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Back to work in the future: The when, where and how post COVID-19

Complications abound with post-vaccination pressure for a return to the workplace

Roughly 59 per cent of employees in the Metro Vancouver area say they have worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey conducted by Research Co. for Glacier Media.

As more of the general population gets vaccinated over the course of the summer, many employers who are paying for near-empty office buildings will be eager to start bringing employees back to the office.

But they may face some dilemmas. They could meet with resistance from some employees who have gotten used to working from home, attending virtual meetings and travelling less. And some employees may refuse to be vaccinated, for any number of reasons.

“We’ve been seeing, and we’re hearing, some employees saying, ‘I kind of like this working from home thing—I don’t know want to come back,’” said Cissy Pau, principal consultant at human resources firm Clear HR Consultants.

“What if some people don’t get vaccinated? Who can return to the office? Who can’t return? That all impacts this whole concept of returning to the workplace, and will we ever have business as usual again or will it be different?”

The Research Co. survey found that 33 per cent of employees said they expect they will still work from home once or twice a week, even after the pandemic is over, and roughly 50 per cent said they expect to have fewer in-person staff meetings and more virtual meetings.

But once public health officials give employers the green light to re-staff offices, employers are under no legal obligation to let employees continue to work from home, said Ashley Mitchell, an employment law attorney at Miller Thomson LLP.

“An employee can’t unilaterally say, ‘I just want to keep working from home forever, because it’s working well for me,’” Mitchell said. “So an employer can require employees to start to come back to work, assuming it’s safe to do so.”

Businesses deemed essential services—from food processing plants and manufacturers to banks and grocery stores—have already had to sort out these kinds of questions.

It’s the employers that have been operating for a year now with near-empty office buildings and a largely remote workforce that may have the biggest challenge in figuring out how to bring people back into the office.

For smaller businesses and offices with low interactions with the public, coming up with a back-to-work plan may not require much more than its HR department and perhaps a safety committee working with WorkSafeBC and public health officials to approve their plans.

But for larger employers, or businesses where workers are in constant close contact with the public or each other, bringing people back into the office safely will require more planning and perhaps even some high-tech solutions.

The easiest way to reoccupy office buildings might be for employers to simply require all returning employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before coming back to the office. But in most instances, that’s not legal.

Employers could implement return-to-work plans based on vaccinations, as long as employees voluntarily agree to it. But Mitchell said they can’t make vaccinations a condition for returning to work.

“Generally speaking, it would not be permissible for an employer to require employees to be vaccinated,” Mitchell said.

Employers who plan to begin bringing employees back into the office this summer should be speaking with or surveying their employees to get an understanding of their concerns and comfort levels with returning to work, Pau said.

“I think there’s going to be a work adaptation exercise that needs to be gone through. I think there may be some permanent changes to the workplace that we need to be looking at.”

Whatever they decide to do, Pau also recommends that employers give their employees plenty of notice about their plans, “and then talk through all the potential concerns.”

If an office is not spacious enough to keep workers at least two  metres apart, some employers that never had shifts before may opt to bring employees back in shifts, at least temporarily. Or they may allow—or even require—some employees to continue working from home until the public health office says social distancing measurers are no longer required.

Some businesses will need to grapple with travel. Project managers and sales people will be expected to resume travelling to other communities, provinces or countries at some point.

“I see that being a big issue,” Pau said. “What if people don’t want to travel?”

Owners or managers in offices will also need to think about managing not only their own employees, but non-employees as well.

Even businesses that don’t have walk-in customers may have a surprising number of daily non-employee visitors: job applicants, lunch caterers, vending and coffee machine contractors, trash and recycling collectors, HVAC repair technicians and package delivery people.

“There are many more individuals coming in and out of a building that we weren’t necessarily cognizant of,” said Roger Beharry Lall, vice-president of product marketing for Traction Guest. “It can represent 10 per cent, 30 per cent of who’s on site.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Traction Guest has repurposed its guest registration platform to be used by employers to control how many employees or guests are in an office at a given time.

