It’s 18 months this week since a global coronavirus pandemic was first declared and employers are applying many hard lessons learned as Canadian organizations and employees stare down further uncertainty wrought by the Delta variant, fourth wave and stagnant vaccination rates.

As the country and world looks towards another tumultuous fall and winter, employers are maintaining a permanent focus on employees’ mental health while embracing flexible work arrangements amid an accelerated digital shift, according to consultants.

Since the World Health Organization first declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, employers have had ample time to evaluate how their organizations operate in a digital environment further solidified by the pandemic, says Liz Elliott, career products market leader for the west at Mercer Canada.

Read: One year later: Why employers should create ‘water-cooler’ moments for employees amid the pandemic

“[The pandemic] gave employers an opportunity to reflect on what was working for employees and what wasn’t, along with how their businesses were being run and how they were evolving as we move into a digital world. If employers weren’t thinking forward already, they became hyperaware of that challenge. . . . The digital future is what’s catapulting us forward. For example, if you were a retail business that wasn’t already investing in online distribution, through the pandemic, you probably made that change.”

As a result of this shift, employers are also prioritizing technology workers to develop, deploy and maintain digital solutions, she says. “Organizations are dealing with challenges in finding the right talent and paying that talent the right compensation. That’s heavily driven by the forced investment in technology by employers across all industries. If you were a company that would have previously hired associates to be on the retail floor, the talent you’re really looking for now is someone who can manage an online distribution system, a webpage and social media.”

While the pandemic required many white-collar employees to work from home, permanent hybrid work arrangements are being embraced by many companies planning for the post-pandemic future, bringing new challenges for employers and employees, says Jill Wagman, managing principal at Eckler Ltd.

Read: Bank of Canada minting hybrid work model post-pandemic

“Most employers are attempting to embrace it, at least in office-based roles. The challenge will be in the logistics of it — if you come in on a particular day, you’ll want to be there when the rest of your team is in, so that needs to be coordinated. . . . The new way of working — whatever that means for a particular employer — will either work or won’t work depending on the employee and will drive decision-making. Where employers mandate one way of working, they’re going to lose some people and attract others.”

To make these arrangements work for all parties involved, she says employers will need to develop “a culture of extreme trust and transparency. . . . [Managers will] want to know where people are and that will be a two-way street. But it’s going to put increased emphasis on performance management. It’s easier to manage your team when they’re present and you can see what everyone’s doing. Remotely, it’s a little more challenging and there’s going to be a need for more frequent touch points with people managers and more clearly articulated goals, objectives and protocols around remote working will need to be followed in order to earn that trust.”

Read: Hybrid workers reporting stronger connections with colleagues, managers: survey

In turn, hybrid work will also shape businesses in the retail and service sectors, says Elliott. “It has everything to do with where people are working — are they going back to the office or continue working from home? That foundation determines how people are buying, which fuels the positions that support consumers. If they work in a downtown office, employees are buying lunch and shopping after work. If those patterns don’t return, it inevitably impacts who’s hired and where.”

While companies were putting increased priority on employee mental health pre-pandemic, it’s become a permanent fixture of benefits offerings over the course of the coronavirus crisis, says Wagman. “In terms of the benefits that employees value, access to mental-health resources has been paramount. Employers have recognized they have a role to play in employees’ total well-being, not just the traditional pension and benefits delivery. For example, most employers are emphasizing [employee assistance programs] and offering their own programs to hold social events virtually — doing things with employees to keep them uplifted and interacting with each other.”

And for many organizations, says Elliott, a big part of the mental-health conversation has been cost-containment by prioritizing results generated by existing resources over the addition of new benefits. “While we’ve definitely seen the expansion of digital solutions, employers are acknowledging the actual costs of a mental-health solution — for example, looking at the hourly rate of a therapist and how much it would take to get an employee thriving again.

“It’s about ensuring that the right values are assigned to mental health and that leaders are trained to understand and acknowledge the implications of mental-health issues.”

Read: One year later: How the pandemic sped up the shift to virtual mental-health care