With restrictions gradually lifting across the country this summer, employers started to turn their attention to their return to the workplace plans. Now, the fourth wave is underway and uncertainty continues to hang around us like a heavy, dust-covered curtain. But it’s time to clean up, move forward and set out plans for the big return.

Of course, it’s been clear for several months that the post-pandemic work environment will be different than when the crisis was declared by the World Health Organization in March 2020. Since then, many of us have been working remotely, only seeing our colleagues as tiny virtual avatars on computer screens. Others are deemed essential workers and have been out on the frontlines this whole time. And other groups of employees and workplaces fit somewhere in the middle.

Read: Majority of employers are planning return to workplace this year, finds survey

A return to work will mean something different for every employer and every group of employees. So, while the term return to work — traditionally the lingo for bringing an employee back from a short- or long-term disability leave — has evolved in our industry during the pandemic, many employers are now preparing for a physical return to the workplace or work premises and what that means for employers and employees.

In mid-August, Benefits Canada hosted a webinar focusing on these questions, including its impact on employee wellbeing and mental health, as well as legal issues. Key takeaways from the webinar included the importance of digital inclusion, flexibility and supporting employees.

In terms of the role of digital inclusion, Jason Brommet, head of modern workplace and security at Microsoft Canada, said the way people connect and communicate will need to continue to change and evolve as employees adapt to hybrid workplaces. “We’re going to continue to see individuals working different ways, in different locations and different times. . . . How do we encourage platforms of encouragement and empowerment that really shape the employee experiences that blends this idea of digital and physical because that’s the new norm we’re going to live in?”

Read: Webinar coverage: Is flexibility key to a successful return to the workplace?

Jeff Finley, total rewards manager at 3M Canada, highlighted some of the silver linings brought by the pandemic, including the flexibility of remote working that’s facilitated a focus on work-life balance. “Sometimes working from home can blur those lines so [it’s important to have] different measures in place where you set aside . . . time for that lunch break, that walk, at the end of the day for decompression before you step out of the ‘office’ and greet your spouse or your kids.”

Being thoughtful in shaping the benefits package is also an important part of the return-to-work process, said Julie Gaudry, head of group insurance at RBC Insurance Inc. “Do I have a variety of solutions available to meet them where they may be, whether that’s the traditional supports available through mental-health coverage? . . . Do I have enough of it? . . . And how can my employees access that support, whether it’s traditional face to face, a virtual care platform or self-directed [internet cognitive behavioural therapy]?”

Ultimately, employers are faced with many difficult decisions, including whether they’ll require staff to come back to the office, be fully vaccinated and/or impose a coronavirus testing regime. Mary Picard, a partner in the employment and labour group at Dentons Canada LLP, advised employers not to make those decisions by starting out thinking of the legal implications.

Read: Employers requiring coronavirus vaccinations must consider human rights, privacy

“The risks — the human rights claims, the constructive dismissal claims — all of those risks can be managed, perhaps they will be too costly and that will eventually drive a decision,” she said during the webinar. “But start off the decision-making process looking at your unique workplace, the interest of all stakeholders in your business — not just employees — and then assess the risks that fall out of that.”

The cover story of our third annual Women’s Issue, explores some of these considerations, including how post-pandemic workplace flexibility could help correct the ‘she-cession’ brought on by the crisis, cultivating the shift in work-life balance to benefit employers and employees.

Return-to-work processes won’t be straightforward. Some will be rolled out gradually over the coming weeks and months, others will be paused indefinitely and they’ll mean something completely different from employer to employer. There are a lot of issues for our industry to unpack and we hope to be able to pull back the curtain, providing a guiding light as we move forward on this unprecedented path.

Read: Women in Canada’s benefits, pension industries discuss gender equity, reversing pandemic-fueled ‘she-cession’

Jennifer Paterson is the editor of Benefits Canada.