With the Traction Guest system, employees can register through an online portal. They may volunteer information, such as whether they have been vaccinated, recently been tested for COVID-19 or recently travelled.

If the employee plans to come to work Monday through Wednesday and work from home Thursday and Friday, he or she would indicate that and be given a QR code. When he or she shows up for work, the QR code would be scanned. The system would allow employers to know just how many employees are in the office. Visitors could also be asked to register before coming to the office for job interviews and other reasons.

Not even WorkSafeBC knows yet what the rules and timelines will be for a full return to work. Like everyone else, it is waiting for direction from the public health office.

So until they are told otherwise, employers will need to continue to have safety protocols and controls in place, like limiting the number of people in offices, even when a majority of employees have been vaccinated.

“At this point in time, anybody who is vaccinated and is working with anyone else, they all still have to follow the safety plans to the letter as they exist today,” said Al Johnson, head of prevention services for WorkSafeBC. “So a vaccination doesn’t negate any other precaution that needs to be in place.”

 

This article first appeared in Business in Vancouver, March 23.

Whistler’s new normal

What work life might look like, as resort businesses get ready for operations where the majority of people are vaccinated

By Steven Threndyle
 

One year ago, COVID-19 snapped B.C.’s tourism industry shut tighter than an elevator door… going down. Closed borders. Stopped chairlifts (and all of that snow). The run on toilet paper. Quiet bars and darkened stores in Whistler became the norm. 

There were some optimistic signs of life through the summer as restaurant patios opened, food delivery services proliferated, federal government CERB cheques arrived and retail stores re-opened following the requisite “be safe” measures mandated by B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. You could golf, mountain bike, hike and even visit the Audain Art Museum, but hanging in every molecule of fresh mountain air was a single thought, “when the hell will this end?” 

While a surprising number of Metro Vancouver employees—as high as 60 per cent—worked from home at some point during the past year, you can’t really groom a ski run or stock empty store shelves via a Zoom meeting. 

As the poster from WorkSafe BC says, “COVID isn’t going on vacation.” In fact, it appears to be doubling down, with more than 840 new reported cases as of Tuesday, March 30. Though data is hard to come by, Dr. Henry’s February clarification allowing Lower Mainland skiers to visit Whistler puts the town at high risk, since Vancouver and the Fraser Valley continue to rack up the largest number of new COVID-19 cases. 

Indeed, most Whistler businesses—especially the customer-facing ones in food and beverage, retail, and mountain operations—are still very much working day-to-day and following the Provincial Health Officer’s ever-changing directives on personal bubbles and who, exactly, is allowed to visit. 

Last week, Whistler Blackcomb owners Vail Resorts announced that there would not be a reservation system in place for the 2021/2022 season, perhaps to encourage Lower Mainland skiers and boarders to purchase Epic Pass and Edge Card products at a 20 per cent discount. The number of skiers and riders allowed on the mountain on any given day won’t be capped, either. 

In an e-mailed statement, Vail Resorts West Coast communications manager Jennifer Smith says that “There is no post-pandemic for us this summer. We are still under a travel advisory and health orders and (are) working toward the goal of keeping our guests, employees and community safe until Dr. Bonnie Henry says otherwise. We look forward to announcing our summer strategy soon to ensure our bike park, hiking and sightseeing guests are equally prepared for summer as they were for winter.” 

It’s also worth remembering that the health and travel restrictions that B.C. residents are under are more onerous than they were last summer.  

According to Smith, the COVID-19 crisis has sharpened Vail Resorts’ communications game. “One big takeaway has been to communicate as thoroughly and clearly as possible,” she says. “The COVID protocols brought many changes to the mountain experience that were a challenge to navigate. We are still blown away at the extraordinary effort our guests and staff made to adapt their behaviour.”

