The Workplace in 2021 and Beyond: How the Pandemic is Changing Things

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed lives, and work, in ways most of us could never have predicted at the beginning of 2020: lockdowns, masks, social distancing, designated essential workers, online learning, remote working and Zoom—lots of Zoom.

“Before March, we were like many companies where employees came into the office every day,” said Sam Bath, senior director, human resources at BC Pavilion Corp. (PavCo), the crown corporation that manages BC Place and the Vancouver Convention Centre. “To quickly shift to a work-from-home model, our IT team worked to get all the tools set up within two weeks. Part of that has also been shift in our culture and workplace.”

Like many organizations, Bath said PavCo has had to make the difficult decision to implement a temporary, but necessary, staffing efficiency plan. “It provides financial stability for the short term and ensures long-term business continuity for the organization.” First implemented in June to give employees time to prepare, the plan included “reduction of hours, work-share arrangements and temporary layoffs of employees at every level of our organization.”

GSL Holdings, a leading sports and live entertainment company based in Vancouver with offices in Kelowna, Victoria and the Lower Mainland, faced similar drops in bookings and business.

“Entertainment is a big piece of our business,” said Ravi Dhaliwal, director, human resources. GSL’s business includes a hotel in Kelowna, real estate, technology and food and beverage services. She said some areas were more affected than others.

“There have been layoffs. We still have a lot of our core staff, planning for the 2021 year, working through ticket refunds, etc., but all of our front-line staff in arenas and restaurants have been laid off. We recalled some of them as things started to open up a bit.”

The organization discovered that remote workers fall into one of three groups, Dhaliwal said: they love the flexibility of working from home and would do it all the time if they could, they hate it and miss the interaction of the workplace, or they like a combination of working remotely and on site.

Going Virtual — or Not

Lily Chen is HR director of the Association of Neighbourhood Houses of BC. “We had some temporary layoffs and some permanent. But we’re probably quite fortunate, as a place-based and grassroots-driven sort of organization, we’re able to stay very connected with participants and quickly able to move programs onto virtual programs.”

But close to half the program staff work in childcare. “In early March, we answered the province’s call for essential workers’ childcare,” Chen said. “We were one of the first organizations that opened, so we had to learn and implement a lot of COVID-related protocols. Public health policy evolved, too, so we also had to learn all that. The mixture of remote and on-site staff certainly adds a layer of complexity.

“We have a lot of different program staff, from childcare to senior care, and also behind-the-scenes—payroll, finance and HR. As a not-for-profit, we have a nimble behind-the-scenes infrastructure, but don’t have a lot of surge capacity. We had to actually increase some staff hours and bring in temporary staff.”

Essential on-site workers aren’t getting enough attention, according to David Harvey, a professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and HR consultant with Solutions That Work.

“These employees get up every day, put on their PPE and go to work because that’s the only defence they have. We need to see more written in HR about organizations that employ those kinds of people, what they’re doing, what the challenges are.”

Harvey has been teaching all his classes online since last spring. “The technology still isn’t good enough to offer all learning online,” he said. “Not all learners thrive online. Much of it is really text-based and that hinders those who are learning in a second language or don’t read well or whose dominant learning style is kinesthetic—hands-on. With them, you want to give them an idea or process or skill and then get them to work with it, break it, succeed with it, whatever.”

Interacting virtually “only allows us to deploy two of our senses, sight and hearing,” Harvey said. Ideally, teaching delivery appeals to a variety of senses to reach students who learn in different ways. It’s extremely difficult to teach soft skills virtually, he added.

HR is often responsible for employee training in its organization, and many were embracing online training long before COVID-19 arrived. There can be substantial cost and time savings, as well as environmental benefits, when employees don’t have to travel to a central location for classes, but some types of training are more effective in person. Decisions post-pandemic will have to be made based on more than dollars and cents.

Keeping in Touch

Communications have become even more important as employment situations have shifted. HR practitioners agree that it’s vital for management to reach out to their teams frequently.

“Some teams have some of both (virtual and on-site), so how do you balance that?” Bath said. “We’re amping up how we reach out and communicate with the team, really thinking about team norms and establishing them, ensuring we’re effectively communicating with all of our teams. We make sure cameras are on in meetings so we can all see each other, that team members know how to work with each other in this virtual world and do roundtables so all voices are heard.”

