There’s No Place like Home: Remote Working Becomes the New Normal

Remote working

It has long been a perk reserved for specific fields—the ability to work from home. The benefits are seen in large centres with gridlocked traffic, prohibitive parking costs, and time lost in commuting. From an employer’s perspective, an office ‘downtown’ means expensive rent, furnished boardrooms, and support staff to keep the office open.

There has been a huge shift recently as the world adjusted to COVID-19 and was alerted to the fact that many jobs can be done remotely.

Let’s be clear—for many, working from home was not a perk. They were not just “working from home”—they were at their home, doing what they could to do their jobs or run their businesses while keeping their families safe and their bills paid.

But, COVID-19 had business owners, employees, health professionals, policymakers and politicians frantically adapting to new technology, techniques, protocols, and expectations to keep the nation moving forward.

What does the workforce look like now? Will it ever fit back in the pre-COVID box, and do we want it to?

A Local Perspective

Like many companies, hbi office plus was hit hard when COVID-19 took hold. They were initially forced to layoff 35 of their staff in March, but the Regina-based company has been able to hire everyone back thanks in part to government relief and just in time to help people adapt to the new office situation.

“It took people a long time before they realized they were probably going to be working from home long-term,” says Damon Leonard, vice-president of sales at hbi office plus in Regina. He figures it was probably mid-April before many people started looking to make their work from home more permanent. Many business owners were doing what they could to help their employees keep working—sending equipment and furniture home with employees so they could keep working. One surprise item that was flying off the shelves were chair mats as people moved their ergonomic office chairs home to their kitchens or dens.

HBI has seen a shift in their suppliers’ attitudes and strategies, with many vendors preparing guides, information, and tools to help people adjust to the new situation. Also, many people may not have thought about the shifting liability regarding workers’ compensation in a work-from-home scenario.

“It’s a new thing that business owners, staff and Workers’ Compensation will need to adapt to and make changes,” says Leonard. He also feels most people will be going back to offices, and notes some people work more effectively at an office than at home. Others, however, have found their productivity greater at home.

Going Back to the Office

As things change, some things stay the same. Employers have the responsibility to keep the work environment safe and give employees the tools they need to keep themselves safe. It’s going to be very much on employers to provide the tools, knowledge and accountability to their employees to stay safe in the post-COVID return to work.

“You’ll see one-way traffic in office spaces like you do in the grocery stores,” says Leonard. “Copiers and coffee stations will need to be kept sanitary.” PPE will include sanitation tools in the same way it includes ergonomic chairs. HR policies will need to be written regarding workstation cleanliness, and business owners and employers will need to understand changes to the way business is done.

Everyone’s situation is different, and everyone responds in a slightly different way. “This is a crazy situation,” Leonard says, acknowledging the importance of both physical and mental health. “And it needs to be handled at an acceptable level for each individual. People need to be allowed to deal with this in best way they can.”

“People are going to look to organizations to have a plan. Some organizations already have things within their spaces that allow them to get back to work,” he says. For others though, there is going to be some major adjustments.

Responsibilities Wherever the Work is Done

Annette Goski is the Director, Prevention, for Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB). She has been focused on keeping the workplace safe—during and after COVID. “It’s important to check in on employees,” she says. “Employers have the same responsibilities to keep their workers safe whether they’re in the workplace or working from home.”

Workers should report any discomfort and make changes to their environment if they need to. The employee and the employer can look for the cause of the discomfort and change it. Her messaging is consistent whether an employee is at a home office or their regular office. “Stretch breaks, standing desks and mini breaks—remembering that phone calls and online meetings can keep you in a bad posture position if you’re not paying attention.”

In addition to posture and repetitive strain injuries, workers and employers need to be aware of protecting the psychological wellbeing of employees. It can be harder to spot employees struggling when people are working from home.

“Employers should be regularly checking in with staff who need touch points, having someone reaching out regularly to check on the wellbeing,” she advises.

Trying to stay current with the latest information, WCB has added a section dedicated to COVID-19 and the workplace to their website and encourages employees and employers to use the resource as they keep their businesses moving forward.

Making the Change for Good

And, amidst the global pandemic, many businesses continue to look forward. Working from home and working remotely is not a new concept, but the pandemic has certainly fast forwarded many companies plans to implement it and tested their ability to function remotely.

Jayleen Groff, SVP, Chief People Officer for Concentra Financial, has been adjusting plans due to COVID-19 and considers working from home a viable strategy for talent management. “A good portion of our employees have worked from home for quite some time, including our CEO. We’re a federal bank and allowing employees to work remotely helps us to acquire talent from across Canada and fits well with how we handle work-life balance. Allowing for employees to work remotely or choose a hybrid between remote and in-office work post COVID-19 is part of what we’re calling our ‘way forward.’”

Keeping in mind that these are not normal times, Concentra has been making efforts to be flexible and responsive. As other employers have discovered, there is a lot more to it than a 9-5 workday now.

“People are dealing with additional pressures they wouldn’t have faced in normal times, including childcare. We’ve been flexible in asking our employees to find work-life balance—so if you can’t work what was a normal workday of 8 am to 4:30 pm then you can work a flexible day. This might mean you spend more time during the day helping your children with home schooling and then get on later in the day with work. For us, it’s really about taking an agile approach and focusing on deliverables.”

Technology + Talent

As a federal bank, with employees working remotely across Canada, Concentra had needed to develop a company culture using remote working techniques—and now, it’s more important than ever.

“We have a pretty collaborative culture; we’ve been using some agile methodology, developing an agile mindset, we’ve got some collaborative technological tools and video conferencing.” She notes that with video calling being more accepted now, people can connect a little deeper than they might have done just over the phone.

Remote working also opens the available pool of employees,so the advancement and adoption of these technologies could mean more companies using this as a new way of finding talent.

“We already had remote workers; I think for us and all organizations that are considering this is, it opens up the talent pool from the employee and company perspective—it doesn’t matter where they live,” says Groff.

When people realize they can have the lifestyle they want, in the city they want to live in, working the job they want to work, with the company they want to work for—regardless of where that happens and what that combination looks like, we’re going to see a big shift in hiring practices and company culture.

“I think we’re all fortunate this happened to us in the time that we’re in and not 10 years ago, because I think that technology has been key to successful remote work,” Groff says. “You have to have some great collaboration tools and the ability to stay connected as a team, whether that’s through chat tools or video conferencing tools, because that connection lends itself well to mental wellness and connectivity.”

Where Do We Go from Here

There was a mixture of economic triage, heroic flexibility, and common-sense best practices when COVID-19 arrived in Canada. Employers, employees, regulators, and consumers came together to make things work the best they could. For the most part—we have been shown the potential benefits of expanding the accepted working-from-home possibilities. Now, knowing for certain how a global pandemic outbreak can affect small, medium and large organizations, it will be important to consider the long-term implications, benefits and logistics of a workforce operating remotely.