June 18, 2020

Creating a COVID-19 return to work plan for small businesses

The return to work is top-of-mind for many small businesses and employees across the country as government shutdown restrictions slowly lift. However, the transition back to the workplace may not be a simple one. Small businesses will need to prepare for the various complexities associated with this transitional period and ensure they are addressing the needs of employees while supporting business continuity.

Planning for the return to work is a priority for many small businesses as they cautiously readjust to a post-pandemic world of work. While some industries will transition their employees back to the workplace within the coming weeks and months, others, such as travel and tourism don’t expect to return to normal business for a while

As small businesses prepare to roll out their plans to reenter the workplace, Ceridian President and COO Leagh Turner says it’s critical that businesses remain focused on mitigating the risk of a possible resurgence and reducing the burden on our healthcare systems. This requires a holistic return to work plan that extends beyond check-box measures such as providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitizing workstations.

Managing the complexities of the return to work post-COVID-19

Some provinces and regions are further along in containing the spread of the pandemic than others. Businesses will need to customize their return to work plans to align with governmental regulations and restrictions in their province. The possibility of a second wave of the pandemic requires businesses to be prepared with re-exit plans.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that the workforce has rapidly shifting needs as they adapt to a new normal in both their personal and work lives. Keeping track of new and changing COVID-19 relief programs while also managing the health of employees, the business, and customers places additional pressure on small businesses in Canada. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when developing a return to work plan for your business.

Considerations for your business’s return to work plan

According to law firm McCarthy Tétrault, businesses should factor several considerations into their return to work planning, including how to physically reconfigure the workplace to prioritize the health and safety of employees, clients, and customers, how to make policy changes that support health and safety, and how to communicate changes in policies and procedures.

How employers treat their workforce during this time will reflect how employees perceive their employer today and in the long term, impacting retention. By proactively preparing the workforce for the transition, businesses can better prepare for threats to continued business operations.

There's no one-size-fits-all roadmap for getting back into the workplace. Employers will need to create a plan that works for their business and workforce while leaving room for adjustments as needed. The Government of Canada’s Risk Mitigation Tool is designed to help Canadian businesses assess risks to employees and customers during the pandemic and can be a helpful for return to work planning. It also provides examples of measures that may be implemented at the workplace to mitigate risks. To further help small businesses prepare for the return to work, we’ve created a checklist of items employers can consider implementing to support a positive transition back to the workplace.

Managing the return to work for Canadian small businesses

Before the return to work

Consider a partial return to the workplace: Identify roles in which employees will be able to remain productive in a remote work arrangement and roles that are more easily done in the physical workplace.

Allow return to work to be optional: Some employees may be unwilling or unable to return to the workplace. Businesses can deploy a remote work survey to better understand how employees feel about the transition back into the workplace. Where practical, companies may need to extend work-from-home policies to accommodate various situations.

Read more: What employers in Ontario need to know about managing the return to work

Communicate changes and keep employees informed: The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends businesses educate employees about the steps they can take to protect themselves both at work and at home. This includes personal hygiene practices and educating employees to follow any new policies or procedures related to illness, cleaning and disinfecting, and guidelines around work meetings and travel.

Businesses need to consider how they will communicate this information, especially to employees that are working on-site. If employees have limited access to computers, consider disseminating information via mobile communications. Employers will also need to communicate the risks of returning to the workplace and keep employees informed day-to-day.

Ensure you have enough PPE for the entire workforce: All employees – whether essential or non-essential – should feel safe and comfortable performing their job. Employers can provide hand sanitizer, masks, tissues, gloves, and disinfectant wipes to employees.

Prepare the workplace to reduce physical contact between employees: This means adapting office space to support distancing. Here are a few actions employers can consider:

  • Allow for space between desks or workstations
  • Assess and/or improve the building ventilation system to ensure better filtration of air
  • Establish in-person meeting guidelines. The World Health Organization encourages employers to consider several important questions before holding meetings in confined spaces:
    • Is a face-to-face meeting needed or could it be replaced with a video conference?
    • Could the meeting be scaled down to fewer people?
    • Are there enough supplies and PPE in the meeting area such as tissues, hand sanitizer, and face masks?

Implement extra precautions for essential workers: Protecting all employees is a priority. However, businesses will need to design a separate plan for essential workers. Consider moving these employees to areas in the workplace that don’t receive a lot of foot traffic and prepare a back-up plan for employees who may fall ill during the return-to-work roll-out.

Restrict common areas: Consider restricting access to conference rooms, cafeterias, break rooms, and other areas where employees could congregate; this may include taping off water coolers, refrigerators, microwaves, and other high-touch appliances.

Prepare signage: Communicate proper hygiene practices and workplace guidelines (such as no visitors and room closures) across the workplace.

Conduct a thorough cleaning of the office. The Government of Canada recommends several cleaning and disinfecting practices that businesses can adopt to ensure they are prioritizing the health and safety of employees and customers. 

