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Brian Hartlen, vice president of product marketing for Verafin Inc., is photographed at the Verafin satellite office in Toronto on March 11, 2020.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

A growing number of Canadian companies are asking employees to work from home in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Technology companies, many of which already provide workers remote access, have fewer barriers to making the switch, while other office-based businesses are also putting together contingency plans and ramping up technological capabilities.

The increased steps involve plans to address problems around confidential information, ensuring productivity and helping employees deal with the potential mental-health issues that may result from working at home for long periods. Remote work will not be an option for those in service industries or those who require specialized equipment.

Newfoundland’s Verafin Inc., the largest domestic technology company in Atlantic Canada, said Wednesday it is encouraging employees to work remotely, hoping that 90 per cent of its 500 workers will take up the option. The fraud-detection software provider also scrapped plans for a company anniversary party Friday that was expected to attract 1,000 guests to the St. John’s Convention Centre and feature a performance by Sam Roberts Band.

Around 600 Toronto employees of health-marketing agency Klick Health have been working at home since Monday, while health-benefits startup League Inc. said it has been rotating teams of workers through remote work. Google Inc., which has offices in Toronto, Montreal and Kitchener, said its North American offices remain open but the company has recommended employees work from home.

What can I do to stay safe from COVID-19?

The virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through airborne droplets by coughing or sneezing, through touching a surface those droplets have touched, or through personal contact with infected people.

Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly

The World Health Organization recommends regular hand-washing and physical distancing – that is, keeping at least two metres from someone with a cough. If you have to cough or sneeze, do it into your sleeve or a tissue, not your hands. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth or nose if you can.

The CDC says to frequently clean dirty surfaces with soap and water before disinfecting them.

  • If you show symptoms of COVID-19, seek medical attention and do what your health-care provider recommends. That may include staying home from work or school and getting lots of rest until the symptoms go away.

COVID-19 is much more serious for older adults. As a precaution, older adults should continue frequent and thorough hand-washing, and avoid exposure to people with respiratory symptoms.

Check the WHO’s information page for more details on the virus, and The Globe and Mail’s guide of what health officials say is helpful for the public to do or not do about it.

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Ottawa-based Shopify Inc. said it will ask all employees to work remotely as of Monday. The company has 4,000 employees in Canada and says half of its work force, primarily customer support workers, already work remotely.

Other white-collar employers are testing web-conferencing systems and other software, buying extra laptops and crafting new policies for employees who don’t typically work from home, says Kathleen Chevalier, an employment law partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP in Toronto. She said companies are setting out productivity expectations and providing guidelines on items such as handling confidential information while off-site.

"Issues that you don’t have to think about in the office environment, you might have to turn your mind to in the home environment,” she said. "It’s this idea that you are, in fact, working from home. So, while you may be in your sweatpants and not having to commute in, the expectation is that you are still producing at the level you would otherwise be expected.”

Doron Melnick, a partner in KPMG’s people and change advisory services division, said conversations around remote working have increased significantly in the past 48 hours.

“We’re not seeing these blanket, everybody-work-from-home situations for the majority of organizations, but what we are starting to see – and this is true of our own organization – is curtailing the number of large meetings, and only having the meetings in person if it’s critical.”

Certain bank employees, such as traders, do require specialized equipment and cannot work from home, Mr. Melnick said.

“What we want to do is split them onto separate floors, so we don’t have entire teams going down. And there’s a cascade effect. In order to free up the space to split up teams across floors, you might ask certain teams to go and work from home.”

Companies are suggesting employees carry laptops everywhere, even on vacation in the event that they get stranded somewhere and need to work, Mr. Melnick said. Most financial services companies already use remote working tools, such as voice-over IP, Skype for Business and Slack, and he said that many of those companies have contingency plans in place, with some having faced previous building shutdowns owing to electrical fires or flooding in Toronto’s downtown core.

Still, he said that the isolation of working from home for extended periods of time can lead to its own stress, and employers should help workers prepare from a psychological perspective by letting them know, “this might be the new normal for a while.”

“I think we’re going to see as people put their technical plans in place … the next wave of thinking will be around how do we sustain this if we need to? How do we offer the right mental-health supports?”

“There’s nothing more important than staying connected," Klick Health president Lori Grant said. "Whether that’s virtual coffees – where you both go get a coffee, put yourself on video and have that coffee together – or lunch. The things that you would normally do in an office environment, you can replicate that.”

Meanwhile, working from home will simply not be possible for many others, says Andréa Coutu, a Vancouver-based marketing consultant and entrepreneur coach.

“I’m hearing from entrepreneurs and employers in service industries that this is going to be painful … Some are talking to banks and property managers about credit terms. How do you pay the bills if no one is at your shop? This is going to hit some businesses very hard.”

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