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Having endured enormous hardships imposed by COVID-19, and with the global pandemic still a clear and present danger, Ottawa’s employers are now hard at work planning their strategy for how best to reopen their offices. Far from being a pure business decision, there are many human elements, and legal repercussions to also consider.

Karin Pagé, a partner with the law firm Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall LLP in Ottawa, notes that company officers are obligated to observe various requirements pursuant to the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020 and the regulations associated thereto.

“For one, businesses are required to have a safety plan in place that describes the measures and procedures that are being implemented to reduce the transmission risk of COVID-19, including screening procedures, physical distancing, masks or face coverings, cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces and objects, and the prevention of over-crowding,” Pagé says.

Moreover, the Ontario government’s mandated vaccine passport affects certain businesses, like restaurants, bars, gyms, concerts, and sports venues, etc., which are required to ensure that any guests to the premises have proof of vaccination. However, this doesn’t apply automatically to the business’s employees. In most circumstances, the employer has the choice to decide what is necessary and appropriate for its own staff, she explains.

Beyond that, “your return-to-work plan can be quite varied. It can be suited to the nature of your own work and what you as an employer deem is necessary and appropriate,” says Pagé.

Employers have a general obligation under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act to take all reasonable precautions for the protection of its workers.

Pagé explains that “for some, this may mean requiring vaccination against COVID-19. But until now, employers would normally have had little control over an employee’s off-duty conduct or what they choose in terms of medical treatment. This is a strange and unique situation where employers may be presented with conflicting obligations and considerations.

“Mandating vaccinations in the workplace is a decision that needs to be carefully considered,” she stresses.

Karen Brownrigg, founder, and CEO of iHR Advisory Services, says that as offices reopen, human resources professionals and other senior members of management have multiple responsibilities to ensure the safety of their employees.

Employers who take the position that employees must be fully vaccinated in order to continue gainful employment must think through the worst-case scenario that could arise – namely that an employee or several employees will decide for personal reasons – outside of an accommodation covered by human rights legislation – they will not get vaccinated.

“It’s really problematic to write a policy that you haven’t thought through and that you are not in a position to enforce, because a policy that pays lip service that you’re not prepared to enforce damages your credibility and the future credibility of any policy that you ever write again,” Brownrigg warns.

“Whenever there are competing human rights, you always want to consider going to a common ground solution,” says Brownrigg. For example, a reasonable common ground solution might be to allow people who aren’t client-facing to work from home, while stating that others who do meet clients must go into the office, she adds.

Building back better

To help an organization ‘build back better’ in the wake of the pandemic, “the best thing any human resources practitioner can do is conduct a deep analysis around ‘What is our culture now? And how do we define our culture?’ What that really means is ‘how do we behave in our workplace?’” says Brownrigg, who notes that understanding that workplace tenet is important to be able to attract and retain the employees needed for the future.

Another issue today is that many low-paying industries such as retail and restaurants are having difficulty hiring and retaining employees. Human resources officers need to look at the total compensation program they can offer those individuals that might allow them to attract and retain them for longer.

This isn’t just about money, says Brownrigg. Employers need to understand the needs of their employees. For example, if the employees are students in school, employers should examine whether there is a way to help with tuition. Or perhaps there is a health and dental program that can be offered to employees, she suggests.

“This is not a one-size fits all approach. You need to figure out what that targeted audience wants, and whether your organization can sustain that over a certain period of time, and then go for it,” says Brownrigg.

Employers also need to take into account that the pandemic has considerably altered what the work environment is expected to look like over the next several years.

“As a human resources professional and an executive coach, there was a very unhealthy pattern that I’ve seen over the past two decades, where the burnout rate is really high. We have never been able to give ourselves permission to…take time for wellness, to be with people and be doing things that were recharging our personal wellness batteries,” says Brownrigg.

“This pandemic has, in a very strange way, forced us to do that, and people aren’t willing to part with that. We need to find ways to continue along that path, and look at work in a more balanced fashion,” she adds.

COVID-19 Has Inexorably Altered The Future of Work

STEPHEN HARRINGTON, a partner in Human Capital Consulting at Deloitte Canada and national leader for the firm’s Future of Work Advisory in Ottawa, believes the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the future of work by advancing the question of where people should work.

When employers examine the lives of people who currently have to report to a work location the question needs to be asked whether, if there is no flexibility about where to work, employers can at least be more flexible about when and how those people work, he notes.

“There are trade-offs in all of these design decisions, but if people have flexibility about when they apply themselves to work, it will go a long way in helping them integrate parts of their lives that matter to them that had previously been difficult to integrate, like their family life or social life,” he says.

In order to ‘build back better,’ human resources professionals, along with other senior members of the management team, also need to address the future skills crisis. “There is no end in sight for the reskilling of technical skills. Because of the pace of technology and changing appetites in customers and citizens, that need for reskilling is going to be constant,” says Harrington.

This puts pressure on HR professionals to drive a serious conversation about what future skills are going to be needed within their organization. The company’s business strategy over the next three to five years, including how that differs from today, and whether it has the personnel in each department and/or function to match the skills required, must all be taken into account.

HR professionals can also contribute to the discussion about how jobs can be redesigned and modernized in conjunction with current technologies to make them appear more human, attractive and sustainable to employees and prospective employees, says Harrington.

“Employees have a ton of choice. They can see there are jobs out in the market that have really advanced. They’re really attractive. And they can also see jobs in the market that haven’t advanced at all. I think job design is an area that isn’t examined enough in terms of how we make ourselves competitive to win talent,” he elaborates.