Businesses play a critical role in protecting the health and safety of employees and limiting the impact of a pandemic on our communities and our economy. With COVID-19 and its implications evolving at a rapid pace, it can be overwhelming for small business owners and their employees to stay on top of the developments.
Federal and provincial governments, and public health agencies and authorities have been working together to ensure that preparedness and response measures for both businesses and the community are appropriate and adaptable, and based on the latest scientific research and the evolving situation. Businesses must stay on top of day-to-day changes and adjust their responses accordingly.
This guide is designed to help small businesses care for their workforce during the pandemic, support business continuity, and prepare for resumption of business activities. Topics covered include:
Organizations should develop or update their business continuity plans, which should identify potential impacts that threaten the organization, and provide a framework for building organizational resiliency. Business continuity plans contribute to an organization's ability to deliver products and services after disruption – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – and ensure that critical functions and processes are continually evaluated and improved upon.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has published a Pandemic Preparedness Plan for Businesses that can help you think through your business and continuity plan. Some questions to consider:
Provincial responses have varied. As an example, Small Business B.C. and the Government of B.C.’s Small Business Branch have developed a Business Continuity and COVID-19 Checklist for small businesses that may also be helpful to you in your planning.
Federal and provincial governments have announced several types of financial support for businesses experiencing a slow-down or shut-down as a result of the pandemic, including the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the Small Business Temporary Wage Subsidy (TWS 10%), the Canadian Wage Subsidy Program (CEWS 75%), financing through the Business Credit Availability Program’s Canadian Emergency Business Account and SME Loan and Guarantee Program, and tax payment or workers compensation premium deferrals. As details of these benefits and supports continue to change, visit the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, the Canadian Business Resilience Network, or Business Development Bank of Canada for the latest links and information. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has also developed a helpful Frequently Asked Questions webpage that includes information about financial assistance related to COVID-19 for Canadian small businesses.
Related: COVID-19 Small Business Help Centre
During a health crisis, communication is essential to put employees at ease, keep them informed, and help ensure everyone is following company policies and best practices. A well-defined and widely understood communications plan can help create trust within the organization and ensure employees are up to date on company information, policies, and organizational changes. An effective internal communications plan typically includes direction on the following:
For more information, see the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s adapted Crisis Communications Plan.
Communications plans will vary from organization to organization. However, it’s critical that all employers are transparent and authentic during this time. Employers can consider communicating some - if not all - of the following topics to their workforce:
As Ceridian’s Chairman and CEO David Ossip says, “Now more than ever, communication must be transparent, authentic, frequent, and – above all – two-way." Learn more about how he implemented an ongoing and frequent internal communications strategy to keep Ceridian’s workforce informed.
According to The World Economic Forum (WEF), remote working is a strategy that serves businesses in a number of ways. It serves employee needs, provides resilient ways for businesses to engage with their networks while continuing to deliver value, and addresses larger community and public health needs.
While remote work is an effective means to practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the transition can be difficult for many employees. A rapid pivot in how and where work is done is essential to flatten the curve, however, it can put significant strain on employee well-being as well as business continuity.
Further, the health crisis could permanently shift working patterns as companies and employees may find this working arrangement effective for some jobs that do not require employees to be in the office or on-site. Here are a few ways organizations can make remote working arrangements more seamless:
Responding to a crisis creates a unique set of challenges for managing the workforce. Businesses will need to consider the impact of changing work arrangements, adjustments to working hours, and developments in employment law and legislation, and how best to track and manage them during this period with minimal disruptions.
While the appropriate strategy is not one-size-fits all, the following are some general considerations for employers on the road to preparedness:
Business owners should always refer to local employment standards when making decisions regarding workforce planning. We have included some reference sources at the end of this document.
Organizations may have employees working from home, on-site, or a combination of both. Here are several ways to engage employees and keep the workforce connected:
In workplaces where workers have high or very high exposure risk, employers should follow the guidance the Government of Canada provides and implement control measures depending on how high risk the job is. In compliance with workplace safety requirements, employer’s should provide all workers with job-specific education and training on preventing transmission of COVID-19.
