Unravelling the office reopening equation

Q&A: Investing in employee safety is paramount; monitoring on- and off-site productivity is critical, experts say

Left to right: Chris Back, director of occupational health and safety consultation and education services, WorkSafeBC; Jennifer Lee, managing partner of growth platforms and value creation services, Deloitte; Rocky Ozaki, founder, NoW of Work; Lindsie Thomson, managing partner, Harris and Co.

BIV conducted four video podcasts in July on how the workplace and businesses are coping with the pandemic. Conversations focused on how to safely reopen business, how to maintain the trust relationship between employees and employers, how to operate within the law with employment standards and how the workplace can be more resilient in these difficult times.

The podcasts feature Jennifer Lee, the managing partner, growth platforms and value creation services at Deloitte, who is overseeing the company’s global response to the pandemic; Lindsie Thomson, managing partner at the Harris and Co. law firm in Vancouver; Chris Back, the director of occupational health and safety consultation and education services at WorkSafeBC; and Rocky Ozaki, the founder of the NoW of Work human resources consultancy. They were in conversation with BIV publisher and editor-in-chief Kirk LaPointe.

The following is the second excerpt of the conversations. The podcasts can be found online at biv.com/video.


What’s your counsel (about reopening)?

ROCKY OZAKI: I would say, No. 1, do not copy anyone else. You have to know your business, you have to know the threshold of risk that your team members have. I think you’ve got to get really personal, really human with your team members, and they’ve got to be part of the solution. I think that you’ve got to lead with a really human approach to this. And then give them the confidence to great communication, great transparency. And next to humanization, by the way, is that safety component. It seems so obvious, but have you factored the elevator? Have you factored one-way traffic in your office? Have you factored how often you’re cleaning? Have you factored rules? I’m still cautious. Keep your six feet. And, of course, the safety piece has to be No. 1 over anything else.


When employers and employees work together on (a safety plan), how much more effective can that be?

CHRIS BACK: Probably one of the more important points that we want to bring across is the fact that employers need to be involving the workforce in the development of the COVID safety plan. There’s a lot of fear out there right now. There’s a lot of fear with workers coming back to work and whether or not they’re potentially going to be exposing themselves in the workplace. And the employer, it can go a long way in reducing that fear by including their workers in that process. We can’t emphasize that enough.


How does an employer keep trust when the employer knows that in some cases people almost have to operate shoulder to shoulder in some cases?

JENNIFER LEE: Well, this is where the physical barriers become so important. The investment and capital investment so plants and manufacturing facilities are safe require agile scheduling, which will slow down production in some cases. But demonstrating that you are making the required investments for physical safety for workers that don’t have the option to work from home – this is the most critical component. What you don’t want is a situation where you didn’t make the capital investment, and infection spread throughout because that in itself doesn’t tie well to your brand.


No, and it obviously violates the trust relationship almost instantly, doesn’t it?

LEE: Absolutely. And when we go back to resilient leadership and resilient organizations, from our research what it showed was that resilient leaders are trusted leaders. As you emerge into the thrive stage of the pandemic, if you don’t have the followership, you really have nothing.

What is an employer permitted to do in managing an employee when you’re off site?

LINDSIE THOMSON: The fundamentals of the relationship are that you’re still the employer; you’re still entitled to expect productivity from your employees. And you’re going to have to figure out how to manage employees remotely. No longer is it good enough for us just to look at them and say, “Well, they’re at work; they must be working.” Management of employees is going to have to be more substantive. We’re going to actually have to find solutions for figuring out our employees’ productivity.

Can you really expect as an employer that you’re going to get the same level of productivity?

THOMSON: That’s a probably an individualized question. Lots of people work really well in a quiet space. And if they have a really great setup at home where they can just focus and get things done, they might be more productive than when they are at the office, and people are visiting or chatting amongst themselves or are distracted in other ways. So I don’t think we can say, on the whole, that we’re going to have less productivity across the board. It is going to be dependent on personality and the individual, but also your ability to adapt as a manager and to really find new ways of continuing to get the person to be productive.… You’re entitled to a productive employee. And if they’re not productive, then you would take steps to manage their performance.


What typically is going to happen if a WorkSafeBC officer shows up at a worksite?

BACK: We are taking a very consultative approach on this. We understand that this is a challenging time. This is a new risk for many employers, for all of us. They are going to ask how the employer has developed their plan. We are there to help employers as best as we can help them understand where they can find resources, and how to get through the risk assessments and the control measures. I think we have been able to develop guidance and protocols for employers that are specific to their industry and allow employers to be able to explore what’s going to work in their particular situation and provide them with some guidance moving forward. And if they’re stuck in developing the plan, give us a call.


The Employment Standards Act was generated in an age where we weren’t using the word pandemic at all.

THOMSON: And that does beg the question: should we be rethinking the rules if we have so many exceptions to them now that it takes up 14 pages in the regulation? So yeah, I think it is something that is worth looking at … to protect employees from employers who are going to take advantage of that flexibility. I think that’s the key.


Managers are subjected to so much information that they cannot know how to organize it, how to be sufficiently transparent and yet not be gloom and doom with employees. How can it help build resilience or ruin it if you handle it improperly?

LEE: Transparency is, in my mind, how much you involve the employee in designing the future. So if it is done in a black box with two or three executives in a dark room and you’re charting out your future, then of course, that lack of transparency will create fear. But in my experience, and some of the work I’m doing now with some clients who are looking to thrive, it’s about how do we create a forum. So if you don’t have to be a big company to be able to do this. It’s about how do I get my people to be involved in the process as we’re starting to build out what a thrive plan could look like. So that then reduces fear and develops understanding. It also teaches them a new skill about how do you plan in a pandemic.


What has surprised you the most in this period?

OZAKI: I’m surprised how resilient that we’ve been and how, you know, we follow the orders. I think that we’ve got a great leader behind us coaching us on what we should be doing. I’ve been super surprised, to be honest, because the great weather we had in the spring, of how well these people I saw abided by the directions and kept their distance. So I gave me a renewed sense of humanity and how we can work together as a community.


You would like to hope that no one’s going to forget this period.

BACK: Yeah. Absolutely. •