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HR a critical resource as Canada returns to work

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May 8, 2020
By Marcel Vander Wier

Workplace policies will change significantly as the Canadian economy reopens following COVID-19 closures. (soleg/Adobe Stock)

Emerging on the other side of COVID-19 closures, Canadians may be facing a whole new world of work.

Organizations of all types will look very different post-pandemic, according to Anthony Ariganello, president and CEO of CPHR Canada, and the Chartered Professionals of Human Resources (CPHR) of BC and the Yukon in Burnaby, B.C.

“The new normal is very different than any old normal,” he says. “Things are going to drastically change.”

Workstation protections, personal protective equipment and methodical cleaning practices may be required as workers begin to return to the office.

The breadth and depth of changes will vary from company to company, but changes will be quite significant for some, says Kris Tierney, vice-president of human resources and learning at the Human Resources Professional Association (HRPA) in Toronto.

Some changes adopted during the pandemic could be adopted permanently, she says.

“Going forward into a post-pandemic situation, it will be incumbent upon HR professionals to bring key people and culture considerations to discussions.”

Anthony Ariganello, CPHR Canada.

Relying on instinct

The past two months have been a whirlwind for HR professionals across the country, says Ariganello.

“It’s been very, very difficult because obviously there was no book written on this. There’s no magic potion, guide or playbook on what to do. We’re learning as we go forward.”

HR professionals have been relying on instinct to guide their organizations through COVID-19, he says. “They’re relying on some of what was done in the past, but really, they’re being pulled left, right and centre on so many fronts.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been unique in its global nature and multi-pronged attacks, he says.

He expects the economic recovery to take between three to five years, “unless there’s a cure that it’s totally eradicated with a full guarantee that it’s never coming back.”

“It’s going to be a very, very slow recovery.”

Physical sickness cannot be the only focus point for HR in planning returns to work, says Ariganello, noting mental health concerns may linger for employees until a cure is found.

Employee assistance programs will be a major requirement going forward to support the Canadian labour force, he says.

Kris Tierney, HRPA.

HR’s time to shine

As businesses begin reopening, Ariganello sees this as a major opportunity for HR to rise to the occasion.

With people firmly affixed as priority No. 1 in the workplace, HR professionals will need to come together to shape policy in a similar fashion to how financial experts assisted following the 2008 economic crash.

“It’s an opportunity for HR to shine (and) take a lead role in reshaping the future,” he says. “Because this is big. This is huge.”

“What’s really important for us is that we essentially get familiar and understand the ramifications associated to this, because it has many tentacles.”

In a highly ambiguous environment, HR will be required to ensure workforce and culture stability by advising senior leaders on the impact and risks of business decisions, says Tierney.

“HR is a critical conduit between business leadership and the workforce, and can help organizations recognize early signs of unrest and take preventive measures to mitigate it.”

It is important that business leaders recognize the elevated importance of HR through this crisis, she says.

Legal ramifications

CPHR Canada is working hard to stay abreast of the pandemic as different economic reboot plans are released by the provinces, including launching a website dedicated to employer responses. A virtual legal symposium is also being planned.

The HRPA also launched a COVID-19 resources page early in the pandemic and has continued to keep it updated with best practices and guidelines for the workplace.

Those currently working remotely can be mandated to return to the office, as long as the workplace is deemed safe, says Ariganello.

“Everyone needs to know that — employees, employers, the HR people — even though you can work from home, if the employer requires you to be at the office, if you don’t show up, you can actually be losing your job.”

Moving forward, HR will need to adapt to a variety of factors — including a new wave of popularity when it comes to telecommuting options.

Flex hours may need to be considered for workforces living in large cities, where commutes take place via mass transit, and organizations may need to consider looking past the traditional 9-to-5 workday for safety reasons, he says.

That in turn, could affect office needs, and space reductions could be considered.

“You may not need the space that you needed before.”

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