HR expert warns misconceptions remain around return to work during COVID-19

Are you ready to head back to the office?

HR expert warns misconceptions remain around return to work during COVID-19

As many companies struggle to remain sustainable and competitive amid COVID-19, employers and employees are concerned they may need to reevaluate their current work situation yet again as case counts soar during the pandemic’s second wave. And as regulations evolve, each may have misconceptions about their rights and responsibilities.

Thus far, employers and managers have been great at being flexible and accommodating – whether that means working from home or organizing rotating workplace shifts. But there is still a number of Canadians who are still work-from-home that are nervous about an upcoming call to return to the office. As it stands, while work-from-home is recommended, there is no reason an employer can’t bring their employees back to the office should all proper safety precautions be in place, provided the region is not in lockdown – where essential business only is able to continue operating on their premises.

To accommodate or not to accommodate?

While employees might be nervous at the prospect of returning to the office, if the workplace meets and complies with government regulations, a fear of catching the virus would not be a reasonable concern to refuse returning to work. A Conference Board of Canada survey shows that only half of employers would allow those not comfortable returning to the office to stay home. However, each case is unique, and employers should focus on developing creative solutions to ease worries, such as first bringing back employees who voluntarily want to return.

For example, employees who are – or who are living with – someone who is immunocompromised may need additional accommodation to protect themselves/their loved ones and may need to work from home for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, those in the workplace should be able to expect physically distant work areas, easily accessible sanitization stations placed throughout and mask wearing when outside of their immediate work area.

What are my employer’s obligations?

Given how some workplaces have tightly-arranged desks or others are open concept, this could mean rotating who is in the office each day so as not to exceed the allowable number of employees within a given space – as set by government regulations – to allow for appropriate physical distancing.

Employers and managers should be expected to keep up to date on the regulations and make changes as needed. For example, Ontario now requires employees to complete a self-declaration survey each day to determine whether they may enter the workplace. In addition, the Ontario government has made temporary amendments to the Employment Standards Act during COVID-19, but these are expected to change once again in January 2021. 

How should rule-breakers be handled?

However, as the pandemic continues on, so does the weariness for following rules and recommendations surrounding our “new normal”. Media and authorities are quick to pounce on the 50+ attendee house parties, but what about the employee that refuses to wear a mask or adequately sanitize hands? Or the manager that disregards physical distancing when arranging the office layout?

In the midst of a pandemic where rule-breakers are also posing a risk to the health and safety of their colleagues, there should be clear consequences to avoid such instances. A survey by O.C. Tanner shows that 6 in 10 respondents are in favour of supervisors giving offenders written and verbal warnings, while 37 per cent are in favour of job suspensions.  Sending employees home with a suspension should be considered when employees have already received both verbal and written warnings but continue to defy the rules.

It’s apparent that bringing office workers back is a possibility and would work best when everyone involved has the same expectations – for accommodation, health and safety measures, and consequences for those who don’t comply. With guidance from HR and managers, implementing a clear plan with the inclusion of local rules and recommendations from health officials and policy makers can help instill confidence and remove misconceptions among those returning to the office.

By Janet Candido, principal consultant and founder of Candido Consulting Group

Janet combines strong business and HR skills to help organizations achieve their strategic goals. A creative problem solver with over 20 years in the Human Resources field, Janet is an authority on workplace systems and culture, and applies her expertise to provide innovative solutions for clients. Her goal is to help organizations, executive teams and their employees reach optimal performance. Janet also puts her creativity to use as a 3D artist, and is a founding member of Toronto Art Visions, a non-profit community arts organization.

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