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Back to work in the COVID-19 era: What will it look like for you?

As Canadians and employees around the world start packing up their home offices and heading back to work, they have one big question: "What is going back to work in the age of an unprecedented global response to the novel coronavirus going to look like?" Let's look at some answers to that question at the local, national, and global levels.


At the local level, for some workplaces like bars and restaurants, the answer lies - at least for now - in physical distancing, creating outdoor spaces, and facing inevitable layoffs. For others, like hair and nail salons, the answer is the 'tried-and-true' medical advice of imposing physical distancing, mounting plexiglass partitions, and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as medical-grade masks and rubber gloves.


"We have always used PPE like masks and gloves, so that will not be all that different than before the pandemic," said Phong Vu, owner of Nails by Phong, a successful Fredericton-area salon. Vu has put plexiglass partitions in place for his re-opening and, to enforce physical distancing, he has removed his waiting room altogether. He also plans to take his clients' temperature with a digital thermometer. Vu noted that hair and nail salons have always had to maintain strict provincial health and safety standards and bylaws. "We take that [legislation] very seriously to protect our clients' safety," he said.


The results of a recent survey of members of the Chartered Professionals in Human Resources in New Brunswick (CPHR NB) association, conducted for this article, has shed some light on how workers across the province will get back to work safely. When asked: "How is your company planning to bring its employees safely back to work?", about 40% of the respondents said that they will bring their employees back gradually, in stages, with 'critical staff' like upper management coming back first. Another 32% said that, for now, they will continue to allow all of their staff to work from home. About 16% of respondents said that employees would be coming back to the workplace all at once, while only 10% said that their company plans to lay off staff.


At the national level, prime minister Trudeau is also stressing the critical importance of going back to work to help boost the economy across Canada's 10 provinces and three territories. “During the first few weeks of the crisis, people’s lives were turned upside down. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians lost their job through no fault of their own, without warning, because of this pandemic. It put enormous financial pressure on everyone from students, to young professionals, to families,” Trudeau said in his 65th morning press conference on May 25, 2020.


Right now, more than eight million unemployed Canadians have claimed the $2,000 Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The Trudeau government is hoping that as more businesses are allowed to reopen they would bring back laid off staff - now with the help of a 75 per cent wage subsidy that would mean returning employees would no longer have to collect CERB. “Maintaining the connection between employer and employee is key not just to helping people get back on their feet, but to keeping our economy strong. That’s why it’s so important that employers take advantage of this program and rehire their workers,” Trudeau said.


At the global level, leaders have been mixed in their responses to this question, with some broadly stressing the importance of physical distancing, while others have offered more focused advice. New Zealand's prime minister Jacinda Ardern, for example, is advocating a four-day working week and other flexible working options as a way to boost tourism and help employees address persistent work/life balance issues. U.K.'s prime minister Boris Johnson has laid out a formal vision for return to work that emphasizes physical distancing and avoiding public transport. Other governments, including Canada's as above, have emphasized financially supporting those who lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


So what is the answer to the big question? Answers from the local, national, and global levels have until now been made in earnest, but so far no one has provided workers with any evidence-based "best practice" plans to proceed. This is not surprising in these unusual times even as money and labour markets start to open up at varying paces across the globe. After all, because this problem is so new to us, and because we are really only beginning now to collect and analyze the employment-relevant data specific to the COVID-19 virus, no one can really say what the answer is for certain.


What can be said is that your return to work will probably be gradual, and when you do get back you will likely be required to observe physical distancing practices and you may have to wear PPE like gloves and masks. Your work may permanently include a mix of working from home and working from the office. Your workplace will probably also look different than it did before. For example, in the same CPHR NB survey mentioned above, over two-thirds of respondents said that they plan to physically adjust their work spaces to encourage physical distancing. Other changes may remain unforeseen until all the relevant data are analyzed, so it may help you - and your company - to remain flexible and understanding of the challenges faced by your employer in the post-coronavirus economy.


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Dr. Jeffrey J. McNally, or 'Dr. Jeff' as he is known to his students, is a professor of human resources in the Faculty of Management at the University of New Brunswick, Canada. His award-winning research focuses primarily on the outcomes of entrepreneurial and experiential education. He also studies the outcomes of workplace attitudes, especially in terms of eliciting organizational citizenship behaviours. More information about Jeff can be found online on LinkedIn, Twitter, and on his UNB faculty biography webpage.






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