Survey shows strong support for flexible, remote working post-coronavirus

Canadian politicians, public health officials and chief executive officers have all urged Canadians to practice social distancing in a bid to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus pandemic.

Many global technology companies, including Inc., Facebook Inc., Google and Twitter, ramped up work-from-home programs last week. And Ottawa-headquartered Shopify Inc. has emerged as a leader — in addition to allowing staff to work from home, it’s offering them each a $1,000 stipend, in their local currency, to ease the transition and to fund any necessary office supplies.

“It’s going to affect our culture for sure, but I don’t believe it will be a bad thing,” said Brittany Forsyth, chief talent officer at Shopify, in a statement emailed to Benefits Canada. “It’s going to force us to experiment, try new ways of working and look at things with fresh eyes. This is the whole idea behind anti-fragility and this is what we’ve built Shopify’s culture to be. It’s going to be hard, but already we’ve had so many people step up with creative ideas and solid learnings from the 1,000-plus remote people and teams we employ.”

Read: North American employers taking steps to protect staff from coronavirus

Nora Jenkins Townson, founder and principal of human resources consultancy Bright + Early, praised Shopify for taking swift action, while acknowledging that shifting to remote work will create many challenges for both employers and employees.

And, as schools close across the country, she advises employers to overcommunicate their expectations for working parents. “Are expectations more flexible around parents now that school is being cancelled? Just overcommunicate everything [and] don’t be afraid to try new things.”

Klick Health encouraged its approximately 1,000 employees to work from home last week and then moved to closing its office on Friday. The Toronto-based health marketing agency launched a website with all of its planning documents in one place for staff to easily access and is also posting additional information for employees on LinkedIn.

“We’ve been getting very positive feedback,” wrote Lori Grant, president of Klick Health, in an email to Benefits Canada. “Everyone has been very supportive and appreciative for both the policies, protocols and continuity planning we’ve introduced and the level of transparency prioritized.”

Read: A refresher on Canada’s leave policies as coronavirus escalates

Like many other employers, Klick Health is tapping into technology tools to keep its employees connected and engaged. Grant suggested that employers schedule regular team updates and group check-ins to keep communication levels and engagement strong.

“Since Monday, we have been hosting company-wide updates and Q&A sessions with almost 1,000 Klicksters on [remote conferencing tool] Zoom. Adapt socializing — at Klick, we’re making our ‘Random Coffee’ program virtual so now, when we pair up employees from different departments for a coffee break, they’ll meet over Zoom.”

While not every company has the resources of a Shopify or a Klick Health, there are simple, cost-effective ways to help employees feel connected as they work alone in their homes, says Jenkins Townson.

“Don’t be afraid to try new things — some of the tools you might end up loving or finding more productivity from them. . . . As well, try to bring some fun and team bonding back into it. We’ve heard of teams who’ve opened group video chats to avoid going stir crazy. It’s optional, but you can pop in there to hang out, you can share music playlists. It’s kind of nice because we are seeing people’s real lives kind of pop into work as well — someone’s dog or baby on screen. It can be kind of a bonding experience in a way.”

But with more and more workplaces implementing remote working programs, it’s important to consider several legal issues.

Read: Considerations around employee safety, privacy, leave during the coronavirus crisis

Technically, an employee could file a constructive dismissal lawsuit if they’re forced by their employer to work from home, said Catherine Coulter, an employment and labour lawyer at Dentons Canada LLP, during a webinar on Friday, noting that’s pretty unlikely to occur during a pandemic. She also advised employers that don’t have a remote working policy to draft one now, and noted employers that already have a policy should update it to reflect any new issues regarding the coronavirus crisis.

Coulter also suggested that employers think through the technology issues related to remote working, such as ensuring networks can handle the sudden increase in use, double-checking VPN capabilities and making sure employees are aware of issues surrounding confidentiality of documents.