Most Whistlerites would likely agree with Smith’s sentiment that, “We were very lucky to have skiing and riding and the basis for our winter activity. Nothing fundamentally changed about the hill, the snow or our collective passion.” 

Though Whistler Blackcomb has now shut operations for the winter following a government directive to close for three weeks, having both mountains open at a time when major resorts in other parts of the world were closed definitely helped both guests and locals mentally and physically cope with COVID-19 stress.

Soon after lockdowns were announced, the worldwide “run on toilet paper” focused attention on how quickly panic buying can sweep through the retail landscape. For Nesters manager Bruce Stewart, such consumer craziness is a distant memory, and while the shelves have been well-stocked and the basics of grocery shopping have remained the same, “We miss the handshakes, the hugs, and high fives from our customers who really are our friends. And it will be great to see kids back in the store again.”

Not surprisingly, Nesters will be taking its cue from the federal and provincial governments. While some staffers, not to mention customers, probably never want to see another mask in their lives, Stewart believes that people will be comfortable wearing masks for the foreseeable future, especially during cold and flu season. “There might even be a case for leaving plexiglass barriers in place post-COVID, which surely highlighted the importance of a clean store, and limiting the number of visitors we allow in the store at any given time might be worth considering during peak times like Christmas and New Year’s,” he said.

Another unforeseen benefit from COVID-19 came from the spirit of teamwork and cooperation shared by Nesters’ store staff. Since employees weren’t supposed to socialize outside of the home says Stewart, “work became its own social bubble and we became quite the interesting family, and a much healthier one. They rarely called in sick and if they did, I became personally involved to ensure that our staff weren’t put at risk.” 

E-commerce and “shop and deliver” became a much bigger part of their business, too. “In the past, it’s been weekend visitors from Vancouver and international guests who ordered on-line. But now, high-risk residents had to stay at home. The need for us to shop and deliver or have orders picked up became overwhelming! Going forward, we want to engage and grow the local market through our e-commerce site,” Stewart says adding that Nesters added employees during this period, providing jobs to workers who had been laid off at other businesses. 

Jay Pare, co-owner of Caramba and Quattro restaurants, was nicely surprised by how well his restaurant fared. “Early on, of course, we were really scared, wondering how we would get out of this,” he says. “The Restaurant Association sat down with our local MLA who reassured us that programs like WorkSafe and FoodSafe already met the highest safety standards. It wasn’t a huge adjustment to add masks, contact tracing, or Plexiglas shields; it was something we had to do to stay open. Our menu evolved, we did far more take-out and delivery than ever before—but mostly it was about keeping our staff and customers safe and preventing any spread into the community. We had some very busy days last July and August where it was hard to believe a pandemic was happening. We’re already planning ahead and putting our teams together for the summer months and into next season. We want to be ready when the borders open.” 

Chris Kent, the owner of the Kiss the Sky bungy trampoline attraction located in the Blackcomb Adventure Zone, has already been told that his landlord, Whistler Blackcomb, will keep the zone closed indefinitely. Kent believes the current pandemic situation warrants the Zone’s closure but says, “Summer business is my primary source of income, so to cope I reluctantly have to minimize personal expenditures and apply for whatever government assistance exists.” 

There’s little hard data on how many workers make up Whistler’s professional class of doctors, nurses, teachers and consultants. Some professionals live in Whistler part-time, some are semi-retired. Then, there are businesses that manage projects in remote areas of the province, like the Cascade Environmental Resource Group headquartered in Function Junction.

Cascade partner Dave Williamson admits that early on, there were some challenges in setting up people to work from home. But senior staff has always enjoyed this perk and moving forward one of the biggest challenges might be getting people back into the office again. 

“Working remotely (and in remote locations) comes as second nature to these science-based professionals who are already familiar (and even comfortable) in dealing with change,” says Williamson. 

Indeed, Cascade’s business raison d’etre has pivoted somewhat, thanks to the pandemic. “We aren’t big fans of normal around here,” he says. “I think we will be better at the way we do business in the future.”