Put employee concerns at the centre of workplace planning


As new COVID-19 infections rise in many parts of Canada, public health officials are warning that a second, possibly much worse, wave of the pandemic is in store for the fourth quarter¹. For many employees, this compounds their concerns about school and daycare closures, more stringent public health requirements and the risk to vulnerable family members. Making matters worse, we are also entering flu season.

Safety is central

For employers that are attempting to keep productivity, engagement and collaboration on track, this presents a complex set of challenges. On the one hand, more than a third of employees in medium and large organizations say collaboration with colleagues is declining², yet only 20 per cent say they would willingly return to the workplace when it reopens³. Another survey shows that while most employees trust their employer to keep them safe, 59 per cent will refuse to return to the workplace if they feel it isn’t safe enough.⁴

A recent survey by Talent Canada and TELUS Employer Solutions finds that more than 70 per cent of employees who are currently working remotely are concerned about returning to the workplace⁵. The study also showed that employees are particularly concerned about the risks involved in shared workstations and collaboration spaces, though they are somewhat less worried about washrooms, elevators and coffee stations.⁶

Put employees in the centre of the plan

HR leaders have an opportunity to engage employees and their managers throughout the return to workplace planning process. Employees are not interested in returning to pre-pandemic ways of working, with most saying they are quite comfortable working from home, and about three in ten hoping to make that a permanent arrangement.⁷

To push past this resistance, organizations should build their health and safety plan with a particular emphasis on the physical workspace. Keeping employees safely distant may involve moving desks and work areas, installing physical barriers, such as plexiglass screens, staggering seating arrangements and carefully managing the number of people on site at any one time.

Managers need to be brought into the planning process early to assess the best way to address safety concerns while supporting much-needed collaboration and productivity within and between teams of people. This may pose a challenge as about one-fifth of managers say they feel unprepared for new ways of working.⁸

At the same time, organizations must balance the need for social contact and collaboration with the possibility that some employees may find themselves increasingly isolated, either working at home or being the sole team member in a facility. This may be particularly true for younger workers who are more likely to report high levels of stress than their older counterparts.⁹

Transparency and control are key

HR leaders can help employees understand their own role in keeping safe, by focusing on things that are within their control – following public health guidelines, understanding new workplace policies and expectations and using common sense to assess risk.

By clearly communicating how your organization is making the workplace safe, including PPE, enhanced cleaning, office layouts and attendance monitoring, you can improve the level of comfort about returning to the workplace. It is also key to acknowledge employees’ concerns about areas beyond the organization’s control such as using public transit or venturing out in public places.

Using technology tools, such as TELUS Reserve organizations can offer additional information and control. For example, employees can login from a phone or PC and see a 3D workspace layout, then reserve a dedicated workspace for a particular day and time, knowing it will be clean and ready when they arrive. Some tools also allow employees to see which washrooms are available to use, given occupancy restrictions.

Managers and workplace planners can also use these tools to automate employee health declarations and to monitor and manage the number of employees in a given facility at the same time. Attendance data is also important in case it is required for contact tracing information.

The next few months will certainly bring new challenges to employers and the workforce. By thinking flexibly about how you design your return to work and by involving employees and managers in the planning there are new opportunities to support mental wellness, health and safety, collaboration and productivity through a very uncertain time.

Learn more about supporting a safe return to your workplace with TELUS Reserve by calling 1-855-699-0573.  

¹ CBC News, October 3, 2020. Why a 2nd wave of COVID-19 is more dangerous than it looks.
² Institute for Public Relations / Leger, 2020. Report: How engaged are employees during COVID-19?
³ LinkedIn, 2020. Return to the workplace? Canadians aren’t convinced.
⁴ KPMG, 2020. Most Canadians are afraid to return to their workplace, yet trust employers to keep them safe
⁵ Talent Canada, 2020. Return to work.
⁶ Talent Canada, 2020. Return to work.
⁷ Talent Canada, 2020. Return to work.
⁸ VitalSmarts, 2020. How to Manage Newly Remote Teams
⁹ TELUS, 2020. Young employees and workplace stress: a call to action.