A return to the office for many Canadian companies and their employees amidst a global pandemic remains a complicated situation. Employers continue to navigate unprecedented challenges between shifting public health guidelines, fluctuating community spread, and employee attitudes towards returning to the office. 

As one of the leading nations in the world in vaccination rates, many Canadian companies and organizations continue to implement their return-to-office work plans. But many challenges remain. Numerous companies are struggling to allay the understandable fears, concerns and apprehensions that many previously in-office workers have about returning to an in-person, on-site environment. With this short guide, we’ll provide you with strategies and guidelines on how your organization can effectively adjust to the new reality of a waning but not all-together-extinguished pandemic with a primary focus on how your company or organization can help office workers return to the office.

Be Prepared for Change

COVID-19 will likely go down in history as a massive reset in how workers worldwide relate to their jobs and careers. Expectations for both employers and employees have changed. The sooner employers grow comfortable with this change, the easier and more successful the transition back to an in-office environment will be. 

Regardless of where you are in the planning and implementation of a return-to-office plan for your employees, there’s still time to consult with them. First, get a specific sense of what those changed expectations are within your employee workforce. Across the board, we see a wide range of attitudinal shifts, and despite some variation in those stances, the message is clear: most employees don’t want to go back to the exact way things were before. A good starting point for gauging your employees’ new expectations and needs is an anonymous survey.  

By simply reaching out to your employees, you’ll already be planting the seed in their minds that you are open to change and are listening to their needs. 

Continue Supporting Workers Who Prefer Working From Home

Survey after survey shows that a significant percentage of office and knowledge workers would prefer to work from home, even after COVID-19 is a thing of the past. Between the lack of commutes and added flexibility in their schedules, it’s hard to argue with the benefits that work-from-home arrangements have had for many office workers. But, of course, there are still workers who prefer to return to the office. 

Regardless of the mix of attitudes towards work-from-home arrangements, consider that it may be in your organization’s best interest to support workers that want to remain at home. Some studies have already shown that productivity for those workers has increased while working from home and ultimately contributed to better business outcomes. 

Be Patient With Employees

Throughout the last 15 months, both employers and employees have developed new routines and habits, which may be hard to break. A return to the office means that your employees will likely experience increased stress due to being nervous about in-person work. As a result, it’s important to be sensitive to employees’ mental health that may struggle with this experience. 

There may be creative ways to help employees in the office recognize and be sensitive to people’s desires as far as contact and social distancing is concerned. For example, an office in the U.K. developed the idea to allow employees to wear different coloured lanyards corresponding to their comfort level with hugs, high-fives, etc. Recognizing that returning to in-office work will be a challenging time for your employees is of paramount importance. Consequently, it would help if you continued encouraging your employees to take care of their physical and mental health

Be vigilant about recognizing the fact that many employees will have varying needs that require different accommodations. For example, if daycares or schools continue to be impacted by closures, employees with children may have difficulty juggling childcare obligations with work obligations. 

Prepare Your Employees

An essential component of making those employees returning to the office feel safe and comfortable is a generous amount of communication from managers and leaders of your company. Consider communicating the following to your employees:

  • An in-depth review of what changes employees can expect in the office
  • Clear and concise directives and training on how employees are expected to behave (social distancing, workstation cleanliness, etc.)
  • Reassurance of your ongoing effort to help prevent COVID-19 from entering the office and other common workspaces
  • An open channel of communication to ensure that you are taking all of your employees’ concerns seriously and demonstrate an understanding of their fears with empathy
  • An update to workplace harassment, discrimination and accommodation policies
  • Regular updates on the community situation and additional policy changes

Consider Health Check-Ins / Active Screening Requirements

Having a clear policy of confidential health check-ins and COVID-19 screening measures in place before employees are allowed to enter the workspace each morning may go a long way in making all employees more comfortable with returning to an office environment. 

Additionally, your province may mandate that you keep detailed records of all those on-site for contact tracing purposes. Keeping records may become more commonplace as a continuously higher percentage of Canadians become fully vaccinated, and contact tracing becomes more commonplace by local health authorities. 

Vaccine Transparency

The topic of vaccines and vaccine hesitancy can be a controversial subject. That said, we recommend that your company maintain a policy of transparency around the issue of vaccinations. Regardless of whether your organization requires employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to be allowed back in the office, it’s important to openly communicate your policy with employees. 

Some companies will experience situations in which vaccinated workers will refuse to work alongside unvaccinated coworkers. It’s up to your organization to have a clear policy and stance on these issues. Knowing how you will deal with them will help both you and your employees understand their choices and the potential consequences. 

Encourage Managers and Employees to Let Go of Outdated Modes of Thinking and Obsolete Systems

Sometimes, practices many organizations have inherited turn out to not be the best method or approach. Before COVID-19, many workplaces and employees both expected and felt a need to work despite illness. Given the reality of COVID-19, this culture of working through illness must change. Employees should be encouraged to act with an abundance of caution and report potential illness immediately to their managers or those office managers responsible for the health and safety practices of the workplace. 

Consider also communicating to your employees how your sick day policies have changed to suit the reality of working amid a global pandemic. Part of this may include a new policy of not limiting sick days to some degree to encourage employees to stay home if they feel symptoms of COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses. 

Encouraging managers and employees to shift to a more remote and hybrid working environment may also help everyone feel more at ease while the world slowly works its way out of COVID-19. That means that your entire organization should consider evaluating the benefits and pitfalls of being present in the office at various stages of projects, such as ideation, planning, execution, and support or maintenance.

Before COVID-19, companies may have generated ideas by getting employees together in physical meetings, brainstorming, and following up with subsequent in-person meetings. A new process may look a bit different, from the use of asynchronous brainstorming on digital channels or liberal use of videoconferencing to refine those ideas. 

If your organization is growing and looking to expand your workforce, also consider that promoting flexibility in your office across various aspects can serve as a tremendous competitive advantage in landing top employee prospects. 

Consider Physical Changes to the Office

Simply making physical changes to your office is likely to go a long way to making many employees feel more comfortable about returning to work. While not all employers are capable of making these changes, those that can should consider the following ideas:

  • Spacing out workstations
  • Installing plexiglass barriers
  • Having disinfectant wipes readily available
  • Mask mandates even if public health officials lift them
  • Directing travel within your building or office space to reduce contacts and crowding
  • Set boundaries for maximum numbers of people allowed in certain rooms, communal spaces and elevators
  • Providing cleaning instructions and schedules for work stations and common areas
  • Impose clear limits on the sizes of in-person meetings and events
  • If the primary purpose of your company’s space is to provide specific moments of collaboration rather than individual work, consider having a proportional percentage of space dedicated to collaboration/meeting rooms
  • Design your office space around increased virtual / work-from-home situations and collaborations

Follow Local and Provincial Guidelines

Ensuring that you follow all local and provincial guidelines as they relate to workspaces amidst COVID-19, your company will reassure employees that you are doing everything you can to keep them safe. 

Also, consider that there may be industry-specific guidelines surrounding a return to work plan, such as outlined in Ontario’s workplace safety plan recommendations. Finally, continue to monitor COVID-19 plans in the community in which your workplace is located. Local plans may significantly impact your workplace operations and your employees’ attitudes about working in an office.