Reassurances needed for return to work

How can HR make people feel safe?

Reassurances needed for return to work

I have a friend who works in sales, specializing in technology for the healthcare sector. Recently, he was asked by his employer to fly from his home base of Ottawa to Vancouver to meet with a potential client.

My friend “declined” the request. He just wasn’t ready to make the more-than-five-hour flight because of the risks around COVID-19.

I can’t say I blame him. Another couple I know recently made the flight to Halifax from Toronto to visit with in-laws. They found themselves crowded into their seats despite rows of empty seats at the back, with another passenger in the row ahead coughing most of the way. (They did, however, diligently follow the two-week quarantine in Nova Scotia and emerged unscathed to enjoy another two weeks with family.)

People are nervous. While they might be tentatively trying out patios and restaurants that are slowly opening back up, the thought of returning to an office filled with coworkers or a restaurant filled with customers, for a long shift, is an entirely different matter.

That’s reflected in a new survey by KPMG that finds more than half (54 per cent) of Canadians are afraid to return to the workplace because of how contagious the COVID-19 virus is, and six in 10 will refuse to go back if they feel it’s not safe enough.

Now, I’m not sure how well those work refusals will go over, judging by the advice of legal experts we’ve spoken to and the stats we’ve reported on from the Ontario government.

But all the same, that speaks to a major challenge many employers will face when it comes to reopening workplaces that have long been closed. While they might be comfortable with a return to the new normal, their workforce may not.

“Canadians are placing a great deal of trust in their employers to manage their return to the workplace and in keeping them safe,” says Doron Melnick, partner and acting lead of KPMG’s people and change advisory services practice.

And the survey backs that up, with 82 per cent of respondents saying they trust their employer to take and maintain all the necessary health and safety precautions.

Most Canadians (94 per cent) believe the pandemic is far from over, and 83 per cent say they’re worried about catching the virus or transmitting it to their loved ones.

However, as long as the number of COVID cases remain relatively low, as many as 72 per cent of Canadians would be OK going back to their physical workplace, although they believe there will be a second wave of infections in the fall or winter that will shut down workplaces all over again.

Their biggest concerns? Colleagues who might come to work sick or be asymptomatic (77 per cent) followed by sharing common spaces such as meeting or lunch rooms (57 per cent), and air ventilation and circulation (40 per cent).

While employers might mandate the use of face coverings and encourage frequent use of hand sanitizer, there’s not much they can do about asymptomatic employees – as we’ve heard, temperature screening isn’t 100 per cent.

But employers and HR will have some work to do when it comes to urging employees who feel sick, for whatever reason, to stay home.

As for common spaces, those will be challenging as it’s difficult to ask employees to remain seated – with scheduled visits to the washroom or kitchen – most of the day. And the HVAC systems are whole other issue.

Overall, it will not be an easy task asking employees to come back to work, no matter what the sector. Could it even be more difficult than the massive relocation back in March when the pandemic first hit?

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