Not Business as Usual: Why Getting Back to Work Won’t Be Simple

The question of how people can return to work outside their homes — even after the pandemic curve is planked — is not a simple one, writes Ceridian President Leagh Turner.


Leagh Turner

April 26, 2020


Not long after the coronavirus contagion spreading across the globe became the COVID-19 pandemic in March, companies and organizations, whether out of a sense of corporate responsibility or by government mandate, almost overnight moved to a virtual work environment in order to help flatten the curve. Now that those organizations and their employees have adjusted to the “new normal”, the focus needs to turn to jumpstarting an  economy that has been largely paralyzed by this virulent
pathogen. And that means getting people to return to the workplace.

The question isn’t “When can it be done?” It is “How can it be done in a manner that mitigates the risk of a resurgence, protects the most vulnerable in our society, and doesn’t overwhelm our healthcare system?”

Employers will follow the advice of public health authorities, but do not expect that advice to be an all-clear that all employees can return to the workplace at the same time. It’s going to be more complicated and nuanced than that for the following reasons:

  1. Schools and childcare facilities may remain closed for a
    longer period of time, which affects working parents.
  2. Personal protective equipment (PPE) will likely remain in
    short supply as we still have little in the way of made-in-
    Canada production, and it will be prioritized for frontline
    health care workers. Rightly so.
  3. A COVID-19 vaccine may not be developed in the near term.
  4. The virus may, therefore, continue, which poses the distinct possibility of a “second wave” as we saw in Toronto with SARS.
  5. Expect that there could still be a shortage of supplies, including ventilators, for intensive care units at some hospitals.
  6. Testing for the virus may not be as widespread as it should be.
  7. Antibody testing for immunity is still in very early stages,
    which could lead to unsuspecting asymptomatic carriers of
    the virus infecting their co-workers.
  8. Contact tracing is easier said than done.
  9. Mass public transit may not have the capacity to handle
    passenger volume while enforcing physical distancing.
  10. Workers themselves may fear returning to the physical workplace, and some employers do not have to have employee assistance supports in place.

For employers, workforce planning is going to become more complicated as they cannot simply have all workers return to work at the same time. The return will be gradual and on a rolling basis, and physical distancing will be prioritized. At first, organizations should extend their work-from-home policy until employees are comfortable coming back on their own. Scheduling will become more complex as the workday and work week may be altered from a five-day work week to a four-day work week. Organizations will have to effectively monitor their employees’ location and identify potential exposure to co-workers. And employers will have to make special accommodations, so those who are infected or at higher risk (older workers and those with underlying health conditions) can continue to shelter in place.

Employees themselves will have to conduct daily self-assessments prior to coming to work. And if they are sick, they must self-identify and stay home. Employees will have to continue to practice safe hygiene at home and at work. They will not be able to travel or attend conferences, especially internationally.

Employees that do travel will have to follow public health guidelines regarding isolation following travel.

In the short term, the physical workplace itself is going to have to change, and it will be far different. Physical distancing is going to be the norm, and it will necessitate a number of changes.

Workstations may have to be moved apart, or every second workstation may have to be left vacant. And those workstations will have to be cleaned and disinfected more thoroughly and more frequently than ever before. Common areas, including conference rooms and cafeterias, will be closed, and there will be no in-person meetings of more than two or three people. Hand sanitizer and PPE, including masks and gloves, will have to be made available in adequate quantities for all employees coming to work, and wearing PPE may be mandatory. Visitors will be restricted from entering an organization’s premises. And point-of-work screening and testing may become the norm, which presents challenges for employers, and could cause anxiety for employees.

Some organizations may conclude that many of their office employees have been as productive while working from home and can continue doing so permanently. Three unintended benefits of this may be that organizations can realize savings on commercial
real estate costs, they can reduce their carbon footprint, and they can offer employees greater flexibility and better work-life balance.

Clearly, we need to jumpstart the economy and get employees to return to work. At the same time, it should be non-negotiable that all organizations plan that return intelligently and consider our responsibility – not only to our employees, customers, and shareholders, but to our broader society.

Leagh Turner is President and Chief Operating Officer of Ceridian, a Toronto-based global human capital management company. Twitter: @LeaghTurner