Charting a return to work during and after a pandemic

Study examines how to reintegrate employees into workplace as COVID-19 restrictions ease

Tania Bubela, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University: “We are social animals, and sticking people into isolation, it’s not healthy” | Photo: Chung Chow

Spring in Vancouver: cherry blossoms are turning streets pink, skies are blanketed in persistent drizzles and, perhaps, a COVID-19 vaccine is in wide distribution.

While geese may have returned north by then, experts say there’s little guarantee the workplace will have returned to its pre-pandemic state.

Instead, an August report from U.S.-based Graceada Partners predicts five more likely scenarios, including the rise of secondary cities as remote workers depart expensive metropolitan centres and the increased adoption of hybrid workplace models in which employees mix virtual work with in-office appearances.

And it appears unlikely the physical offices that do endure in a post-vaccine world will recreate what was typical leading up to the pandemic.

“The pandemic has reversed office trends that became popular in the last couple of years like bench-style seating, large open spaces and very few barriers. The goal in the past was to get employees closer and collaborate more freely,” the Graceada Partners report stated.

“Also, large amounts of money were put into amenities such as gyms, which used to make buildings more appealing. However, these amenities are not used during a pandemic and may be out of touch with health concerns in our post-pandemic world.”

Staff who return to the office may encounter patterns on floors – such as colourful circles with two-metre diameters – to encourage physical distancing or new facilities will be built with antimicrobial substances to reduce the spread of viruses on surfaces.

“While companies may permanently have fewer employees working from offices, they will require more space per employee, reversing the decades-long trend toward less space per employee,” the report stated. “Flexible office space will be more in demand than ever.”

In Vancouver, the high status bestowed to the physical workplace was upended at the outset of the pandemic when Shopify Inc. (TSX:SHOP) reversed course in May on its plans to open a 70,000-square-foot office in the city’s downtown.

Plans for a Vancouver office, where 1,000 workers were to be based, have now morphed into plans for a “recruitment hub” as Shopify’s workforce goes remote permanently.

Those 1,000 workers can now be based anywhere.

“We are social animals, and sticking people into isolation, it’s not healthy,” said Tania Bubela, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

“So we have to pay attention to the mental health and wellness aspects of the pandemic and the public health measures that have been put in place in response to the pandemic.”

SFU is undertaking a 15-month study in partnership with the University of British Columbia (UBC), Stemcell Technologies Inc., Xenon Pharmaceuticals Inc. (Nasdaq:XENE) and Zymeworks Inc. (NYSE:ZYME) to study how to safely reintegrate employees into the workplace as COVID-19 restrictions ease.

The $1.2 million project, funded by industry partners Genome BC and Genome Canada, will collect anonymized data from 1,500 volunteers employed at the universities and private companies.

Students working at those organizations’ labs and facilities will also be able to volunteer.

Researchers at UBC, SFU and the BC Centre for Disease Control will be using the collected data to examine infections, immunity, contacts and symptoms of volunteers.

For example, serological testing will be conducted at the outset of the study as well as the six-month and 12-month marks to determine the proportion of volunteers who test positive for antibodies.

Rather than waiting until the end of the study to release results, project organizers will make data available in real time to help officials with public health decisions.

“We’ve established a very sophisticated protocol to work on how this kind of testing can operate in the workplace. And other industries will be able to learn from that and leverage [the findings],” said Bubela, a lawyer by trade.

“I’m very interested in the public policy piece about how we bring testing into the workplace without trampling on the rights of individuals and workers.”

She added that the results could provide information on how to reintegrate larger numbers of students onto university campuses, which have mostly given way to virtual classes save for some lab work.

Bubela hopes the study, expected to be underway by mid-October, will attract all 1,500 volunteers, but she acknowledged same potential recruits may not wish to commit to off-site testing.

“We’re not aware of any study quite like this at this scale [in Canada] which will have data collected in a very formal sort of research protocol … that will allow the public health system to make decisions on and to understand workplace and environmental risks or impacts,” said project co-lead Simon Pimstone, an associate professor of medicine at UBC and Xenon’s founding CEO.

“The emotional and physical health of the employees in businesses is absolutely paramount. I say that as a business manager, as a CEO of a company, but of course as a human being. … We want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to look after our employees who give up their time to commit to our companies.”