The coronavirus pandemic has forced most office workers to work from home in the last year. Some companies are now looking to have part of their workforces stationed remotely for the long term or work a hybrid model of some office days and some home days. Others plan to return to the office fully. Either way, an office transition plan is needed for various reasons, such as some jobs being better accomplished in an office setting, or some employees being unable to work from home for extended periods. With the pandemic still ongoing (and in some places, getting worse), reintroducing the workforce to the office comes with risks that businesses must navigate carefully. However now is the time to consider a plan to re-populate the office, as the economy begins to re-open with the success of vaccine rollouts.
Employment lawyers suggest that there are two major areas of risk with respect to employees returning to the office. First is the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in the office, and second, the risk of violating applicable local, provincial or emergency orders related to COVID.
With respect to transmission, the risk rises as businesses return to normal – not only among employees as workforces are brought back into the office, but from vendors, deliveries, auditors, job candidates, customers, and any other visitors to an organization’s facilities. Essentially, there’s risk from all typical business activities that, pre-pandemic, were background noise to everyday offices. Additionally, organizations can open themselves up to potential risks of non-compliance penalties if they aren’t aware of and complying with the provincial and municipal regulations, particularly as those are in flux as conditions change.
One of the biggest challenges in mitigating these risks, is the ambiguity of the pandemic situation, due to lack of precedent. The best way to reduce risk is preparation and communication. Preparation is required to think through the situations where risk might arise and communication to make sure that everyone involved knows the best course of action.
With a little preparation, the organization’s leaders can put simple, common-sense restrictions in place. Also follow the local health advisory protocols for offices. Opening up slowly to avoid excessive burden on resources to manage transmission in the office, may be the best way to open while infection rates begin to reduce and become less serious due to vaccination programs being more wide spread. As for managing compliance, it is critical to have a designated person in the organization to monitor the guidance at all levels of government for all relevant protocols.
As restrictions can change from region to region, so continued awareness is critical to avoiding noncompliance penalties and mitigating the risk from employee actions if the business practices don’t take local restrictions into account. There is no mandated requirement by governments that all employees get vaccinated in order to come back to work. They are leaving this up to the employer. However, this may result in non-compliance by employees due to their personal choice not to be vaccinated. If the employer doesn’t allow the employee to return to work unvaccinated, then there could be legal action taken by the employee and a possible severance discussion required.
Organizations need to follow developments in this potential risk to their employee pool which could result in loss of staff, financial costs from forced severance and potential penalties from government agencies. This pandemic is not the time to allow individual interpretation of policies, which introduces a large degree of ambiguity. Management needs to be aware of the risks of a return to work and find defined ways to implement it. Create a well thought out plan, communicate the plan, and make sure it’s consistently applied across the business. The risk, and accompanying potential liability, from different implementations is significant and avoidable.