follow our employers’ guidelines.”

 

But outside of these guidelines there will be the personal interactions with both co-workers and clients, many of whom returning employees may not have seen in-person since the start of the pandemic.

 

In terms of these interactions, various safety protocols we’ve all lived with for the past year and half – wearing masks and staying socially distanced – will likely remain at the forefront of our minds when we once again are face-to-face with others.

 

“Before asking any questions or displaying certain behaviours, you’re going to think back to your relationship with that person from before,” says Julie, suggesting approaching from the perspective of ‘friend or foe’. “You’re going to want to switch that lens 180 degrees and approach them from an empathic perspective. How do you feel that person perceives you?”

She recommends letting a person’s body language guide you, noting that 55% of communication is based on body language and that tone and pitch of the voice make up the remainder.

 

“Make sure that whatever you’re going to do or say will be perceived in a positive manner,” says Julie. “There will be nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’m so glad to see you again – how are you?’. And then wait and observe the visual cues.”

 

She says taking the cues from the person you’re interacting with is very important, noting that in some cultures personal health issues are not something that is shared, while others may prefer to keep their mental and physical health status private.

 

“If you’re going to ask questions then ask yourself why are you asking? Are you generally concerned or being cautious for yourself or is it just curiosity?” says Julie, adding being ‘nosy’ is not a valid reason. “What is the context of why I’m asking and what could be the consequences if it’s not interpreted well?”

When it comes to sharing one’s vaccination status, she says it’s OK to volunteer your status if you are comfortable with that person but that others may not feel the same.

 

“Some people don’t want to say because they’re afraid of confrontation and afraid the other person is going to lobby for them to get vaccinated,” says Julie, noting there are many reasons why a person may choose not to be vaccinated. “I think we have to be very benevolent and respectful for the people who don’t want to.”

 

Questions surrounding vaccinations and how employers must handle this issue is a key concern right now says Victoria Vati, Account Manager at Peninsula Canada. The company provides a variety of services pertaining to human resources and health and safety.

 

“Each individual workplace has a number of staff all of whom will have a different level of understanding and different opinions,” says Victoria, noting ensuring staff remains safe but also feels secure are top priorities when it comes to implementing workplace guidelines and policies.

 

She says her company has been providing the latest information regarding the vaccines to ensure its employees have the education they need to make informed choices. Also, she says some companies may even provide a day off for employees to get their vaccinations.

 

“Finding a balance that works not only for your industry but for your staff will be the most important thing,” she says. “Not every business has the luxury of having employees work from home. You need to find a good balance that meets health and safety requirements but doesn’t infringe on anyone’s human rights.”

 

She says screening and contact tracing will continue to be very important, as well providing things such as hand sanitizer and even wearing masks.

 

“You can still argue right now masks are mandatory and must be worn in common areas, especially when social distancing rules cannot be applied,” says Victoria, adding businesses can insist masks continue to be worn even if they are no longer mandatory in public places.

 

She says ensuring employees are aware of the health and safety policies that are in place is vital through signage and written communications.

 

“If you don’t have it in writing, it doesn’t really exist,” says Victoria, referring to guidelines and polices.

 

She says the pandemic may have provided businesses with a unique opportunity.

 

“Let’s try to come out of this with new ideas and a bright fresh start; it’s kind of having hit the reset button,” says Victoria.

 

Julie agrees and says etiquette is also constantly evolving.

 

“We observe with this great microscope what is commonly agreed upon as to what is acceptable for a large group of us versus another,” she says, referring to etiquette experts like herself. “Society dictates what is appropriate.”

 

For more information, please visit Peninsula Canada or Etiquettejulie.com.

 

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