As businesses in Ontario reopen under Stage 2, more and more employees will be returning to workplaces. Just as the move from workplace to working from home (where possible) required a massive readjustment for both employers and employees, so will their return to a shared workspace. For others who have been furloughed, it also requires getting back to a working routine that has been absent for months.

The workplace employees return to will have changed quite considerably too. As employers, you may have put in place workplace health and safety measures to protect your staff that involve physical changes to the space such as removal of desks or rearrangement of machinery. Protocols may have changed too, requiring more hand washing, and of course social distancing requirements will change the way employees can interact with each other.

Returning to work is changing our brains

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, as a nation we spent considerable time and energy working out the logistics of how to work from home with little or no guidance. Employees and employers alike had to work out where to put a desk for the laptop, how to share the kitchen table, or turn our basements into classrooms. We were, as the article says, “lost in the unfamiliar” and we literally created our way through it.

However, when we go back to work, we expect to go back to normal. Except work isn’t “normal” any more, and our autopilot that guides us through the working day won’t work. We could become “lost in the familiar.” Everyone will experience it, and as the article points out:

“Where you park, having your temperature taken, where your desk is situated, standing six feet apart from people in line for the coffee pot, and wearing PPE are just some practices that will contradict what your brain expects. It may only take ten seconds to adjust, but that shift requires enormous mental energy, and you may be making it many times a day for the first few weeks back.”

Becoming social again

For most, work is not just a job, it’s a social circle with members they know, and some they don’t. After weeks of isolation, they may feel fearful of being amongst so many others, even with social distancing properly observed. Managers need to find ways to help everyone adjust to being together again in the same building, and remind them that it’s a learning curve. Some things in place may need to change as the business adapts, and as restrictions are eased. Be empathetic, flexible and patient – it will take time.

Signs of the times

You will need to keep employees informed of new processes, and there are a whole selection of posters and guidelines available to download from the Ontario.ca website. Inevitably, everywhere employees go in their workplace, they will be reminded about the coronavirus risk, from distancing stickers on the floor to hand sanitizer stations at doorways. Be mindful that too many signs about new systems can actually confuse your core message. Be concise and consistent, to reduce anxiety amongst employees already concerned about coming back.

Don’t become the fun police

Anxiety may emerge in some employees who become over-zealous in reporting or criticising colleagues who accidentally break new one-way systems, or forget to wipe down a surface. Managing these infringements with a lighter touch will help reduce anxiety to the recipient and be seen as action taken by the anxious employee who reported it.

“Never stopped working” employees

Your business may have stayed open all through the restriction period, with key workers coming in. If they are now joined by some colleagues who have not worked since the end of March, there could be new pinch-points of tension. “Been here since the start” employees are totally familiar with new layouts and protocols, while others are experiencing them for the first time. Your key workers may be tired, stressed by their experiences, and may not take kindly to their colleagues saying how hard lockdown was being at home all day, or how bored they were.

As a business leader, it will be part of your role to devise ways to ease any tension and smooth the transition into the new normal ahead. Consider ways to get key workers who have been on the premises throughout to guide their colleagues through the new ways of working. Also consider giving them much-needed time off to spend time at home with their families, and enable them to let go of some of the stress they have no doubt been carrying since March.

Those left WFH (Working From Home)

Not all your workforce may return at once. The Stage 2 guidance still encourages working from home wherever possible, and for many, the issues of childcare and shielding still apply. As employers, you need to find way to include those who work from home without them feeling that they are “missing out” in any way. Continue with video meetings even if some people are back in the office – it will have the added benefit of not bringing people together in a confined space (i.e. a meeting room) and maintaining physical distancing.

Also be sensitive to those who may not be coming back to work full time, especially if this new part time arrangement may not be their choice. Remind their fellow employees not to ask the question that al part time workers really loath – “What did you do on your day off?” It’s not a ‘day off’, it’s just a day when they are not working for the company. So, again, make sure they feel included and part of the team at every possible opportunity.

Refusal to return to work

Some employees may be so concerned about the risks to their own and their family’s health that they refuse to return to work. According to an article by Mondaq:

“Refusing employees must … have legitimate health and safety concerns, and the evidence must demonstrate the employee is at risk or likely to be at risk because of a hazard or condition in the workplace. For this reason, employees cannot refuse work because of preference, taste or personal comfort… It is not yet clear to what extent COVID-19 will allow workers to legally refuse work.”

Your HR department should follow procedures for investigating their refusal under the OSHA. If your HR department have not experienced this situation before and need help, you might consider bringing in an external HR consultant to help resolve the issue.

Helping you help your employees

Your local Chamber is here to help your business in whatever way we can. Members can call our office for help, and access a whole range of benefits too, from discounts to directory listings.