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Office space in downtown Montreal, Quebec, April 8, 2021.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Almost half of Canadians don’t expect the workplace to return to normal this year amid concerns about the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and uncertainty about safety on the job.

A joint survey conducted in March by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce (CCC) and Abacus Data found 45 per cent of employed Canadian adults didn’t think their workplace will be “more or less back to normal like it was before the pandemic” until 2022, while only one in four expected it to be by September or October.

One of the biggest challenges companies across the country now face is trying to figure out timelines for the many employees working from home to return to the workplace, while ensuring precautions are taken to make the experience as safe as possible.

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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Canadian employers have been forced to shift to remote-work models for as many people as possible. More than one in three are working from home most or all of the time, according to the survey. Making these individuals feel safe in the workplace after working from home for more than a year, in some cases, will require plenty of effort from employers, said Abacus chief executive officer David Coletto.

“For employers who, at some point over the next few months, are going to start to think about how do we entice our team members back into large office buildings, which are really the locations where people aren’t going to the office, this data tells me it’s going to be about educating, making people feel comfortable, clearly laying out a protocol that’s going to work,” Mr. Coletto said.

The pace of vaccine deployment is key to any return-to-work timeline. Canada had a slow start distributing and administering vaccines, but the pace is picking up as more become available. That may shift attitudes of workers and could pave the way for the return to workplaces later this year.

In the meantime, many remain hesitant about returning. Henna Jethva, who teaches English as a second language at English School of Canada in Toronto, said when the company shifted to a remote-work model last year it was “a bit of a scramble” and, in the beginning, she missed teaching in person. Now, she prefers teaching online but would like to work in person at least some of the time when her workplace returns to normal. But she doesn’t expect that to happen any time soon.

“I think, even for the next year or so, people are not going to feel 100 per cent comfortable being in public spaces,” Ms. Jethva said. “With the necessity of wearing masks and disinfecting everything, I think that’s going to take a while.”

One in two Canadians working from home hardly did so before the pandemic, according to the survey.

Until a return to the workplace is safe, employers need to work with people’s preferences when it comes to remote work, said David Zweig, who studies organizational behaviour and HR management at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.

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“One year-plus into this, some of us are really tired of it – tired of not being able to separate work from our home lives,” he said.

“Other people are looking at it differently – they’re thinking, ‘Well, I’ve gained a lot from this opportunity to work from home and I want to continue it.’ So really, it comes down to how people have managed – how they’ve coped.”

Nora Jenkins Townson, founder of Bright + Early, a human-resources consultancy firm serving primarily technology-enabled companies, said the months ahead will require “flexibility and grace” from employers.

“We’ve recommended definitely trying to move to asynchronous work schedules, especially to accommodate people who are caregivers, during this time,” Ms. Jenkins Townson said, adding that failing to do so could contribute to workplace gender gaps, as women are often the main caregivers in families. She said her firm also recommends its clients offer optional temporary part-time hours or leaves to their employees.

The ability and necessity of an employer to offer remote or mixed-work models depends on its location and facilities. The CCC/Abacus Data survey found just more than three-quarters of Canadians in rural areas are still going to their workplaces, compared with about 60 per cent in urban and suburban areas. Sixty-one per cent of Canadians who typically work in high-rise buildings are working from home, while nine in 10 who normally work in large warehouses and factories are going into work at least half of the time.

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