How Canadians Can Safely Transition Back to the Office

With new developments regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a strategy for returning to work is both more complex and more crucial than ever. Without a sound plan backed by real data, employees may not be as keen to return. There are several key considerations that, if attended to and effectively executed, can make planning your return to work a success:

  • Understanding and following Federal and Provincial government mandates
  • Deciding when to reopen
  • Establishing effective communication
  • Preparing employees
  • Determining and responding to needs
  • Implementing new measures

That said, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. Below are steps that can help provide a clearer picture of your unique situation and build the appropriate plan for returning to the office. This article will cover how to best approach each of these steps and outline procedures that can help make your transition as smooth and safe as possible.

Understanding & following Federal and Provincial government mandates

It is of utmost importance that all internal policies are informed by and adhere to government mandates. Paying attention to important announcements and always consulting current guidelines before developing your own plans and procedures will help limit miscommunications and confusion, as well as guide the development of your protocol. The Canadian government has published guidelines for creating a COVID-safe workspace that can be used to inform your own internal policy.

Deciding when to reopen

Many factors will shape the return-to-work plan of any given enterprise and must be considered carefully. Firstly, government guidelines must be adhered to (as mentioned above) to avoid confusion, conflict, and potential fines. The rest of the determining factors will be specific to your organization, such as geography, workforce demographic, office layout, and business needs.

Setting a date for reopening can be beneficial for employees as it provides clarity, structure, and a sense of stability. However, regulations are always changing, and so any provided dates should be followed up by a caveat expressing the necessary flexibility of such dates with a recommitment to following government regulations and prioritizing the wellbeing of employees.

Create phases

The return-to-work transition will likely need to occur in a staggered manner to conform to government regulations. However, this is a beneficial approach nonetheless as it provides structure while granting adaptability in the ambiguity created by ever-evolving pandemic developments and government instruction. Providing phase dates or, at the very least, information on when and how these dates will be later determined can be particularly useful in achieving both the safety, flexibility, and clarity needed for employees to both be and feel as protected as possible. Phases can limit shock factors and provide the long-term structure to help guide both individual and corporate decisions. Ensure these phases are understood by all stakeholders through providing both detailed documentation and easy-to-read graphics (more on communication tactics below).

Optimizing safety in the office

If carefully attended to, the following measures can dramatically improve the safety of your return-to-work process as well as improve the organization, resilience, and adaptability of your plan. Supporting your employees in following new protocol will be more effective than taking a discipline-based approach. It is important, however, to clearly establish and communicate consequences for violating policy. A crucial consideration not to be overlooked in planning is the lead times required to implement and prepare for these changes.

Have a written policy and process

Drafting policy and procedural documents that can serve as a reference and inform crisis management are necessary for a cohesive approach to return-to-work plans. Other material will be needed, as discussed further below, but a foundational reference text written collaboratively between various representatives within the organization and informed by professional guidelines is an essential first step.

Employ a safety & emergency preparedness plan

This policy must then be turned into action. The pragmatic implementation should extend the values and priorities outlined in the documentation, and action steps should be distributed to those involved in carrying out various aspects of the plan.

Monitoring the effectiveness of your procedures is essential to ensure a safe environment. Appropriate indicators and methods of measurement should be decided before implementation, and both procedures and monitoring methods should be continuously evaluated and revised as necessary.

Have an emergency plan for COVID exposure in the workplace

In case of exposure at the workplace, measures should be in place to deal with accidental contact or non-compliance with organization protocol, including tracing contacts, monitoring illness, and making appropriate accommodations as required. Being able to gather and use data about the incident is crucial to effective crisis management.

Communicate workplace PPE expectations

Decide what PPE will be required, in what contexts, and if it will be provided by the company depending on your organization’s unique needs. These expectations should be clearly communicated, as well as consequences for non-compliance. Other aspects of work that may change with the use of PPE should also be addressed, such as security or food and beverage policies.

Ensure sufficient workplace air quality

Maintaining air circulation and filtration is important for reducing the chances of infection, which can be improved by opening windows, running HVAC systems, and disabling systems that reduce airflow. Be sure to have the appropriate mechanisms serviced and repaired (if necessary) in preparation. Communicating actions like these to your stakeholders can help build confidence and support for your efforts.

Modify cleaning protocols & space management

Temporary alterations may need to be made to your office space, such as installing partitions, using tape or signs to reinforce distancing measures, or even closing off use of some areas altogether.

Maintaining sanitation is one of the most effective means of controlling spread. Making a comprehensive list of what needs to be sanitized, by whom and how often can ensure spaces are sufficiently cleaned. Ensuring those responsible are aware of their new duties and have the means to do so is crucial for success.

Establishing ongoing communication measures

In such an ambiguous circumstance as the current pandemic, clear and consistent communication is key. Be proactive in determining which channels will be most effective to communicate with different member groups and setting a schedule for regular communication. Not all stakeholders will need to be provided with the same information, so cater medium and content accordingly.

The health and wellbeing of your employees should not only be a priority in developing your return-to-work plan but should also serve as the foundation of your communication. When employees feel like their organization cares about them, they will be more committed to company success.

Keep staff informed

Ensure you provide information to your stakeholders in a timely manner. Give access to all related policy and procedure documents to all stakeholders, but do not assume they will read and/or remember it all! Creating more digestible formats of key information that are shorter and easier to follow are more likely to be read (and remembered) by your audiences. Dynamic mediums such as digital guides or virtual training can be particularly effective. Frequent reminders are also beneficial, as well as monitoring tools such as surveys of feedback forms to ensure that measures are effective and being followed.