Leaders have done a great job reinforcing compassion and understanding as part of their organizational culture, she adds. “People have kids at home, schooling is online, pets wander in or they’re caring for elderly parents—we understand disruptions sometimes happen, especially during what, for many, has been a difficult time.”

Dhaliwal added, “It’s been really hard because our mission and vision statements centre on community, bringing people together, so how do we ensure people still feel a part of that when we don’t see each other? We rely on videoconferencing, but our digital game had to be top-notch. We were already using Microsoft Teams when it happened—each team has its own channel and uses all the tools. Some teams meet daily, some weekly. We’re doing whatever we can—launching an online company newsletter and using our HR information system to communicate with employees.”

Meanwhile, at PavCo, leaders are encouraging regular pulse surveys to understand how people are feeling, having regular individual on-camera meetings that mimic in-person meetings and encouraging virtual coffees and lunches between colleagues and team members, reinforcing the importance of communication. “We’ve also been doing a lot of coffee chats, having the CEO and senior leaders connecting with small groups of employees in person over the summer when it was allowed,” Bath said. Laid-off employees are also included in virtual social events and townhall meetings.

“The other piece we really tried to emphasize is the social/fun aspect. Two team members really took it on themselves to do Friday lunchtime trivia every week; we did a virtual wellness challenge, in December had various social events that could allow different team members to participate—a virtual games night, introduce-your-pets day, Fancy Friday. We’ve been really mindful of social isolation and how we ensure we’re looking after our team.”

Considering Mental Health

Change, uncertainty and isolation have heightened attention to employee mental health. “I find it’s a silver lining, that organizations are also enhancing health and safety policies, not just for physical, but also looking at mental health issues,” Chen said.

“We expanded our Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) to cover all staff, not just those who are usually eligible. Part-time or short-term employees are often more vulnerable. We’d been advocating for it before COVID, but we prioritized it because of the pandemic.

“We find colleagues are building stronger bonds with each other, which is amazing, because people’s boundaries are becoming blurred when you’re looking into their homes. Our personal and work lives are a lot more integrated, because of COVID and arrangements it required.”

Keeping culture alive and staff engaged remains a challenge as the pandemic continues, she added, “Especially for new hires; other employees had already built some bonds with colleagues and bought into culture, but it’s different for new hires. We’re still opening new childcare centres during the pandemic and sometimes there’s staff turnover for a variety of reasons.”

Dhaliwal said GSL’s EFAP program has also become very important. “We launched it earlier than planned because we understood how much value it would give to people with its access to support and online resources. We’re definitely seeing lots of positive feedback and lots of uptake.”

GSL has been doing a work-from-home series highlighting employees on social media. “The work-from-home series has been fun, highlighting employees from across our business, talking about advantages and disadvantages of working from home. The LinkedIn posts especially get lots of feedback.”

Ideas Whose Time Has Come

While many HR activities are changed due to the pandemic, they’re not all new ideas. Chen said, while many of those tools, policies and measures existed, they weren’t used as frequently or on as large a scale.

“They were slowly making way into workforce, but during the pandemic a lot of organizations have been forced to make expedited decisions to implement those things, with a speed and skill we never imagined we could have or would need. The lockdown and social distancing measures leave organizations with little choice, but some of those are things that HR has championed for years.

“Besides those tools we already have in our toolbox for employee engagement, we really need to start re-thinking and enhancing hiring and onboarding.”

Experiences with virtual onboarding have had mixed reviews. Some have found them to work well, but Harvey is withholding his judgement.

“The normal in-person culturation process is such a rich set of interactions with so many people, that it’s really hard to replicate online and get the engagement you want,” he said.

“I’m beginning to think most organizations are going to find that online onboarding is not as effective as in person, but the jury is still out.”

Onboarding still matters in a time of significant layoffs; some organizations have had to hire because of normal turnover or because of changes in business focus to carry them through the pandemic.

PavCo has leveraged its facilities for use in the film industry. “We’ve done it before but now it’s become a significant area of focus,” Bath said.

