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Canadian employers are not rushing employees back to the office as provinces lift business lockdowns, according to a new survey.

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With provincial governments starting to lift business lockdowns that were meant to curtail the spread of COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, Canadian organizations are radically rethinking traditional work arrangements as they prepare to reopen their workplaces.

While restrictions are easing, the virus still poses a considerable threat if employers bring back too many employees too soon, says researcher Allison Cowan, director of human capital at the Conference Board of Canada.

“They worry about employees testing positive, about outbreaks in their workplaces, about bringing employees back and then having to close workplaces again,” Ms. Cowan said in an interview from her home in Ottawa. (At this point, the Conference Board is operating completely remotely and will continue to do so for some time.)

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“Employers are telling us it’s too early to make decisions about what will be in place in the long-term. [However] this crisis has presented an opportunity to rethink traditional work,” she said.

Indeed, 30 per cent of 294 organizations recently surveyed by the Conference Board of Canada feel the safest course, for now, is to ask employees who are currently working from home to keep working from home. Forty per cent will ask employees to return to work “in some capacity” but are open to work-from-home arrangements when their presence isn’t required. Another 27 per cent will allow employees to choose where they want to work. Most are willing to exempt medically-vulnerable employees and those with caregiving responsibilities from reporting in person. The goal is to phase in the repopulation of the workplace and limit the number of people on site.

Those who do return when workplaces reopen should find that work stations are more spread out, common areas are regularly disinfected, colleagues are wearing face masks and floors have been marked with lines and directional arrows to discourage personal-space violations, the Conference Board said.

"For employees returning to workplaces, safety will be paramount," Ms. Cowan said in releasing the Conference Board's findings, published in its Working Through COVID-19: Return to Work Survey.

Still, few Canadian organizations have gone as far as Ottawa-based e-commerce giant Shopify Inc., which announced on May 21 that its offices will remain closed until 2021 and, even then, most of its 5,000-plus employees will likely shift to permanent remote-work arrangements.

"COVID is challenging us all to work together in new ways," Shopify chief executive officer Tobias Lutke said in a Twitter post. "We can't go back to the way things were. This isn't a choice; this is the future."

Employers looking for ways to safely reopen their workplaces can draw inspiration from some of the innovations that essential-service organizations have come up with to ease the pressure on employees required to work throughout the crisis, Ms. Cowan said.

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For instance, Vancouver City Savings Credit Union has kept just one-third of its branches on full-service status and organized financial-service representatives into rotating squads. Employees spend one week serving members in branches, one week working from home taking calls and one week on paid leave to rest up. This schedule is designed to reduce the risk and stress involved in working through a pandemic, Vancity board chair Jan O’Brien said in an interview. “The idea was to make it easier for people to go to work.”

The Conference Board survey, which canvassed employers across all sectors, captured shifting sentiments when it asked employers about their workplace practices before the pandemic and the approach they might take after the crisis has passed. Before COVID-19, only 9 per cent of respondents said they had “as many employees as possible” working remotely. Almost 50 per cent said they might adopt that approach post-pandemic.

This rush to remote does not sit well with everybody. Employees should be given choice in the matter once it is safe to return to the office, says Ottawa software developer Pat Suwalski, who tweeted his alarm after Shopify announced plans to have the bulk of its workforce working permanently off-site from now on.

Mr. Suwalski is not directly affected; he works as an information-technology specialist with Vectorface Inc., which creates software for the gaming industry. During the pandemic, he and his colleagues have been working like gangbusters – from home – because the gaming business is booming due to increased demand, he said.

But Mr. Suwalski, who has been navigating around the needs of two toddlers at home, misses the creative interplay between the techies, artists and web designers at the office.

“I can’t wait to get back. Of course, it’s going to depend on things like [the resumption of] daycare and all that.”

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