5 key questions about returning to the office

How can the hybrid model be rolled out? What about reluctant employees?

5 key questions about returning to the office

With some areas of the country gradually opening up again, how should HR prepare for employees getting back into the workplace?

Canadian HR Reporter spoke with Angela Champ senior vice-president of human resources at Alpine Building Maintenance in Delta, B.C. for answers.

Q: What communication should be delivered to employees?

A: “I’m going to give you the classic HR answer of ‘It depends.’ It depends by jurisdiction and by industry because Ontario has different rules right now than British Columbia does on working in an office and even within Ontario: Toronto, Peel Region are under different stay-at-home orders than Sarnia [Ont.] is and so it really does depend which can also make it more challenging if you have an organization that works across provinces, because your employees might have different expectations depending on where they live.

“The communication that needs to go out is: What is the general plan based on your industry and your jurisdiction? What are the COVID-safe protocols that you’re going to be following that will help to ensure to keep people safe?

“It also needs to be a discussion at the senior leadership levels before any communication goes out about whether they need to require employees to come back to the office… [and] what are the options for those people who would prefer to come into the office?”

Q: How should workers who are reluctant to return to the workplace be managed?

A: “We’re in such an unsettling and unprecedented time right now that employers need to determine that it’s not a one-size-fits-all for everybody and if you have employees who are reluctant to come back, it’s important as a senior leadership team to determine do you actually need the people back? Can the work be done as effectively and productively remotely?

“Secondly, are there legitimate reasons for the employee’s reluctance? Do they live in a household where someone is immunocompromised? Are schools closed and they have young children and so they cannot find alternative daycare?

Angela ChampAngela Champ

“If it’s work that has to be done in the office, for example, the employee works as a receptionist where you need somebody to be at the front door and that person may have a general concern about COVID, talk to them and involve them to help keep them safe whether that’s installing plexiglass, making sure everybody’s wearing masks, ensuring that people keep socially distant, marking off the office floor area. [It’s about] involving them and helping them to come up with the solutions.

“There are some people who work better in an office, some work better from home and so the benchmark needs to be: What kind of productivity and efficiency do you want? Keeping in mind that you’re not going to have pre-pandemic productivity levels because there are other factors at play besides whether you’re coming to the office or not — it could be people’s concern about financial impacts, there could be health issues; they might have a parent who’s in a long-term care or more vulnerable, it could be childcare issues.

“The general anxiety people are feeling around a pandemic and the longevity of these new and ever-changing rules and that benchmark needs to be: ‘Are you caring about your employees? Are you taking their personal strengths and how they work best into account where it’s possible? Are you being empathetic to the fact that things are different?’ You’re not going to have it exactly the way as you could pre-pandemic, even if you’re opening up your office.”

Q: How should the hybrid workplace approach be rolled out?

A: “I’ve seen a few models that have worked very successfully already in those jurisdictions where they’ve reopened. In some, what they do is they take half the staff and group one comes in Monday, Wednesday, Friday in week one and Tuesday, Thursday on week two, and then group two alternates those weeks so you only ever have half the staff in the office at any given time.

“Another model that’s been successful is where employees are alternating weeks but they come in four days a week straight, Monday through Thursday, [and] then they work from home from the Friday to the next week so they have six working days at home. What that allows is that if there’s any risk of becoming infected anywhere else, it gives people a chance to work in a semi self-isolation area.

“The third thing I’ve seen is where people have been asked to come back but the setup is such that everybody has their own office and they are physically distanced from each other: there’s barriers, you wear masks, when you get up and walk around the common areas; the lunchroom is closed.

Q: Why should employers still allow people to work from home?

“Remote working or working from home has been a topic for human resources professionals for a dozen years or more and some organizations have been very open and embracing it and some have been very reluctant. They just feel that face time equals work time. When the pandemic hit a year ago, lots of organizations were forced to figure out how to get the technology and processes in place because we didn’t have a choice.

“It’s incumbent on organizations to truly see why they have this philosophy of ‘You have to work in the office five days a week.’ What people want is a choice. If you told me I had to work from home permanently, I’d probably find another job. As we look at opening up, giving people the choice to work in a hybrid situation would probably make organizations more productive and employees a lot happier.”

Q: Would it be a bad idea to open and then close down again?

A: “Part of the anxiety I’m seeing from employees across Canada is because the rules keep changing and part of it is because COVID is mutating and evolving, and governments and employers are trying to respond as quickly as they can and to say is opening and closing a bad idea, not everybody wants to work from home or can work from home. Maybe they have roommates and they’re in a small apartment; maybe they don’t have a proper workspace, maybe they have no Wi Fi or internet access and it makes it challenging for them.

“Opening the office and letting those people who work better in an office come in, is probably good for their productivity and their mental health. As long as we’re communicating why we’re reopening and then closing down, people understand that everyone’s doing their best under the circumstances and sometimes we don’t have all the answers.”

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