Innovative HR Teams 2021


Changed employee benefits, boosted recognition, mental health supports and robust onboarding among initiatives rolled out this past year.

In a year characterized by uncertainty and fear, employers were faced with many questions in coping with the pandemic. But HR teams across Canada rose to the challenge in demonstrating ingenuity and innovation through a variety of programs and policies — as seen in looking closely at three of this year’s winners.

Sick leave for quarantine at Islamic Relief Canada

When the pandemic first hit, there was a lot of talk at Islamic Relief Canada about how to support the roughly 85 employees who could contract the COVID-19 virus. But that talk soon became action as the organization decided to offer 14 days of paid sick leave.

“If you were isolating, if you had COVID, if you were taking care of someone who had COVID, we provided you with that sick leave for the 14-day quarantine period, just to ensure that the safety of our staff was our utmost priority,” says Lina Kanawati, HR coordinator in Burlington Ont.

As a further sign of support, the charity focused on mental health by offering unlimited sessions with a registered psychotherapist.

“If you needed to speak to a psycho-therapist — as often as you wanted, whenever you wanted — you could reach out and you would have those sessions... to work through anything. It doesn’t necessarily have to even be professional struggles; it can be personal struggles,” she says.

“There was a really significant use of that, so we were really proud to offer that resource.”

The organization was also very keen to keep its sense of community and togetherness strong despite people separating to their homes. So, the charity decided to create virtual events such as paint nights and a gift exchange. There was also drive-by recognition of staff who had new babies during COVID, with cards and flowers, along with personalized gift boxes for all employees at the end of the year and virtual birthday greetings.

A strong culture has always been a foundation of the organization, and that was definitely a consideration with the pandemic lockdowns, says Kanawati.

“We were nervous because our culture is so special. We were like, ‘How do we make sure this incredibly engaged and active in-person culture transfers to online?’ [And now], we are more than excited for everything to go back to ‘normal’ so we can actually go back to the really vibrant in-person culture that we had before.”

The various endeavours are definitely appreciated by staff, as employee feed-back surveys show innovation is the number one driving factor for engagement, she says.

“For other organizations, there are other driving factors, so it can be something like the senior leadership team... but for us, the big one was innovation, like how willing we are to innovate and to listen and to really do that.”

Enhanced onboarding at ProntoForms

ProntoForms had always had a robust onboarding program, but with the pandemic, this was enhanced consider-ably “to make sure that we’re really making them feel part of our family with the personal touch, even before their start date,” says Lisa Scian, vice president of people and culture in Ottawa at the software and mobile app developer.

For example, the HR system asks new hires personal questions so current staff can get acquainted with the newcomers. ProntoForms then puts together a personalized welcome kit that includes favourite food items and supplies that are hand delivered in a socially distant way.

“They get them before their start date so it creates a level of energy for them, and a great welcome,” she says.

Once the person starts working, a virtual “KickStart” program of 14 sessions over four days sees all the cohorts come together to hear directly from leaders in all areas of the business about organizational priorities and strategy, says Scian.

“It allows them to understand how the organization operates, and how all of the cross-functional teams interact with one another.”

That’s followed up by a virtual “ProntoCaf ” lunch each month, connecting new hires with longer-tenured employees. Staff can expense their lunch from a local eatery, she says.

“It’s just an opportunity for people to connect and get to know one another.”

ProntoForms also launched a 40-day technical challenge that involved a series of 40 microlessons to build employees’ product skillset. In the end, more than 3,500 lessons were completed, says Scian.

“[It was about] putting together a curriculum that we felt would enable all of our staff to really fully understand our products so much better and put everybody on an equal playing ground... then it would enable them to be able to enable our customers to understand our product so much more.”

The organization was also keen to recreate its popular summer event online. For 2020, staff were encouraged to select a themed event — such as sushi rolling or golf lessons — and then pick up a supplies kit to participate. Employees located outside Ottawa had the event goodies and swag delivered to them.

In the end, the company had the highest participation rate — 87 percent — in its history, she says.

“It was most appreciated because we were trying to be creative and think outside the box.”

