Amid the second (and hopefully last) year of the coronavirus pandemic, employers are starting to plan for the post-pandemic future.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, forcing many employers around the globe to rapidly shift mainly white-collar employees to working from home. By April 2020, in Canada, 40 per cent of the nation’s workforce were working from home, according to Statistics Canada.

Read: Remote working, distributed workforces could be part of new normal post-coronavirus

As employers reimagine the world of work, a holistic approach to the employee experience is emerging as the roadmap, with more support in communications, flexibility and mental-health awareness in the driver’s seat.

There’s no such thing as over-communicating

Remote working may have its benefits — being surrounded by the creature comforts of home, more time with family and fitting in errands throughout the day — but some employees are finding they’re now working in a silo, cut off from collaborative or meaningful interactions with colleagues. MetLife Inc.’s survey found 42 per cent of U.S. employees said that knowledge sharing with co-workers has become much more difficult since the start of the pandemic and one in three managers said they’re not always aware of how much work their team members have on their plates.

As a result, employers have learned they must be more present for employees — meaning having more check-ins, says Dr. Arla Day, professor of industrial/organizational psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. “These little mini check-ins are a way to ensure employees feel they’re being heard, they’re not on their own and . . . they’re on the right track.”

Jeff Finley, total rewards manager of compensation and benefits at 3M Co., says the organization has learned there’s no such thing as over-communicating. He says 3M tries to go the extra mile to hold bi-weekly town hall meetings and it’s tripled up on some of the communications by sending messages out via email, posting on the company’s intranet and recording events to allow flexibility in viewing them.

Read: Injecting communications with kindness and confidence during the coronavirus crisis

And although keeping the lines of communication open is critical, Day says employees also need to feel connected socially. She points out employers are balancing out the work week by adding social aspects to team meetings. “They’re bringing people together for those water-cooler talks we’ve all been missing.”

Harnessing digital health-care solutions

While employees have embraced working from home, many are feeling the effects of the isolation that comes with remote working during a pandemic. Morneau Shepell Ltd.’s mental-health index linked a dip in Canadians’ mental wellness to the extended isolation of the pandemic. The index found Canadians’ mental well-being has been consistently low since the start of this crisis, with January 2021’s index at negative 11.7, well below April 2020’s score of negative 10.6.

By the numbers

As Canadian employers look to remake the workplace post-pandemic, a survey by Mercer Canada asked which key areas they’ll focus on in 2021.

58% will focus on well-being programs to support mental, physical, financial and social health;

38% expect digital health (such as telemedicine and smartphone apps) to be a key focus;

34% have yet to determine their focus;

16% will focus on cost management, including higher deductibles, employee contributions and reduced limits;

14% intend to focus on inclusive benefits that focus on areas like women’s health and equity for minority groups; and

2% intend to focus on other areas.

Source: Mercer Canada

It’s imperative employers focus on mental-health initiatives, says Finley, because without the visual cues, it’s easy to miss whether employees working from home are having trouble coping. The company is one of many that have introduced a mental-health training course for supervisors on recognizing the signs and symptoms of distress.

Employers are also making virtual health-care solutions available to employees to help them weather the effects of the ongoing social and physical restrictions. Nicole Stibbe, the former director of absence management, disability and health management at Willis Towers Watson in Canada, says the organization’s global benefits attitude report noted the number of U.S. employees surveyed who were using virtual care spiked from 17 per cent in 2019 to 47 per cent in 2020.

Read: U.S. employers with flex work rethinking approach to total rewards, pay: report

The ease of access apps provide is a benefit for employers well beyond the pandemic as the wait time in physicians’ offices, or to even get an appointment, could mean time away from work for employees, says Stibbe (who as of April 2021 is working as a well-being, career success and diversity, equity and inclusion coach). Stibbe adds some apps provide staff with instant access to information and care, so they can remain productive and engaged.

Embracing flexible working policies

As coronavirus vaccinations are rolled out gradually across the nation and the world, employers must decide whether to make remote working permanent, adopt a hybrid-working model or return to completely in-office work. But a 2021 study by global staffing firm Robert Half Canada Inc. showed employees are hesitant to return to the office full time, finding one in three (33 per cent) Canadian professionals currently working from home due to the public-health crisis would look for a new job if they’re required to be in the office full time post-pandemic.

Day says many employers are also bullish on remote working because “they can cut costs in terms of infrastructure and they can make it work.”

And employers are finding employee productivity hasn’t diminished, during this time either. U.S.-based technology company Prodoscore found between March and April of 2020, there was a 47 per cent increase in productivity, despite the shift to working from home. Of Prodoscore’s users in the U.S., telephone calling was up 230 per cent, customer relationship management system activity was up 176 per cent, email activity was up 57 per cent and chat messages were up nine per cent, compared to data from the same period in 2019.

Read: Half of employers plan to continue flexible working policies post-pandemic: survey

Day says employers are realizing trust management is key to a successful remote-working environment. Company leaders can set expectations and explore what employees need to do their jobs successfully in this new setting, she adds. And managers must trust that employees can create a work environment — and schedule — that works for them. The needs of a single parent without childcare will differ from those of an employee who may not have children, she points out, but both may need flexibility to accommodate the demands of daily life. No matter the situation, the traditional 9-to-5 workday has given way to a more flexible workplace — one that recognizes individual employee’s needs, says Day.

And employers recognize the need for a more individualized and flexible workplace approach will continue long after the pandemic recedes. A 2020 survey by Robert Half Canada showed a majority (52 per cent) of human resources managers said they’ll continue with flexible working policies to support their employees’ work-life balance once the pandemic is over.

“Organizations are facing a revolutionary change,” says Day. “They’re going to have to re-examine the way they lead employees and the whole world of work.”

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.