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With coronavirus cases starting to peak in some Canadian provinces, employers are likely beginning to prepare for a return to work once lockdown restrictions eventually ease.

But work won’t be the same as it was before the pandemic, according to human resources experts speaking in a webinar hosted by the Ivey Business School on Friday.

Val Duffey, an HR executive who previously worked as vice-president of HR and corporate services at the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, said there are four stages to employers’ responses to the crisis.

Read: Coronavirus pandemic means ‘new normal’ for employers, employees

The first phase, which took place in late February and early March, was to dust off crisis and business continuity plans and create work-from-home solutions, and for companies with essential workers to focus on implementing strong workplace health and safety measures. Many employers were also forced to make tough choices about downsizing their workforces or implementing pay cuts.

Canadian companies are now in the second phase, said Duffey, which she called the respond phase. Companies with essential workers have ramped up their safety and medical protocols to “mitigate employee and business continuity risks.” Employers that have staff working from home are helping managers engage their teams remotely and trying to help employees deal with the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic.

“We’re still in this phase. And there does seem to be a bit of breathing room to take stock and begin to prepare for the next phase, which is the reconnect phase.” 

Read: How can employers manage work-from-home burnout?

The reconnect phase will take place when restrictions start to ease and companies are able to reopen and bring some or all of their employees back to work. However, noted Duffey, it won’t be a simple return to work. Employers will need to plan to incorporate physical distancing into their work spaces, stagger scheduling where appropriate and implement employee health monitoring systems. She also anticipated that employers will enhance their technology and communications platforms to accommodate employees who continue to work remotely.

“That reconnect phase will be about starting to create the new normal by deploying those new work practices, while at the same time continuing to accommodate individual circumstances,” said Duffey. “Everyone I’ve talked to believes that this new normal will be a hybrid of working from home and working in physical work locations, or some companies [will have] gone completely remote . . . because we’ve learned so much and there’s so much muscle around working remotely.”

The final stage will be about reimagining the new normal, she said. Employers will look at what they learned during the pandemic, focus in on its values and purposes and determine what skills and capabilities it needs to thrive in a post-coronavirus world. “What [do] we expect of employees and, especially, what [do] we expect of our leaders? At the same time, we need to maintain all of that newfound crisis response capability, because we will likely be facing a second and potentially a third wave before a vaccine is developed.”

Read: 70% of employees satisfied with employer communications around coronavirus: survey

Cathy Sprague, executive vice-president of HR at Bruce Power, said the new normal will involve enhanced communications practices, especially because her organization — which currently has 1,000 essential workers in the field during the pandemic — does complex work in difficult conditions.

“The way we’re going to communicate with our employees going forward will be very different. It’s going to be constant, because a lot of people [who] left the workplace, they’re going to come back to whatever the new normal is with a whole new set of expectations about how they’re going to do the job and what’s expected of them.”

Workplace culture will also take on new significance as companies move to hybrid or fully remote workforces on a permanent basis, said Marty Parker, chief executive officer at Waterstone Human Capital.

“We are going to see a much more distributed workforce. We’re going to have team members and employees that won’t come back to the workplace [and] feel like their experience [as a remote worker], when they would normally be in a physical office, needs to be the same. The entire employee experience will need to be as effective digitally or in a distributed new world as it would be in person.”

In that environment, we could see the rise of the “un-bossed organization,” said Duffey, where companies place more clear trust in employees and distribute decision-making.

Read: Employers using hiring, wage freezes to combat effects of coronavirus: survey

Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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