When the pandemic dies down and the economy gets going, employers must plan for things to be different
We’re now right in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic and many have adjusted to the temporary reality of working and living at a distance from others. We’re looking forward to when we “flatten the curve” and can return to some semblance of normal, but it may be a new normal, at least for a while. The re-opening of the economy and the end to distancing is much anticipated, but what will the workplace look like when it’s time to pack up the home office and return?
It’s been said by public health officials and political leaders — well, some of them of them at least — that things won’t really begin to resemble the old normal until there’s a coronavirus vaccine, and that could take a year to 18 months. This had led to nervousness and hesitancy for workers on returning to the workplace, and is an issue employers will have to keep in mind when they finally open up the office.
A recent survey of Canadian office workers revealed that many are planning to change their workplace behaviours, at least initially. More than half (56 per cent) plan to spend less time in common areas of the office, while slightly less than half (46 per cent) worry about being in close proximity to others. These concerns are something employers will need to consider for ensuring both a smooth transition back to office working as well as their legal obligations.
Given the heightened concerns about contagion and possible successive waves of COVID-19, employers will have to be conscious of health and safety obligations. All employers must legally take all reasonable measures to ensure employees are safe and healthy, and this means taking care that the risk of COVID-19 is reduced as much as possible in the workplace. This could mean extra cleaning to ensure the workplace is sanitized — as some businesses have already been doing both before and during the implementation of isolation measures — and introducing measures to keep employees physically distanced. The latter could involve staggered scheduling and a graduated return to work with employees taking turns between coming to work and working from home.
In addition, employers will have to make sure they listen carefully to any concerns workers may have about the risk of working in the office. Work refusals may take on a new prominence and government inspectors could be more lenient in evaluating the legitimacy of such refusals.
The onset of the pandemic and its effects on businesses has changed perspectives in the area of employment standards and this could continue through the recovery. Temporary layoffs and pay cuts — things that normally could be the basis for constructive or wrongful dismissal claims — have become more accepted as both employers and employees understand their necessity to try to get through the crisis. Similarly, as businesses try to ramp up in the return to some sense of normal, perhaps certain standards will also be relaxed, like when a temporary layoff becomes a termination or payroll timelines.
In the survey mentioned above, it’s clear that workers expect employers to recognize that the “return to normal” won’t be normal at first. The majority (85 per cent) of workers in the survey said they want their employers to allow employees to work from home more frequently — with 48 per cent wanting staggered work schedules — while more than two-thirds want fewer in-person meetings and training. Additionally, four in 10 want the office layout changed to allow for more distancing.
The pandemic has significantly affected the way we work and how many companies do business. When restrictions start lifting and things start running again, things will change once again. Employers and employees didn’t have much time to plan for the current state of things, but now is the time to start thinking and planning for the "new normal."