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Top 5 Employer Questions About Returning to Work - COVID-19

On April 28, 2020 the Canadian government released a common set of principles for restarting the economy. While each province has established their own guidelines to support a phased approach to reopening, our Canadian business owners have been left with many questions they need answered before they can safely reopen their workplaces.

We asked our clients for their top questions and concerns as they consider the transition of safely returning to work. Here is what we heard:

1. How do I know when it’s time to bring my staff back?

Every industry and type of workplace is going to have different considerations in regards to when and how to bring employees back to the workplace. For public facing organizations, this is a phased approach that includes limitations depending on the type of service you provide, the number of people who are gathering together and whether social distancing can be safely observed. For workplaces that are typically only populated by employees, the primary factors to consider will be social distancing and the number of people that can gather.

Many organizations are engaging an occupational safety expert who can help to review the office space and make recommendations on a safe return to work. This kind of support can also help employers demonstrate to their employees that their safety is important.

2. We enacted a wage reduction and/or reduced hours – can this become a permanent change?

As we return to the new normal, it may take a while for revenues to return to pre-COVID levels, so there is an expectation that employers will not be able to return to prior employment conditions straight away. It is important to monitor this situation and keep your team informed as much as you can, especially since these changes have financial impacts to your employees.

If these changes extend beyond the current restrictions the government has set out, employers may be at risk of higher turnover or possible constructive-dismissal claims. It's important to obtain professional advice to assess your risk and determine the best course of action for your business. We can support you in setting out a plan that mitigates these risks, and helps manage financial impacts as your business ramps back up.

3. During the slow down, we changed job responsibilities for some employees in order to respond to the new challenges we were facing. What if an employee does not want to go back to their prior role, or if we want to make a permanent job change?

Some of the changes you might have made in your business will have been temporary in nature, and should return to their prior state as we resume normal business. It may be that these were not put into writing specifically because they were temporary, and hopefully this was openly communicated during the shift to the business. We recommend that when it is time to move people back to their previous role, to communicate this in writing with clear expectations of when the employee will be moving over to their pre-COVID responsibilities

However, over time it is natural that an employee gains more experience and insight and eventually takes on new responsibilities. If there has been a significant shift to their role this is a great opportunity to recognize this and make the change formal. This can be done with a revised employment agreement to reflect the new role. If your business doesn’t provide formal employment agreements, it may also be a good time to put these in place, and review any compensation changes that might happen as a result.

4. What do we do if we laid off employees and can’t bring them all back right away? Can we use this time to restructure?

Every province has their own standards regarding temporary layoffs. For example, Alberta Employment Standards responded quickly to the COVID situation by imposing a short-term change to temporary layoff standards. In Alberta, prior to COVID, employers could provide a temporary layoff for up to 60 days, which has been extended to 120 days during this time. If you expect that you’ll be able to bring employees back to work within this framework, communication is key. Employees will feel more secure in their role if they understand how the business is managing work volume and employee levels.

But what if you don’t expect that you will be back up to your regular staffing levels in the near future? With social distancing rules still in place through all stages of their provincial relaunch strategies, it may be that you will need to make some permanent reductions. Just as in normal business times, ending the employment relationship is a difficult decision that needs to be carefully managed. If you have a termination policy, it’s important to follow this. If you don’t have a policy in place, this is an excellent time to consider how you want to address these kinds of situations now and into the future. Termination policies include legislative requirements, approval standards, guidelines on determining termination and severance costs, communicating the change to the employee and the rest of the team, templates, etc.

5. Our employees have been working remotely; what happens if they want to keep doing so?

Most employers who moved to a remote working environment did so as a temporary measure, and are not required to keep this as a long-term solution. However, it’s not unreasonable for an employee to ask, and we’re seeing a lot of businesses who are putting Remote Work policies into place to continue working this way into the future. Many employers saw increased efficiencies with their teams.

Keep in mind that we’ll continue to have social distancing measures in place for quite some time, and so if there are concerns about meeting these measures or to respond to a need to minimize contact within the office, there are options to create a blended working arrangement. For some employees who are in contact with vulnerable members or are themselves compromised, it may make sense to allow them to continue working from home. For others, we’re seeing a lot of businesses planning on a rotating schedule to have some of the employees in the workplace while others work from home. This might be a few days a week, or for a week or two weeks at a time.

Each workplace will have their own specific needs from both a business and people perspective, and navigating this can be tough. We have worked with some of our clients to develop surveys to seek feedback from the team on their return-to-work plans and to find what has worked for employees as they transitioned to remote work, and what did not work. Be creative in your approach!

VIMY HR is here to help. If you want to talk more about any of these strategies, or plan to bring in some new policies and procedures, reach out to us!

Additional resources: Alberta Relaunch Strategy

BC's Restart Plan

Ontario's Framework for Reopening the Province

Preventing COVID-19 in the workplace: Employers, employees and essential service workers


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