June 29, 2020 by David Gambrill, Editor in Chief
Throughout Canada, provinces are starting a phased re-opening of the economy (albeit some regions are in more advanced stages than others). Doron Melnick, partner in KPMG’s people and change advisory services practice, is advising businesses on how to return to the office while the global novel coronavirus remains a threat.
cu | What advice would you give to Canadian businesses that are re-opening their offices?
Basically, there are four areas to look at. The first thing is governance and planning, with planning being very important. We suggest that organizations designate a task force to think through all of the moving pieces and risks.
cu | What types of things would the task force need to consider?
First of all, the task force would be responsible for monitoring the government guidelines for each province and understanding the timelines of re-opening the economy. Second, they would examine how to stage the approach. For example, who needs to come back physically versus who can continue to work from home? Also, when should they return to the office? This type of analysis would look at the employee’s role: How much does the role interact with others? Can the role be done remotely? As for when to reopen, consider COVID-19 case counts in the local community. Another factor to consider is that offices might may need time to make physical rearrangements with the help of the facility manager or landlord. And let’s not forget the employees themselves: They may be in a high-risk category, have child care responsibilities, or still feel unsafe. Finally, the task force would need to communicate the plan, so that everyone is aware of what it is. Examples of stakeholders may be the employees, customers, suppliers and in some cases, landlords and other tenants in a shared building.
cu | Offices may be re-opening, but the pandemic has not ended. The first wave of death rates may be on the wane in Canada, but there is still a risk. How does a business plan around that?
The second area of your planning should address the health of your employees. The plan should include steps to educate employees to do a health screening self-assessment before they come to work for the day. Provincial health authorities have such questionnaires available online. The plan should also outline the rules for physical distancing in all areas of the workplace. You should prepare for the protective equipment your employees might need if they are required to come into close contact with each other or with customers and business partners. Some workplaces are mandating that everyone wear a mask when they’re not eating or drinking, and they provide training on the right way to wear the mask. The plan should promote things like hand-washing and care in use of common areas such as kitchens. Finally, don’t forget about the people working from home. They may start to feel burned out and socially isolated from the rest of their team. Their mental wellness is important too. Ask them how you can best support them.
cu | Will offices need to make physical changes to promote the health and safety of their employees?
The third part of planning for a return to the office should address the workplace. This means figuring out what to do with your facilities. In other words, what do you need to do to manage access and help with physical distancing? This might mean restricting the number of employees and customers you can allow into the workplace. It may also mean collecting and storing information about who is entering and leaving the office for the purposes of contact tracing. It may also mean making physical changes to the facility to reduce the spread. A great example of that is in retail. We’ve seen plexiglass walls go up to help keep physical separation between customers and staff.
These can be effective in an office environment. Also, there is cleaning. Make sure you have regular sterilization.
cu | How should employers deal with common areas in the office?
One important part of facility management is how to deal with food and open spaces. Take kitchen areas or cafeterias, for example. First of all, there should be physical distancing, which may mean limiting the number of people who can be there at one time. Second, there should be a frequent cleaning schedule — at least once daily of all fixtures, working surfaces and high-touch things like refrigerator door handles. In other areas, like entrance lobbies, elevator waiting areas and washrooms, again, physical distancing and regular cleaning are the most important things.
cu | What about the risks of getting to and from the workplace?
The main issue is physical distancing. This means that people need to take care in using public transit. Wearing a mask properly is important, as well as not touching the face and washing hands immediately on arriving. While the transit agencies are doing a lot of extra cleaning in their vehicles, the biggest risk is in riding a bus or subway when there are many people already on board. For this reason, businesses need to be specific about which staff must be present in the office and consider whether those people could be on working schedules that avoid rush hour travel. Carpooling, sadly, is not a good option right now.
cu | What’s the fourth basic area plans should address?
COVID-19 case response. Employers must have a plan for what they will do if someone in the workplace is diagnosed with COVID-19. At minimum, they need to contact the local public health authority and work with them on next steps. Public health will also conduct contact tracing for that case. A business can also decide to do more than what public health requires. For example, public health might respond to a case of COVID-19 and decide that no further changes are needed in that person’s workplace. But the business may want to return all staff to a work-from-home arrangement anyway. That’s up to the management team. It’s also important to have a plan for how that person’s job will be covered in their absence.
cu | What happens if someone tests positive after the office has been re-opened?
Contact the local public health unit and follow their directions. Also, follow the plan that you’ve made for how to respond to a COVID-19 case in the workplace.
cu | Provinces are re-opening at different speeds and in different ways. What does that mean for national businesses that have workplaces spread out across Canada?
You could have a situation where the plan is different for each province for your own organization. For example, if you have a national brokerage with operations in multiple provinces, it is absolutely going to happen that your brokerage will have different plans for the different provinces. Because ultimately companies can only do what the governments are allowing them to do.
The safest thing to do is for employers to stay within public health guidelines and work with the best available information they have within each province. If Saskatchewan is moving ahead more quickly, that’s okay, the re-opening plan can proceed more quickly in Saskatchewan, and more slowly in, say, Ontario. The plan for each jurisdiction should be in writing and should also be communicated verbally, whether in phone or video calls.
cu | Any final thoughts on how to prepare for a staged return to the workplace?
Consider how your staff members are feeling. Are your employees ready to come back? Focus first on the ones who need to come back because they can’t do their job from home, and put the right health and safety protections in place for them. Communicate this so they can make an informed decision. After that, consider those who can continue to work from home but want to come back to the office anyway for productivity or social connection or whatever other reasons. Take care in accommodating such requests. As a principle, it’s great to give your people a choice, but also respect the provincial guidelines for the good of the community. And consider that some employees could feel disadvantaged if they can’t return to the office because they have a high medical risk or childcare responsibilities.