Businesses will need to take a critical look at their company and HR policies and practices to make sure they are consistent with public health recommendations and existing laws. Here are a few areas organizations will need to assess as the pandemic evolves:
Company travel policy: Canada has closed its border with the U.S. and restricted all but essential travel. Employers will need to deploy an updated company travel policy to reflect these changes and consider a revised travel policy for the months to come. As part of this review, employers’ expectations should be clearly communicated to employees regarding business and personal travel. Organizations should ensure sure they have the latest information on areas where COVID-19 is spreading.
Leaves of Absence and EI top-up policies: There are many different leave requirements throughout Canada and new unpaid leaves have been introduced by a number of provinces since the outbreak of COVID-19. The launch of the CERB program has meant that employers have many factors to consider when reviewing their existing policies or developing new leave policies. The Canadian Business Rresilience Network has links to updated information including provincial resources.
Stay on top of changing sick leave requirements in Canada
Policy for tracking sick employees: Organizations will need a policy around identifying and documenting employees that have contracted COVID-19. While employers are currently permitted to collect this information, appropriate record-keeping for medical information are required.
Absenteeism policies: Absences related directly to COVID-19 should not result in discipline and employers should consider excusing absences unrelated to COVID-19. In addition, employees who may be ill should be encouraged to stay home. Except in very limited circumstances, such as if a manager questions whether an employee is truly sick, a doctor’s note or certificate should not be required. Provinces have taken different steps to update employment standards legislation to respond to the current crisis. Ontario, for example, is providing an additional job-protected, unpaid leave of absence (Infectious Disease Emergency Leave) for employees who can’t perform the duties of their position due to COVID-related reasons.
The COVID-19 crisis has created a lot of fear and anxiety for the workforce. Employers should be mindful that employees will have unique needs and personal situations when they transition to working from home, including caring for kids, tending to sick relatives, and other circumstances. Employers should consider supporting employee wellness holistically, from physical and mental health to financial support.
An evolving global health crisis presents organizations with an opportunity to rethink their benefits offerings, with an eye to both immediate and potential future employee needs. Organizations can, for example, offer wellness programs that include mental health benefits to help ensure workers have access to the type of care needed to prevent, treat, or manage psychological distress and burnout.
Employers can support the workforce by communicating often and authentically. Most people have never experienced this level of uncertainty and change which is why it’s important to keep people informed by telling them what’s going on internally, for example, how many employees have tested positive for COVID-19, if any, and what steps the organization has taken to mitigate risk and support employee safety.
While it’s critical that organizations are ensuring visibility every step of the way as changes occur, it’s just as important for employers to ensure employees’ voices are heard. Providing a platform for employees to voice concerns and ask questions will allow organizations to collect feedback from people and identify patterns and trends in employees’ emotional states. With this information, organizations can build action plans to respond quickly to employee concerns, as well as help reduce burnout and absenteeism.
Employers can consider connecting employees to employee assistance program (EAP) resources (if available) and online resources such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s guide to mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers and employees can also download the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. This free online toolkit outlines 13 factors that affect the mental health of employees in the workplace. Employees may also need additional social, behavioural, and other services to cope with consequences of the COVID-19 crisis such as the illness or death of a loved one. As well, consider extending company resources to give employees more tech support and infrastructure. For example, organizations can extend use video conferencing tools like Zoom for employees’ personal calls, or provide loaner laptops and other electronics for parents with kids at home.
Watch our recent webinar, COVID-19: Mental Health Implications
Essential businesses that are still running operations can play a major role in slowing the spread of COVID-19 by taking actions recommended by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and provincial public health agencies. This is also applicable as work from home policies are eventually lifted. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety recommends employers reinforce preventative measures by implementing the following practices:
When employees eventually return to the office and resume regular business activities, employers may also need to consider setting a policy around holding in-person meetings. The WHO advises employees ask the following questions before holding meetings in smaller spaces:
As recommendations may change, we advise that you view the measures on the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety’s website. You can also consult recommendations from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Canadian Business Resilience Network.
More information: Getting your workforce ready for COVID-19
The Government of Canada advises all organizations to develop policies around identifying and isolating sick employees:
More information on the Government of Canada’s website.
The COVID-19 pandemic is evolving on a daily basis. An organization’s response to this health crisis should be based on reliable and up to date information provided from sources such as the WHO, PHAC, and local public health agencies and authorities. Here is a list of additional resources to help employers make informed business decisions during and after COVID-19: