Return to the Canadian Worksite Is Proving Challenging

By Katie Nadworny August 31, 2021
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workers wearing masks returning to the office

​When Mateo Jumas shifted to working from home at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he had to make many adjustments. As a teacher who works with youth through a nonprofit in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, his lessons moved to Zoom, while his lesson planning and administrative work moved out of the office. 

But Jumas found numerous benefits in remote work: Some students found it easier to join classes, especially on inclement winter days; he was available to his students more easily; and doing his work from the comfort of home let him structure his workday in a way that worked well for him and led to excellent results.

In March 2021, Jumas returned to in-person teaching while his administrative work remained remote. Now, however, as Canada starts the process of returning to in-person work, Jumas is reluctant to return to the office full time. He isn't the only worker Canadian employers are having to persuade about the benefits of returning to the worksite.

Employers Must Navigate the Return to the Office

Navigating who needs to return to in-person work is one of the many issues arising as Canadian companies slowly begin to return to the office. 

Some employers are bringing employees back into the office, said Jessyca Greenwood, an attorney with SpringLaw in Toronto. The return to the office "is coinciding with the reopening plan that we have in Ontario," she said. "But what we're also seeing is that employers are allowing, in some cases, employees to choose whether to come back or whether to continue to work remotely."

According to a study conducted by the Angus Reid Institute, 29 percent of Canadians who worked from home during the pandemic would prefer to continue to work from home indefinitely, while 44 percent would prefer a hybrid of in-person and at-home work and only 27 percent would prefer to return to the worksite full time.

Provincial Governments Provide Guidelines

Employers that are trying to manage the transition back to worksites can reference their provincial government's health guidelines.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Labor, Training and Skills Development, "Ontario's guide to developing a COVID-19 workplace safety plan was designed as a simple, flexible, risk-focused process to help employers identify COVID-19 risks in their workplaces and implement appropriate control measures for their specific situation based on public health guidance and restrictions, as well as sector-based considerations."

Other provinces, including Alberta, also provide official COVID-19 health and safety guidelines to businesses.

If Employees Are Reluctant to Return

Employers that want employees back in the office can create a policy, give employees notice and have them come back, Greenwood said. In some cases, if an employee asks for an accommodation, "The employer would have to work with the employee to see why that employee doesn't want to come back to the office. And if it's a health reason or any reason that's covered under the Human Rights Code, then legally, the employer would have an obligation to accommodate that employee's request up to the point of undue hardship." 

Canadians who were hired during the pandemic and have primarily worked from home for the duration of their employment might be able to argue that working from home is a condition of their employment, especially if the terms were not properly explained when they were hired. "In that case, employees do have some rights. They could assert a constructive dismissal if the employer were to change that," Greenwood said.

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul. 

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

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