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Event summary produced by The Globe and Mail Events team. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

Businesses across Canada are heading into an uncertain fall as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in many jurisdictions. Employers are working to protect the health and safety of staff who have remained at work while at the same time, navigating remote work and the potential return to the office by staff.

The Globe and Mail, in partnership with Kronos, hosted a webcast on September 23 to explore the key issues, from the role of technology in workplace safety to employer and employee legal obligations.

Highlights from the discussion appear below the recorded webcast.

Highlights from the discussion:

1). Employee productivity remains high

Through recent years, the traditional ‘command and control’ approach to management has given way to employee empowerment, resulting in high productivity among remote and on-site employees alike, said Gregg Gordon, vice-president of industries with Kronos, a workforce and human capital management company. The change has helped mitigate impacts on staff morale and engagement through the pandemic.

As COVID-19 health and safety threats continue Mr. Gordon said it’s important for employers to use technology to digitize manual processes such as tracking employee shifts, to gain visibility into who is at work at any given time. He also suggested loosening up requirements around seniority or skills to create a larger pool of employees who can flex across the organization.

2). Agility and communication are critical

Paul Wood, president and CEO of Giant Tiger Stores Ltd. said employee surveys or pulse checks help track how employees are feeling. Like other retailers Giant Tiger implemented a $2 per hour wage premium for staff working in its stores. But as others cancelled the premium, Giant Tiger maintained it – further boosting staff engagement.

Company webcasts are also helping employees feel informed and heard. Heading into the fall Mr. Wood said agility will be paramount. Businesses have to be ready to adjust if COVID-19 cases rise. The Holiday shopping season will be vastly different than past years – another challenge for retailers to prepare for.

3). Keep mental wellness top of mind

Employers play an important role in employee mental health and wellness, said Dr. Sarah Funnell, associate medical officer of health with Ottawa Public Health. She called on businesses to be flexible through the fall if employees such as those with children can’t come to work. Local health agencies are working in partnership with employers to help create safe workplaces, she said. The agencies will inspect businesses if health issues arise.

For their part, employees should stay home and keep their kids home if they have the sniffles. Now is not the time to come to work sick, or to expand social circles. Many cases of COVID-19 in the workplace result from interactions at home, Dr. Funnell said.

4). Be cautious with return to work

Randy Ai, barrister and solicitor with Randy Ai Law Office in Toronto said employers must accommodate employees who can’t return to work for reasons related to human rights, such as a disability, a health condition or the need to care for a child or dependent. If the reason is unrelated to a human right employers may be able to discipline the employee or terminate employment, he said.

For remote staff, the longer virtual working continues the more complex the issue could become. For instance, asking an employee who has been working remotely for close to a year to return to the physical workplace could be interpreted as the removal of an employee benefit or even constructive dismissal, he said. Employers who are uncertain about how to proceed should seek legal counsel.

Watch the full webcast above.

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