April 23, 2020

COVID-19 resource guide for Canadian small businesses

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, it is critical that small businesses are equipped with the information and resources needed to support their workforce and maintain operational efficiency today and in the months ahead.

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:

  • Maintaining business continuity and operational efficiency
  • Developing an internal communications plan
  • Managing and engaging a dispersed workforce
  • Reviewing and updating company policies
  • Supporting employee well-being
  • Managing the spread of COVID-19 moving forward
  • Additional resources for employers

Maintaining business continuity and operational efficiency

Develop or update your business continuity plan

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: 

  • What is the process for decision-making during times of crisis?
  • How are you identifying and safeguarding your company’s essential corporate records and documents?
  • What is the risk of the pandemic to your employees, partners, customers, and suppliers?
  • How and when are you communicating to internal and external stakeholders and managing the flow of information?
  • How will your organization keep operating while employees working remotely?
  • What technology will you provide for employees to continue to work efficiently and safely?
  • What is your plan for recovery? 
  • What steps is the organization taking to protect the health and safety of employees?
  • What infection control practices will the organization implement?
  • What equipment will your workforce need to protect themselves and those around them?
  • What resources are available for employees?

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.

Related: COVID-19: IT is the key to business continuity

Government support for small businesses

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: Ten FAQs related to COVID-19 for Canadian businesses

Related: COVID-19 Small Business Help Centre

Developing an internal communications plan

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:

  • Key stakeholder that will deliver ongoing communications
  • Frequency of communications to employees
  • Channels through which the communications will be delivered
  • How information will reach employees who are sick or on leave
  • How communications will be reviewed and vetted
  • A point of contact to address employee questions and concerns
  • Internal and external resources that are available to employees and their families
  • Where employees can access company information and updates

For more information, see the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s adapted Crisis Communications Plan.

Related: Strategies for leaders and managers to support employees during COVID-19

Communicating information to employees

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:

  • Inform employees how to identify symptoms of COVID-19 and provide resources from public health agencies
  • Inform employees not to come to work if they have any of the COVID-19 symptoms
  • Inform employees on which populations are at higher risk for severe illness
  • Inform employees about the importance of social distancing and preventing the spread of the virus
  • Encourage employees to practice appropriate hygiene measures, from washing their hands to covering their mouths when coughing
  • Updated travel policies
  • Updated policies around work from home arrangements
  • Updated policies around paid leave
  • Employee assistance program (EAP) resources (if available) and community resources. Employees may need additional social, behavioural, and other services, for example, to cope with stress

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.

Managing and engaging a dispersed workforce

Helping the workforce transition to remote working

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:

  • Make remote working policies easily accessible in a centralized system
  • Ensure employees have the right equipment (for example, monitors and keyboards)
  • Implement flexible arrangements and work hours (for example, flexible time away from work to address personal matters)
  • Provide support for employees and their families (for example, resources for kids who are home from school)
  • Provide webinars that cover organizational best practices and troubleshooting, such as when to use a VPN
  • Encourage the use of multiple communications channels, for example, video conferencing for regular team meetings and messaging boards to provide real-time updates and address questions
  • Consider expanding technical support by making technology leaders available for an extended period of time to answer questions in topic-specific rooms and channels online

Related: How technology teams can help set employees up for remote work success

Workforce planning and managing changing work arrangements

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:

  • Employee information: Confirm that employee information is correct, and ask employees to update their personal information, including address, contact information, and emergency contact information
  • Time tracking: Create new pay or earnings codes to track different situations, including keeping track of sick time related to COVID-19, hours spent on COVID-19-related response projects, paying employees for additional time worked, or tracking paid and unpaid leave
  • Payroll delivery: Consider alternate methods of pay delivery for employees, such as direct deposit instead of paper checks, and make earnings statements and tax forms accessible digitally
  • Scheduling: If possible, consider flextime or alternate scheduling options to help stagger shifts and promote social distancing, and to help accommodate employee’s personal needs

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.

Best practices for engaging the workforce virtually

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:

  • Stay connected through video chats, conferences, virtual lunches, etc.
  • Set a more frequent cadence for team check-ins
  • Allow for social interaction by setting up separate channels for employees to talk about non-work-related topics such as work from home hacks
  • Host webinars for managers and employees on managing mental wellness and building resilience
  • Set up extra-curricular activities such as learning a new skill as a team or starting a book club
  • Promote physical wellness by encouraging standing or walking meetings, or virtual group fitness sessions or step challenges
  • Assign employees meaningful work that is tied to organizational goals as well as their career goals

Related: Your virtual team, and discovering the power in distance

Considerations for essential employees working on-site

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.

Reviewing and updating company policies

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.

Related: Key legal and HR considerations Canadian employers need to think about for COVID-19

Supporting employee well-being during times of stress

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.

Offer holistic benefits

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.

Maintain visibility

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.

Encourage two-way communication

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.

Provide resources for employees

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

Managing the spread of COVID-19 moving forward

Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace

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:

  • Provide clean hand washing facilities
  • Offer alcohol-based hand sanitizers when regular facilities are not available (or to people on the road)
  • Clean objects that are touched frequently, such as doorknobs, handles, railings, kettles, etc. more often with household disinfectants or bleach solution 5 mL of 5% bleach per 250 mL of water
  • Provide boxes of tissues and encourage their use
  • Remind staff to not share cups, glasses, dishes and cutlery. Be sure dishes are washed in soap and water after use
  • Remove magazines and papers from waiting areas or common rooms (such as tea rooms and kitchens)
  • Make sure ventilation systems are working properly
  • Clean workstations or other areas frequently
  • Use social distancing techniques, such as using the telephone or video conferencing to conduct as much business as possible (including within the same building), allow employees to work from home, or to work flexible hours to avoid peak public transportation times or crowding the workplace

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:

  • Is a face-to-face meeting or event needed or could it be replaced with a video conference?
  • Could the meeting be scaled down to fewer people?
  • Are there enough supplies in the meeting area such as tissues, hand sanitizer, and face masks?
  • Are attendees showing any symptoms ahead of the meeting? Advise attendees in advance that if they have any symptoms or feel unwell, they should not attend

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

Monitoring employee health

The Government of Canada advises all organizations to develop policies around identifying and isolating sick employees:

  • Inform and encourage employees to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 if they suspect possible exposure. Employees experiencing symptoms can take PHAC’s online self-assessment test
  • Track when employees are experiencing symptoms and who they have been in contact with
  • Immediately isolate people who have symptoms. For example, move potentially infectious people away from employees, customers, and other visitors
  • Tell employees to notify their manager and leave the workplace immediately to self-isolate
  • Set a policy around when sick employees can return to work. The CDC recommends that sick employees should not return to work until the criteria to discontinue home isolation are met

More information: The Government of Canada’s risk-informed decision-making guidelines for workplaces and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic

Employees caring for sick family members

The government recommends employees who are well but have a sick family member at home should notify their manager or supervisor and follow these recommended precautions.

More information on the Government of Canada’s website.

Additional resources for small businesses

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:

Resources for small businesses in Canada

Ceridian resources:

  • The Canadian COVID-19 Central hub has resources on COVID-19 preparedness and spread prevention, managing remote teams, and workplace mental wellness
  • Our COVID-19 webinars can help answer questions you may have about managing through the COVID-19 crisis

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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