Work-from-home guides rolled out at Covenant House

In providing residential services, as well as outreach and drop-in services to young people aged 16 to 24, Covenant House Vancouver has many employees who continued to work onsite during the pandemic. The remaining third were able to work from home.

“So, the organization wanted to ease front-line staff worries,” says Brenda Kumar, director of people and culture, “by providing free parking so people didn’t have to take transit and decide: ‘Do I put myself in a financial precarity or do I just white knuckle it through a bus ride where people aren’t necessarily following protocol?’”

The organization, which has about 190 staff, also temporarily increased the hourly pay for front-line workers by $2, she says.

“We weren’t sure just what we were asking of employees — nobody knew. [We wondered] ‘How outrageous is the situation and how much danger are we putting our employees in by asking them to come into work?’ So, we did have a temporary pay bump to acknowledge the uncertainty of that situation.”

Similarly, Covenant House provided paid quarantine leave, separate from normal sick leave, for COVID-19 testing and isolation of front-line workers. And because the list of symptoms was so long for COVID, there were at least 150 staff tests done, though luckily only a handful came back positive, says Kumar.

“We really had a very stringent policy... because we’re congregate living for the youth.”

With many employees working remotely, Covenant House also provided $400 for any new equipment needed at home, along with ergonomic training and work-from-home guides. These included ones for managers to keep in touch with their teams, employees to establish boundaries between their personal and professional lives, and employees with children at home.

The organization also hired an HR consultant to meet with parenting staff and provide recommendations to support their families, she says.

“We were seeing that impact; we were seeing the stress [with parents] burning the candle on both ends.”

As a result, a social worker was hired to run a month-long group program to help.

“It gave [staff ] support and techniques on parenting in the pandemic and beyond, in starting to think about some of the longer-term impacts,” says Scian. In addition, when it came to the organization’s employee excellence awards, two new categories were added in 2020: teamwork and “unsung heroes.”

That came about because “the teamwork that we saw, particularly across departments, was extraordinary. And then [it was] the selflessness, especially our frontline staff, of just doing their jobs in very uncertain circumstances and scary circumstances,” she says.


Innovative HR Teams 2021

  • BMO Financial Group
  • Bethesda Community Services
  • BlueCat
  • Canada Life
  • Centurion Asset Management
  • Cloud5 Communications
  • Coast Mental Health
  • Colliers
  • Covenant House Vancouver
  • Dejero
  • DHL Supply Chain
  • Entertainment One
  • Green Shield Canada
  • Humber River Hospital
  • Hydro Ottawa
  • Hyundai Auto Canada
  • IKEA Canada
  • Invest Ottawa
  • Islamic Relief Canada
  • Jobber
  • Microsoft Canada
  • Mobials
  • National Bank of Canada
  • Ottawa Community Housing
  • ProntoForms
  • RBC
  • Ryfan
  • Sage Canada
  • Schneider Electric Canada
  • Sephora Canada
  • Sun Life
  • Sunwing Travel Group
  • Symcor
  • TMX Group
  • University Health Network
  • VHA Home Healthcare
  • Wave


The Innovative HR Teams 2020 report is meant to recognize teams that are breaking boundaries to move the HR industry forward in what has been a tumultuous year — whether it’s by taking a progressive approach to recruitment, introducing new technology or rolling out a ground-breaking reward and recognition strategy.

The report offers HR teams a unique benchmarking opportunity to see how their initiatives compare to those of the profession at large. There was no fee to enter a nomination.

Nominations for the Innovative HR Teams 2021 were allowed between April 5 and April 30, 2021.

Readers were invited to submit entry forms that showcased HR teams that were agile, bold and forward-thinking in their people strategies. Entrants were encouraged to focus on a broad range of areas including talent management, diversity and inclusion, health and wellness, and HR technology. Entries were to largely focus on initiatives introduced and results achieved in 2020.

Canadian HR Reporter objectively assessed each entry for detailed information, true innovation and proven success — along with benchmarking against the other entries —to determine the winners. We reserved the right to disqualify any nominations that did not follow the rules or demonstrate true innovation in their HR practices.