Back to work in B.C.: when? where? how?

Special report: Complications abound with post-vaccination pressure for a return to the workplace

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Roughly 59% of employees in the Metro Vancouver area say they have worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey conducted by Research Co. for Glacier Media (TSX:GVC).

As more of the general population gets vaccinated over the course of the summer, many employers who are paying for near-empty office buildings will be eager to start bringing employees back to the office.

But they may face some dilemmas. They could meet with resistance from some employees who have gotten used to working from home, attending virtual meetings and travelling less. And some employees may refuse to be vaccinated, for any number of reasons.

“We’ve been seeing, and we’re hearing, some employees saying, ‘I kind of like this working from home thing – I don’t know want to come back,’” said Cissy Pau, principal consultant at human resources firm Clear HR Consultants.

“What if some people don’t get vaccinated? Who can return to the office? Who can’t return? That all impacts this whole concept of returning to the workplace, and will we ever have business as usual again or will it be different?”

The Research Co. survey found that 33% of employees said they expect they will still work from home once or twice a week, even after the pandemic is over, and roughly 50% said they expect to have fewer in-person staff meetings and more virtual meetings.

But once public health officials give employers the green light to re-staff offices, employers are under no legal obligation to let employees continue to work from home, said Ashley Mitchell, an employment law attorney at Miller Thomson LLP.

“An employee can’t unilaterally say, ‘I just want to keep working from home forever, because it’s working well for me,’” Mitchell said. “So an employer can require employees to start to come back to work, assuming it’s safe to do so.”

Businesses deemed essential services – from food processing plants and manufacturers to banks and grocery stores – have already had to sort out these kinds of questions.

It’s the employers that have been operating for a year now with near-empty office buildings and a largely remote workforce that may have the biggest challenge in figuring out how to bring people back into the office.

For smaller businesses and offices with low interactions with the public, coming up with a back-to-work plan may not require much more than its HR department and perhaps a safety committee working with WorkSafeBC and public health officials to approve their plans.

But for larger employers, or businesses where workers are in constant close contact with the public or each other, bringing people back into the office safely will require more planning and perhaps even some high-tech solutions.

The easiest way to reoccupy office buildings might be for employers to simply require all returning employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before coming back to the office. But in most instances, that’s not legal.

Employers could implement return-to-work plans based on vaccinations, as long as employees voluntarily agree to it. But Mitchell said they can’t make vaccinations a condition for returning to work.

“Generally speaking, it would not be permissible for an employer to require employees to be vaccinated,” Mitchell said.

Employers who plan to begin bringing employees back into the office this summer should be speaking with or surveying their employees to get an understanding of their concerns and comfort levels with returning to work, Pau said.

“I think there’s going to be a work adaptation exercise that needs to be gone through. I think there may be some permanent changes to the workplace that we need to be looking at.”

Whatever they decide to do, Pau also recommends that employers give their employees plenty of notice about their plans, “and then talk through all the potential concerns.”

If an office is not spacious enough to keep workers at least six feet apart, some employers that never had shifts before may opt to bring employees back in shifts, at least temporarily. Or they may allow – or even require – some employees to continue working from home until the public health office says social distancing measurers are no longer required.

Some businesses will need to grapple with travel. Project managers and sales people will be expected to resume travelling to other communities, provinces or countries at some point.

“I see that being a big issue,” Pau said. “What if people don’t want to travel?”

Owners or managers in offices will also need to think about managing not only their own employees, but non-employees as well.

Even businesses that don’t have walk-in customers may have a surprising number of daily non-employee visitors: job applicants, lunch caterers, vending and coffee machine contractors, trash and recycling collectors, HVAC repair technicians and package delivery people.

“There are many more individuals coming in and out of a building that we weren’t necessarily cognizant of,” said Roger Beharry Lall, vice-president of product marketing for Traction Guest. “It can represent 10%, 30% of who’s on site.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Traction Guest has repurposed its guest registration platform to be used by employers to control how many employees or guests are in an office at a given time.

With the Traction Guest system, employees can register through an online portal. They may volunteer information, such as whether they have been vaccinated, recently been tested for COVID-19 or recently travelled.

If the employee plans to come to work Monday through Wednesday and work from home Thursday and Friday, he or she would indicate that and be given a QR code. When he or she shows up for work, the QR code would be scanned. The system would allow employers to know just how many employees are in the office. Visitors could also be asked to register before coming to the office for job interviews and other reasons.

Not even WorkSafeBC knows yet what the rules and timelines will be for a full return to work. Like everyone else, it is waiting for direction from the public health office.

So until they are told otherwise, employers will need to continue to have safety protocols and controls in place, like limiting the number of people in offices, even when a majority of employees have been vaccinated.

“At this point in time, anybody who is vaccinated and is working with anyone else, they all still have to follow the safety plans to the letter as they exist today,” said Al Johnson, head of prevention services for WorkSafeBC. “So a vaccination doesn’t negate any other precaution that needs to be in place.”•