Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic and one thing is increasingly clear: work will likely never be the same.

STATISTICS CANADA reports that at the height of the economic shutdown in April, 3.4 million Canadians were working from home. While that number has declined since, results for August show that 2.5 million, or 74% of those reported in April, were still working remotely.

A June survey of employers by THE CONFERENCE BOARD OF CANADA found that for almost two out of three, at least 60% of their workforce was working remotely. Prior to the pandemic, nine out of 10 of the surveyed employers reported that less than 20% of their workforce was working remotely.

How do employees feel? Almost half of Canadian workers (45%) would prefer to work remotely at least three days a week and 28% would prefer flexible hours, according to an August survey by ADP CANADA AND MARU/BLUE. Just over half (55%) indicated that their own employer has continued to allow remote and flexible work.

In a nutshell, the daily workplace environment is very much in flux, and will likely remain so for at least another year. Even after a vaccine becomes available, its distribution and careful evaluations of its real-world effectiveness will take some time.

As well, this crisis has exposed vulnerabilities in the workplace that need to be permanently addressed. “The bar may well be raised in terms of how employers manage health and safety,” said Paula Allen, senior vice-president of Morneau Shepell and spokesperson for LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell, an employee assistance program (EAP) and wellness services provider. “Employers may be wise to build in some of these additional measures on a sustainable basis.”

The Benefits Alliance Group gathered the following top-five recommendations from Allen and Jamie Marcellus, president of Humanacare, also an EAP and wellness services provider, to help employers maintain agile and productive work environments in a new world. Both firms are partners with Benefits Alliance; for more information, contact your benefits advisor.

1 – Plan, communicate, repeat

Creating and communicating a health and safety plan in response to COVID-19 may sound like common sense, but it cannot be emphasized enough. “Where there is an apparent lack of planning, particularly for employees returning to work sites, uncertainty and feelings of anxiousness increase and productivity decreases. Be very prescriptive and very detailed, using simple language,” said Marcellus.

Detailed, proactive planning and communications protect the employer’s liability, added Allen. And they have become table stakes for attraction and retention. “Employees need to feel that their employer is doing everything they can. If you are not doing enough to support well-being in a consistent manner then that’s a longer-term risk to your reputation.”

For practical tactics to ensure a safe work environment, check with your provincial Chamber of Commerce and provincial Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business also offers a “BACK TO BUSINESS KIT.”

2 – Boost support for managers

Management support is a critically important part of the health and safety plan. “The manager’s main role today is to enable the sustainable productivity of their staff,” said Allen.

When it comes to productivity, senior leadership and middle management need to revisit and level set expectations, and determine how to achieve those expectations. When all is said and done, what’s happening today “is a massive test of all assumptions of what it is that really helps people to be productive,” remarked Allen.

On the one hand, productivity may be lower due to everything else that is going on. To help employees focus, “managers need to be more prescriptive in terms of direction and prioritization. Lay out daily and/or weekly goals,” suggested Marcellus.

On the other hand, productivity may be the same or even higher, especially in essential-service industries. “People have been putting in heroic efforts to keep up productivity, but we are seeing more burnout,” said Allen.

Lack of recovery time is a main driver of burnout. “This does not just mean rest. Fun and social connections are also important. We need a variety of productive experiences to have a healthy mental life. Employers through their managers need to be intentional about encouraging employees to carve out recovery time,” noted Allen.

Coping with undue strain is another driver of burnout. “You can’t focus on work because you are worried about job security or your kids at school. When you are dealing with multiple emotional and situational distractions, the mental strain can grow exponentially. Coaching or counselling is often the best approach, and managers can be on the watch to recommend these supports,” said Allen.

3 – Keep mental health top of mind

Supporting mental health has never been more important for overall health, quality of life and productivity. The risk of mental illness is higher; therefore, it’s likely that more employees would benefit from professional mental health assistance.

