As provinces across the country begin removing coronavirus pandemic restrictions over the coming weeks, some employers are already returning employees to their respective workplaces.

But many employees are still hesitant to return to a shared office space, particularly while the country is still mired in the public health crisis. Although some employers may drop their vaccination policies, some employees will still be uncomfortable not knowing whether the people they’re working and sharing a space with are vaccinated, says Janet Candido, founder and principal of Candido Consulting Group, noting this will pose a problem for employers.

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She advises employers to implement a slow transition back to offices, since some people will never be comfortable returning to the office and it will be important for employers to accommodate these workers. However, she also foresees issues arising where employers can’t offer that flexibility.

“Employers have always had the obligation to ensure the health and safety of their employees and that’s going to continue whether or not federal or provincial mandates are disbanded,” says Catherine Coulter, an employment and labour counsel with Dentons in Canada, noting every province in Canada has occupational health and safety legislation, as does Canada’s federal labour code.

When employers are planning their returns, she suggests they consider their own unique workplace needs, taking into consideration the number of employees, how they work, the size of the physical work space, the nature of the business, the number of employees who’ve indicated they’re vaccinated or unvaccinated and whether people will work in close quarters with colleagues or clients. Employers will have to make their own decisions in terms of how to move forward in what remains a pandemic environment, she adds.

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Changes in provincial and federal mandates don’t necessarily reflect what should happen within workplaces, says Coulter, because employers are required to provide accommodations in some instances. “I don’t envision a world in which employers say, ‘Just because government mandates are dropped, . . . we’re going to drop masking or [physical] distancing. . . .’ That would be an abdication of occupational health and safety. Employers will still have to come up with a plan to keep their employees as safe as possible.”

Many employers have already implemented vaccination, masking and distancing requirements for employees who had to go into the office to keep operations running, notes Coulter. “I don’t see those requirements going away.”

There may also be cases where employees asked to return to the workplace will refuse to return because they still have reservations regarding health and safety. In these cases, she cautions there’s a potential for a constructive dismissal claim by an employee.

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On the other hand, Coulter says individuals who traditionally worked in person but were moved to remote work due to the pandemic could be considered in-office employees. Although there was a change in their terms and conditions of employment for a temporary period that was mandated by the government, she argues that doesn’t mean it was a fundamental change to their employment terms, such that they should expect to continue working remotely for the rest of their career with their employer. And now that governments have deemed it safe to end some of these mandates, she believes employers are entitled to ask employees to return to the workplace.

Still, companies that think this through in a very thoughtful way will come up with hybrid plans. Candido agrees. However, employers still have a lot of considerations to unpack when figuring out how that model will unfold, she adds, noting they’ll have to decide how to alternate days in the office among different teams, review their office layouts or determine whether employees will have dedicated desks.

When planning the return, she suggests companies consider what they need for the work to get done and move the business forward, as opposed to reversing course from the last two years just because in person was how work was done in the past.

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