For years, many employees had ad hoc, work-from-home arrangements with their employers. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which kicked the shift to remote working into overdrive, forcing employers to spring into action to find ways to best use group benefits plans to support their employees through the change.

As a result, employers came up with a range of solutions to help their employees work from home during the height of the pandemic, when procuring equipment, employee access to adequate WiFi and ergonomic assessments were top of mind.

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Like many organizations, more than half of Scotiabank’s global workforce went remote in March 2020. With the exception of its multiple branches, contact centres and some of its campuses, where critical functions such as anti-money laundering and data privacy were concerned, approximately 60 per cent of its workforce transitioned to remote working.

During the enrolment period, the bank’s group benefits plan members are provided a certain number of credits, which they can choose to allocate to their well-being accounts to pay for a variety of well-being services — from gym memberships to nutritionists and even daycare. After the pandemic was declared, Scotiabank funded an additional $500 to plan members’ well-being accounts, apart from what they received through the annual enrolment, to support them through the transition. The company also quickly expanded its coverage to allow employees to use the credits on services such as groceries and food deliveries, as well as the cost of home-office equipment.

In such an uncertain environment, the bank wanted to provide its plan members with the additional funds and allow more flexibility in how they could use it, says Ayman Alvi, director of global benefits at Scotiabank, noting one person’s needs can be dramatically different from the next. “This was a broad way of trying to address a whole host of issues people might be facing in those unforeseen circumstances.”

Working out the kinks

Additionally, when the company reviewed its short-term disability claims, Alvi says data indicated claims related to musculoskeletal issues were starting to edge upward. “What we took away from that was more people were working from home, they don’t have the correct ergonomic setup, they’re hunched over all the time looking at a small screen. . . . Between that and our survey [responses], it was clear we needed to take additional steps.”

In response, the bank started outfitting its approximately 25,000 Canadian employees who have been working from home for more than a year now with monitors, keyboards and mouse devices, which new employees who are being onboarded receive as well.

Read: Employers can reimburse $500 tax-free for home office furniture

Likewise, at the beginning of the pandemic, the Canadian Standards Association Group focused on ensuring its employees’ home-office setups were ergonomically correct, allowing staff to pick up monitors, docking stations and even their desk chairs from the office (while adhering to public-health restrictions, of course). The company’s health-and-safety team also provided virtual ergonomic assessment, and if it identified any issues for employees, the team helped staff modify how they were working or provided them with additional equipment through the procurement department.

Tax time in the time of coronavirus

In response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the Canada Revenue Agency altered some rules since the start of the global pandemic last March.

• The CRA won’t tax employer payments or reimbursements of up to $500 for computer or home office equipment for remote working, provided the employee submits receipts to the employer.

• Remote workers with modest expenses in 2020 may claim up to $400 based on the amount of time spent working from home. Employees won’t be required to track detailed expenses and will generally not request a signed form from their employer.

• The CRA’s existing policies allow employers to pay for, or reimburse, the cost of an employee’s cellphone service plan or internet service at home to help carry out their employment duties. The portion used for employment purposes is not a taxable benefit.

“Anything people needed, we made sure they got it,” says Melodie Mason, the CSA’s vice-president of total rewards. She added the organization’s regularly checking in with employees to ensure their setups are meeting their needs. In fact, if employees have any issues or accidents in their homes, they must report them through the company’s Velocity Global health and safety system. She says the company sends monthly updates on health and safety to all their employees to remind them of their requirements.

Meanwhile, Bruce Power Ltd. leveraged its existing relationship with Grand & Toy Ltd. so employees could purchase standard or ergonomic office technology through the office-supply company to allow them to have a more productive home-office environment, says Monica Warnell, manager of human resources and total rewards at the energy company. Employees were allowed to order specific office technology — such as monitors, ergonomic or standard keyboards and mouse devices — through the company’s online Grand & Toy portal and have the items shipped to their homes. They didn’t have to pay out of pocket for the items, as the items were invoiced directly to the company; however, they’ll have to bring the devices with them once they return to the office and things are back to some semblance of “normalcy.”

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The organization also allowed employees to pick up their desk chairs and made ergonomic assessment videos and tips available on its intranet site so employees could ensure their setup is appropriate for their needs.

In addition, Bruce Power’s information technology division reached out to regional internet service providers and arranged for its employees to gain enhanced internet services. “Individuals are able to call their existing service providers, mention they’re Bruce Power employees, and they’re able to move up one tier,” says Warnell. “The difference between the tier they were on and the next level tier [is] subsidized and paid for by Bruce Power during this period to help support their home working environment and that ease of ability to work from home.”

Although these benefit programs in support of employees’ home-office setups were created in response to the pandemic and the transition to working from home, in many cases, it’s unclear whether they’ll continue once the crisis recedes. What’s certain; however, is the lessons learned on fostering and supporting all employees in these precarious times will be carried forward, providing a blueprint on rapid-response best practices for years to come.

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.