Coronavirus: Returning to the workplace? Your office might look a little bit different

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TORONTO —
As vaccination rates increase and employers ramp up inviting workers back to the office, the workplace itself might look a little bit different.

Plexiglas barriers, empty meeting rooms and separated workspaces for unvaccinated employees are some of the health measures that may be commonplace at offices across Canada even after workers return, experts say.

Patrick Stepanian, who is a legal manager at Peninsula Canada, a human resources consulting firm, tells CTVNews.ca that employers have an obligation to ensure a safe workplace for workers.

“It really is going to come down to an employer-by-employer and workplace-by-workplace determination, weighing that responsibility to accommodate and to ensure a safe workplace versus what the needs of the business are,” Stepanian said over the phone.

Stepanian says some examples of safety measures that companies may take include installing Plexiglas barriers, having disinfectant wipes readily available and keeping masks mandatory even if public health officials lift mask requirements in the future.

“The big thing for us is coming down to putting in place these sorts of policies and procedures and these requirements ahead of time… so that all your employees have a fair warning, have information, have guidance,” he said on Tuesday in a telephone interview.

There’s also the issue of unvaccinated employees. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 21 per cent of eligible Canadians have not had a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to data compiled by CTVNews.ca. Employers may be faced with the issue of vaccinated workers refusing to work next to unvaccinated coworkers.

Stepanian says this may result in unvaccinated employees being physically separated from vaccinated employees.

“Some of those (unvaccinated) employees might, because of the segregation, feel extra tension from their vaccinated coworkers. If it’s a toxic workplace, you could be looking at potential issues of bullying, things like that. It really kind of depends on the workplace,” said Stepanian.

“But at the end of the day… we’re talking about a public health issue and certain choices have certain consequences that have to be dealt with accordingly,” he added.

Employees may also feel more comfortable being physically distanced from all of their coworkers, regardless of vaccination status. As seen in a tweet that has gained some attention, one office in the U.K. has come up with a creative solution to this problem, allowing employees to take a lanyard that corresponds to their comfort level. A green lanyard would indicate that the employee is okay with hugs and high-fives while a red one would indicate that the employee wants to keep their distance.

“Generally speaking, that strikes me as trying to be open about this and getting everybody to in a clear way communicate what their anxiety or their comfort level,” said Stepanian.

However, Zweig worries that coloured lanyards might have an unintended consequence of creating stigma.

“Imagine if you’re wearing a red lanyard because for whatever reason you don’t want to be bothered or interrupted, people might perceive that you’re not very friendly,” he said.

Many employers are also considering a hybrid approach, allowing employees to work in the office on some days and work at home on other days. A Leger poll from May found that 60 per cent of Canadians preferred a hybrid model while only 20 per cent wanted to return to the office full-time.

“Meetings aren’t going to be everyone crowded around in a meeting room anymore. There is going to be a mix of in-person and virtual,” said David Zweig, an organizational behaviour professor at the University of Toronto, in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca on Tuesday.

The layout of the office may need to change as well. Prior to the pandemic, many companies had ditched their cubicles in favour of an open office layout, where employees sit close together, side-by-side. Open offices had been popular among companies that wanted to save on office space and encourage more teamwork and collaboration, but COVID-19 may upend this trend.

“Certainly, people aren’t going to be sitting side to side butted up against each other anymore, like the trend was,” said Zweig.

Zweig also adds that the popularity of open offices was already waning pre-pandemic as employers were realizing that the office layout was negatively impacting the employees’ ability to concentrate.

“I think we’d have to give more attention to how the workplace is designed now because of COVID. And there’s probably going to be some more attention on whether or not this open workspace concept is really ideal for all jobs,” he said.​​

Regardless of what specific measures that employers end up implementing, experts agree that workplaces should consult with their employees to get a sense of what they want.

“We’re really seeing that employees are sending a message that they don’t want to go back to exactly the way things were before, and that’s an opportunity for employers to look at what was working and what isn’t,” said Plank Ventures CFO Melanie Pump in an interview with CTV News Channel on Sunday.

Pump says an anonymous survey is one of the ways that employers can kickstart this conversation with their workers.

“Some employees aren’t actually totally comfortable having that conversation with their employer. So, a survey is a really good idea to start setting that tone for discussions,” said Pump.

Ultimately, experts say employers need to be flexible and receptive to what their employees are asking for while ensuring that the workplace is safe.

“It’s going to look different in a lot of different organizations. I think the key to being successful here is having more flexibility around what the constraints and rules are going to be around returning to the workplace and ensuring that everyone is safe,” Zweig said. 

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