Maintain digital connectivity

As it is likely some of your workforce will continue to work from home for a while yet, it is important to maintain the digital practices already established to mitigate communication divides between those in-office and at home. Information flow and corporate connection must be maintained between all individuals, and efforts should be made to avoid the office becoming the central place of exchange.

Preparing employees

There is no doubt that a return-to-work plan will necessitate a new “normal” as the office experience has been forever changed. Providing employees with information and training before the transition begins will mitigate stress and confusion and highlight the ways that your organization has changed for the better throughout this process.

Establish a return-to-work culture

An effective return-to-work culture should be cultivated in a top-down fashion, starting with leadership providing the founding values, purpose, and priorities of the organization. Communication should be done with empathy and care for all employees to foster a sense of safety and collaborative effort within the workforce.

Be flexible

Your plan needs to have built-in flexibility to accommodate for inevitable changes, however, be sure that this cannot be interpreted as being lax with the implemented measures. Be specific about what can and cannot be negotiated. Maintaining the priority of employee wellbeing as the foundation of your policy will help navigate policy and procedural nuances.

Perform regular check-ins

Feedback is crucial for catching issues early on, monitoring and improving measures, and making employees feel heard and supported. Establishing channels through which check-ins can occur on a regular basis can achieve these goals as well as allow for individual cases to be handled in an appropriate and timely fashion.

Determining and responding to needs

Your employees all have unique positionalities, which may make them more or less able or willing to return to the office. Getting an accurate picture of these needs can help inform your approach and policy for a more relevant and beneficial development. Your policies and procedures must reflect this variation and accommodate accordingly to maintain company confidence and improve employee compliance.

It is best to make decisions based on data you gather from your employees rather than projection or assumptions. This will result in reduced costs and more effectively meeting the needs of your workforce.

Redefine roles and duties

Different positions or departments within the organization will be impacted by the return to work and its respective measures to varying degrees. It is important to consider and be sensitive to these various impacts by taking an individual- or team-based approach, and to ensure that all parties are aware of any changes in their responsibilities due to this shift.

Rearrange office space

Your office space will have to change to reflect the new policies and working habits of your team. This could consist of:

  • Rearranging workspaces
  • Limiting capacity
  • Reallocating spaces
  • Adding new policy signage
  • Sanitization stations

The best option for your office will depend on your assets, space, and employee needs, as well as the projected future of your office. Collaborating and brainstorming with a variety of department representatives can help ensure everyone’s needs are considered.

Provide options

Depending on the needs of your company and employees, your return-to-work may consist of one or more of the following arrangements:

  1. Fully remote
  2. Hybrid remote
  3. Hybrid remote by exception
  4. Fully in office

Be sure to fully explain what each of these scenarios will look like, when and how they will take place and the overall goals for your organization. Be sure to communicate these expectations so everyone is on the same page from the start. Some new considerations that may be required with new models of work could be:

  • New technology
  • Subsidies for home-based workers
  • Manager training for distributed teams
  • Reservation and occupation-tracking software
  • Maintaining company culture

Extend work from home policy (as needed)

In case it wasn’t evident thus far: flexibility is key. Communicate the possibilities of extending the current work-from-home policy for as long as needed to follow government mandates and ensure the safety and sufficiency of your return-to-work measures.

Even once you have begun the transition back, depending on the pandemic developments, a retraction back to fully remote work may be necessary. Having a re-exit plan is useful to ensure a swift and smooth move back home.

Ensuring an easier return to work

Included below are methods and strategies that can be implemented to simplify, facilitate, and support the return to work for your employees.

Provide additional accommodation & subsidies

A return-to-work plan is intended to be transitional and has an end date. However, in some cases, more permanent accommodations may be necessary. The abilities, limitations and restrictions faced by employees must be considered and objectives adjusted accordingly. This may include providing subsidies for new arrangements to cover increased individual costs.

Mandate new training

Training oriented towards new procedures, new management styles, and/or new technologies can greatly increase the ease of the return-to-work transition. Requiring the completion of modules can increase the effectiveness of these tools.

Implement new technologies

A variety of new technologies exist that can benefit the return-to-work process from concept to implementation to monitoring. For example, screening systems are useful to ensure compliance with protocol as well as for contract tracing purposes. See Horizant’s website to learn more on how our services and technologies can aid in ensuring efficient and effective virus management in a way that protects the privacy of your employees and organization.

Regulate space reservation

As maintaining distance between employees is of crucial importance, limits on seating arrangement and capacity can be incredibly effective methods to creating a safe work environment. To manage this, a system that requires the reservation of space is the best option. Horizant provides this and other workspace management software services; simply visit our website or contact us for more details.

Engage & motivate your team

Maintaining corporate morale and engagement is especially important during these stressful and isolated times. Planning regular activities, town halls, and touchpoints can encourage social connections, engagement, and improve work ethic as a collective identity is established.

Take this back to your team:

A solid return-to-work plan is invaluable for the future of your organization. It requires a lot of legwork upfront, including collaboration, engagement, and feedback from all stakeholders; the development of new informative material; and the implementation of new technologies and procedures. In the end, however, all these efforts will reduce stress, lower costs, and improve employee retention and productivity. Many resources exist to help you create a successful return-to-work plan. Contact Horizant to learn more on how we can help you achieve a safe, smooth, and seamless transition.

Links to government resources (CAN)

The Fundamentals – Return-to-Work Plan

How to prepare employees for a workplace return after COVID-19

COVID-19: Employee Communications during a crisis


More Horizant resources for navigating return to work

Track, Manage, and Reduce the Impact of COVID-19 Incidents

Using Archibus EHS as Part of a Safe Return to Work