Organizations across Canada face a new duality of safely transitioning their workforce back to physical locations while reimagining the future of work and business. But health and safety aren’t new to the sector – these were priorities long before COVID-19 and have only been amplified as companies look to adjust to a new normal.
Some companies have suspended operations, while others continue to work where possible. Regardless, until a permanent medical solution to COVID-19 becomes available, the unique working conditions in mines undoubtedly creates challenges as employees work in tightly packed areas, travel to remote locations, and eat and sleep in communal spaces. Risks may also be heightened for surrounding communities, where local workers commute to and from.
While companies have been implementing stringent policies to follow health and safety recommendations to help minimize the spread of infection as employees return to work, tactics such as personal protective equipment, physical distancing, health self-assessments, temperature screening and travel limitations are not long-term solutions.
With no end to the impact of COVID-19 in sight, companies will have to build out a stronger health function within their overall Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) framework that drives a trusted transition and future-focused transformation. Having a detailed workplace health strategy can help protect workers and their communities, ensure regulatory compliance, protect reputation and maximize organizational success. This should build on and expand current measures, monitoring and feedback mechanisms to quickly adapt to changing circumstances. Some of the immediate considerations include:
- Return in phases: Physical distancing requirements mean it won’t be possible to bring back all employees to the office at once. Companies must assess their operational needs and determine priority skillsets, set staggered schedules, new rosters and rethink roles.
- Be agile to respond to changes: The landscape is still very fluid. Active scenario planning can help anticipate changes in health and safety risks and the necessary compliance requirements to keep operations running should they emerge.
- Prepare for employee absenteeism. There may be employees who do not feel comfortable returning to work due to family or underlying health issues, pushing onsite roles and responsibilities to others who may not be familiar with new tasks. Providing adequate training and upskilling those who are stepping in to fill gaps will help minimize risk.
- Invest in technology enablers. Developing frontline applications for health checks, screening, fitness-for-work monitoring, supplemented by a central platform to automate processing, medical surveillance, analytics and case management can help mitigate the risks of contamination, while providing tools to manage more robust health practices and to inform decisions.
It’s not enough to focus on the near term. Companies must consider how they’ll work differently in the future. Preparing and adapting to these shifts creates an opportunity for reinvention of the workplace in a sector where a culture revamp is necessary to attract and retain new talent. Employees across industries will be coming out of the pandemic with new behaviours and mindsets, as well as new proven models. Companies will have to be flexible and open to new ways of working, offer opportunities to expand current skillsets and enable employees through digital technology. Actioning a strategic return to office plan can aid in creating a healthy and safe work environment for current employees while transforming the workplace to accommodate a new talent pool.
Investing in a long-term transformation for the new ways of working will require a look back at lessons learned to reimagine health and safety and strengthen business continuity plans to build resilience and better respond to future crises. There will be a number of best practices that come out of this — companies cannot waste the opportunity to identify what health and safety measures should be stopped and what should continue.
As businesses prepare to return to work, the role that leaders play is critical. Organizations need to demonstrate that they’re making strategic and operational decisions to improve the health and well-being of their employees. Doing so with empathy, patience and transparency will help to secure employee trust and build an optimal work environment during the transition and for future transformation.
Thibaut Millet is a partner at EY Canada focused on transforming clients’ Health, Safety and Environment practices. For more information on return to work, visit www.ey.com/en_ca/covid-19.