Update leave policies: Policies should be adapted to address employees who are showing symptoms.  The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends the following:

  • Employees who experience symptoms should notify their supervisor and stay home
  • Sick employees should follow these recommended steps and should not return to work until the criteria to discontinue home isolation are met, in consultation with healthcare providers
  • Employers should ensure policies around sick leave are flexible and consistent with public health guidance
  • Employers should consider suspending the requirement for medical notes to return to work, in order to reduce the burden on an already stressed health care system

In addition, employees should be advised that if they are well but have a family member at home who has COVID-19 they should notify their supervisor immediately.

Update technology readiness plans: With a mass shift to remote work, many businesses are anticipating they’ll continue work-from-home arrangements for some employees going forward. Businesses should understand the technical infrastructure and support that’s required to limit risk during transitional periods, and that will be needed by employees who may continue to work from home.

Read more: COVID-19 resource guide for Canadian small businesses

Consolidate workforce data into one system: Businesses that excel at maintaining continuity during uncertain times leverage a single system for all workforce data. Having payroll, time, and HR data combined in a single system can provide employers with greater access to critical workforce information such as employee contact information as well as a single view for HR and payroll data.

During the transition back to the workplace 

Remind employees about company policies: This may include the restriction of visitor access, including employees from other locations.

Set guidelines around employee self-monitoring: See Public Health Ontario’s guidance on how employees can self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms. Employees should be encouraged to conduct daily assessments to monitor potential symptoms and reduce the spread across the workforce.

Separate sick employees: Employees who appear to show symptoms of COVID-19 should immediately be separated from other employees, customers, and clients, and sent home. Have a procedure in place for the safe transport of an employee who becomes sick while at work. The employee may need to be transported home or to a healthcare provider.

Offer incentives to use alternative forms of transportation: Encourage employees to opt for transportation methods that minimize close contact on public transit. This can include offering reimbursement for parking or single-occupancy ride shares. Where possible, consider allowing employees to shift their work schedules to avoid travelling during busy times.

Implement flexible scheduling: Allow employees the flexibility they need to address personal matters. Flexible scheduling approaches, such as being able to take two hours during the work day to go to an appointment or care for a child, can help employees better manage stress.

Support employee mental health and well-being: Employers must understand how employees are coping throughout every phase of the pandemic. This transitional period back to the office may be more difficult for some than others. Employers will need to consider how employees’ lives – both work and personal – have been impacted and the factors that may cause added stress during this time. Some employees may be stressed about the use of public transit, while others will be concerned with finding childcare or caring for a sick family member.

The return to work will be a difficult shift for many employees, both in their work and personal lives, which means employers should be providing resources and support to address varying needs. Offering employee assistance programs (EAPs), extending benefits to include mental well-being, and providing community resources will help employees cope with the adjustment. Keep in mind that employees may need additional social, behavioral, and other services to help them manage stress and cope with uncertainty. Read more about helping employees cope throughout the stages of COVID-19.

Accommodate remote employees: As businesses prepare their workforce to return to the physical workplace, they must not forget about those that will continue to work remotely on a temporary or permanent basis. Employees became familiar with connecting to their team members online, so it’s important that employers and managers are still encouraging these types of communications. Planning happy hours and celebrating team accomplishments can go a long way in keeping employees connected whether they’re working from home or in the workplace.

Continue a cadence of daily and weekly workplace cleaning. Consider extra precautions in common areas such as the kitchen and washrooms.

After the roll-out of the return-to-work plan

Measure the effectiveness of the return-to-work transition: Businesses should allow employees to provide honest feedback about how they perceive things were handled during and after the crisis and incorporate input into their future and planning and communication. The world of work today is much different than it was just a few months ago. Employees will have different needs and concerns as they reintegrate back into the workplace. Connect with employees to find out if they are able to work productively, and if any of the accommodation measures need adjustment.

Develop a “re-exit” plan: To prepare for potential threats such as a resurgence of COVID-19, businesses should create a plan around exiting the workforce for a second time. This level of disruption can have detrimental effects on the workforce as they’re readjusting to uncertain environments and may suffer from further stress and anxiety. Communicating the plan for a potential re-exit will provide employees with greater visibility and reassurance.

Preparing employees for a new world of work

The pandemic has transformed the world of work for businesses across Canada. Businesses have realized that a vital part of business continuity is providing an employee-centric experience. To deliver on this and keep employees front and centre during the transition back to the workplace, businesses will need to have the right technology in place to centralize workforce data and maintain up-to-date information that can be accessed when needed. A single system that provides cloud payroll, time, HR, and self-service together can support employees in the new world of work.

Learn how Powerpay can simplify business processes so you can focus on maintaining continuity and preparing for the world of work that lies ahead.

Team Ceridian

Our experts provide timely, essential insights and analysis for HCM leaders. We share fresh strategies and practical tips for businesses of all sizes, thoughts on hot topics and industry trends, and the latest legislative updates.

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