September 2021 – Will you or won’t you require employees to share vaccination status before returning to the workplace? When will you mandate at least a partial return to the workplace? These are among the difficult decisions to be made—and likely remade—as employers begin to roll out plans to return office staff to the workplace.

Flexibility, leadership and constant communications remain the rules of thumb for return-to-worksite strategies, advises Candace Giesbrecht, director of the REMOTE PERFORMANCE ACADEMY at B.C.-based Teamit, and Jason Fleming, principal of Maxton Human Resources, a Toronto human resources consulting firm specializing in crisis management. Take 5 for Health Benefits reconnected with the two of them to follow up on our article in JUNE about the future of work.

It may be prudent to hold off mandating any return to the worksite until October or even later in the fall, depending on how things unfold this month. “September will create an interesting dynamic between two competing forces. On the one hand, many people with kids returning to school will be able to go back to the workplace because there will be more predictability in their schedule. On the other hand, the mass return to school could trigger more cases during the fourth wave of COVID-19, which may lead to the return to a mostly remote work environment,” explains Fleming.

To that end, he stresses that employers should determine ahead of time what specifically will trigger a return to fully remote work. “A lot of employers have not included that information in their return-to-work plan. We can’t just assume that this action will no longer be required.”

“Employers are feeling the pressure to make permanent decisions. It’s too soon for that because there are still too many unknowns,” adds Giesbrecht. “If an employee feels their health and safety are threatened they will not be able to tap into their best functioning. The more leeway and flexibility from employers the better at this point.”

Both stress that such flexibility is advisable not only to respond more effectively to changes in health and safety measures, but also to allow the time to test, evaluate and improve upon hybrid work models, which appear to be here to stay. Survey after survey confirms Canadians’ desire to continue to work from home at least some of the time (see highlights at the end of this article).

In fact, now is the time to change the way we look at work spaces, urges Giesbrecht. Even before the pandemic, the focus on place overshadowed the more important pieces of people and process. “This is an opportunity to turn our thinking around and start with the work that needs to be done and then consider how the work space, whether in a traditional office or at home, can serve the people and processes.” For example, a physical, shared workplace is helpful for collaboration, mentoring and training.

“I am encouraging companies to identify what I call ‘work sprints,’ or short-term projects or goals to experiment with and learn from new ways of working,” says Giesbrecht.

When considering possibilities for a hybrid workforce, it may be worthwhile to keep in mind that about 40% of Canadian employees can potentially work entirely from home and another 10% could work partly from home, according to a study on labour laws published in July by the FRASER INSTITUTE.

Here are additional considerations from Giesbrecht and Fleming, along with compiled highlights from recent Canadian survey data:

Vaccination Status

Public opinion appears to be swinging in favour of proof of vaccination. Among employers, some are asking employees to provide documentation for adult partners as well. “It’s a big ask,” says Fleming, “but the topic is coming up more and more. Employers will need to determine their position.”

  • 47% of Canadians want their employer to mandate vaccination before employees return to the workplace and 20% are unsure (LIFEWORKS MENTAL HEALTH INDEX, July 2021).
  • 61% of Canadian employees want their company to require proof of vaccination before returning to the physical workplace (EY CANADA, May 2021).
  • 54% of Canadian employees believe employers should require proof of vaccination or vaccine passports; 72% would agree to be tested regularly in the workplace (KPMG, March 2021).
  • More employers of all sizes are making news by putting vaccination policies in place (BENEFITS CANADA, August 2021).
  • 76% of Canadians outside of Quebec support a proof of vaccination or “vaccine passport” to visit non-essential public places such as restaurants and large outdoor events; 53% strongly agree. This increases to 81% (63% strongly) in Quebec, where a vaccine passport was put in place on September 1 (LEGER, August 2021).

Productivity

Survey data appears to indicate productivity has not suffered much if at all, though the bias of self-reporting may result in more positive results. “Some employers have seen an extreme contrast between pre- and post-pandemic,” says Fleming. Worst cases include employees starting full-time businesses while continuing to collect a salary for full-time work. Measurable performance criteria are more important than ever to help inform day-to-day management and long-term decisions.

  • 71% of Canadians said their productivity was good or great while working from home, dropping to 50% among those aged 18 to 34 (ANGUS REID).
  • 51% feel more productive in virtual work environment, down from 59% a year ago (KPMG).

Leadership Training

“Additional leadership skills are required when people work apart. Not every leader will find that easy. It’s important to equip them to be more competent in managing a remote workforce,” says Giesbrecht.

  • 81% of Canadian employees feel their bosses need to be better trained to effectively manage a hybrid workplace team (KPMG).
  • 49% feel they could be overlooked for promotions or face discrimination if they wanted to continue working from home (KPMG).

Time at the Workplace

When establishing the minimum amount of time required at the workplace, communicate how and why you arrived at your decision. “When people have been fully remote for so long … they will want to know you put some thought into this rather than arbitrarily selecting a number of days,” says Fleming.

  • 44% of Canadians would like to work from home most of the time and at the workplace some of the time, 29% would prefer to work from home all of the time and 27% would prefer to work mainly at the workplace and some of the time at home. Only 5% want to return to the workplace full-time (ANGUS REID).
  • If their employer demanded a full-time return to the workplace, 25% would do so but may look for another job and 19% would likely quit or look for another job right away (ANGUS REID).
  • 54% would leave their company if the current flexibility in schedule and work location was not extended post-pandemic, with millennials twice as likely as baby boomers (EY CANADA)
  • 71% of Canadians believe a hybrid workplace should be the standard model for all organizations (KPMG)
  • 74% of office workers prefer to work remotely at least some of the time, of whom 17% prefer a permanently remote role (CITRIX CANADA, February 2021)
  • If they were to change jobs, 63% would only accept a role that offered flexible or remote work (CITRIX CANADA).

benefits alliance take 5 for health - quarterly articlesThis 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.