The organization has also been working closely with partners in public health to put their venues to use to support the province during the pandemic, including setting up an alternate care site at the Vancouver Convention Centre West. Other public health partners are also using some of the space.

Time to Reflect

The lull between the first and second waves of COVID provided some time to reflect on what was working and what still needed to change in HR practices.

Harvey was somewhat prepared for the pandemic. While he couldn’t have predicted this specific virus, he said, “I kind of had good preparation because I worked as a consultant on our pandemic plan for BC Hospitals in 2008-09. I learned then that outside a pandemic, nobody pays attention.

“Our memories are so short. SARS, swine flu, middle eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS)—yet we’re caught largely unprepared. It’s not a once-in-a century event, it’s the fourth-in-this-century event.”

“If there’s any silver lining,” Chen said, “we’ve really seen the strength and commitment of our people. Formal and informal leaders at all levels have stepped up and risen to the challenges.”

Other practitioners echo her enhanced appreciation of her colleagues’ resilience and commitment.

Bath said that COVID has enabled PavCo to be more tuned in for the next time it faces disruptions and more aware of the potential impacts. “We’ve garnered a lot of learnings about pandemic planning, building our processes for it, achieving alternate revenue streams and more.”

At GSL, staff spent a lot of time planning open office layouts over the past year or so. “We’re now starting to re-visit that for when people come back to the office,” Dhaliwal said. “Open office layouts may not be as beneficial as we thought. We have people who want to return to work but maintain social distances, so we have Plexiglass installed now. We’ll see how that evolves in the future.”

Looking Ahead

What will post-pandemic HR look like? Few think our new normal will be exactly like our old one.

“I think that the pandemic heightened awareness of some areas, such as privacy law,” Chen said. “That will be an important area for HR and legal communities to clarify and find balance in both now and post-pandemic.”

Everyone agreed that increased remote working is here to stay in some form. Most foresee a hybrid model, with employees working part-time at home and part-time at the office, to maximize both team building and engagement as well as personal flexibility. For employers, it can reduce the amount of office space required and increase the geographic area for candidate pools for positions where the employee doesn’t have to be on site often.

That said, “Compensation for remote workers could possibly undergo re-evaluation,” said Harvey. “If someone can work from Castlegar and doesn’t have to move to the expensive Lower Mainland, do I need to pay them the same amount of money?”

He says other areas of compensation should be reviewed, too, now that people know the true value of service workers. In addition, “I think many organizations have not fully grasped that the home office is still the workplace or considered the convergence of Occupational Health and Safety with privacy issues,” he added. “My employer has a legal responsibility to make my workplace safe, but do I want them marching through my house?”

He foresees changes to performance management, organizational design and development, and human resources law, especially in relation to technology and privacy.

“I believe that technology use in HR needs a lot more discussion and examination. Organizations have adopted technology that is incredibly intrusive before they examined its necessity or questioned its ethics. HR needs to bring in medical specialists, sociologists and ethicists to help examine these issues.”

Lasting Change

Even with all of these potential changes, Harvey thinks the Black Lives Matter movement will have more long-term effects than the pandemic. “That movement and the awful events of 2020 finally made people at all levels of organizations understand what systemic racism is and how it pervades organizations. I have far more hope for organizations changing on that front than I do because of the pandemic.”

Bath said she thinks employers have a social responsibility in terms of supporting our team members. “We’ve really stepped up in the past while, giving employees permission to be really open with us and bring their whole selves to work, and I think that will continue. We need to keep flexibility, understanding and compassion, and continue to be attentive to experience and well-being of our employees.”

Meanwhile, Dhaliwal said she’s realized it’s been an “epic” year for HR professionals. “There was so much learning for them to do in such a short amount of time on top of their regular jobs, learning about the wage subsidy, CERB, now CRB, how to answer employee questions to point them in right direction, consulting legal to make sure you’re doing the right thing in new situations, developing COVID policies for a variety of business areas, following evolving COVID safety protocol…HR had to wear a lot of different hats this year, and I’m in awe of the work HR in general and my colleagues have done.”

 


 

Nancy Painter is an award-winning writer and editor from Surrey, B.C., and a member of the Canadian Freelance Guild.

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