Morneau Shepell’s MENTAL HEALTH INDEX found that four out of five Canadians “are self-aware of a negative impact on their mental health as a result of the pandemic,” noted Allen. As well, the LifeWorks call centre “has seen a 30% increase in suicidal ideation calls.”

Employers cannot underestimate the value of supports that are built into the daily work environment. “You don’t have to have a mental health issue to benefit from cognitive behavourial therapy. In fact, we shouldn’t even call it that any more: there are cognitive behavioural skills that can benefit everyone along the continuum of mental health,” said Allen.

Perhaps the most important touchstone trait for managers today is to be “exceptionally empathetic and understanding of employees’ situations. Not all employees will be excited to be back at the worksite. Some may be quite anxious,” said Marcellus.

Empathy starts with a respectful acknowledgement and from there the goal is to be “as flexible as possible. For example, by giving an employee who works on an assembly line more flexibility to check in with their children outside of regularly scheduled breaks,” suggested Marcellus.

Managers who show empathy and are flexible at the individual level “significantly destigmatize mental health concerns. Employees are more likely to be honest, accept the reality of their situation and seek out support,” added Allen.

Ensure that managers are up to date on what’s available through the EAP or other mental health support services; equally important, provide training to give managers confidence in managing difficult conversations during these unprecedented times. “They need to be confident about being flexible with employees by knowing how much latitude they have. They need to know what it means for them to be empathetic without trying to be counsellors, particularly for employees who are struggling,” explained Allen.

Mental health supports for managers themselves are equally important, and widely available. A peer-to-peer online support group, where managers can share concerns and strategies or simply debrief, may also be highly valued. “It can be very beneficial for managers to check in with each other. The overall goal is to create a caring environment,” said Marcellus.

4 – Determine the purpose for onsite work

For office-based jobs, clearly define when and why employees should be onsite. If there is no valid reason, employers should consider encouraging employees to continue to work from home. “The reality is that introducing people back into the workplace is introducing them back into higher risk,” said Allen. “Many organizations are being prudent and not having everyone come back.”

Logistics are a determining factor. Wait times for elevators or stairways argue in favour of strict limitations for onsite office employees. On the other hand, unique requirements for equipment, tasks or security may identify employees who are essential for onsite work at least part of the time.

Two other key factors help determine when employees should be in the office. First, employees may really want to work onsite. “Social contact may be very important to a person’s well-being. Or on the flip side a crowded household may really hinder productivity,” said Allen.

Second, group dynamics may be considered essential to get the job done, particularly in knowledge sectors that thrive on ideas and collaboration. “You can work on a project in a series of meetings that are remote, but the genesis for new ideas or projects is still more likely to happen in face-to-face settings, including informal hallway conversations,” said Marcellus.

When onsite interactions are not possible due to logistics, safety issues or employee hesitance, Marcellus suggested that organizations can still try to create informal opportunities for collaboration and ideas generation, for example through virtual whiteboarding or virtual mind-mapping.

5 – Pay special attention to remote workers

Employees who continue to work at home fall into two main groups: those who thrive, and those who flounder. For the latter, empathy from management is especially important, as are referrals to the employer’s EAP or other available mental health supports.

For both groups, the “notion of ‘communicate, communicate, communicate’ can’t be said enough,” said Marcellus. “Do formal check-ins on an individual and team basis, and informal calls just to see how that person is doing. Proactively give them a chance to speak privately about their needs or concerns.”

Flexible work hours can be highly valued by employees with school-age children. At the same time, “it’s exceptionally important to establish routine,” stressed Marcellus. “If there is a check-in every day at 9:15, stick to that. Strongly encourage employees to take their scheduled breaks, and to walk away from their workstation when the day is done.”

Small things also make a difference. For example, video should be optional during calls. “They may not be comfortable on video, or not want to share their home environment. As an employer your main objectives are to listen, be respectful and be flexible,” said Allen.


This article is part of The Benefits Alliance Take 5 for Health Benefits. Take 5 is a quarterly initiative that provides a deeper look a the employee benefits space by providing examples, research and case studies on what’s working for employers in Canada.