Social distancing and isolation from the workplace, and each other, has introduced a whole new set of challenges and opportunities for both employers and employees.
"Adapting to the New Normal" was one webinar in Workplace Safety North's series of COVID-19 Conversations that brought aboard Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board safety officer Karen McKissick and Amy Kembel, manager of safety and training at Synergy North, as featured speakers on May 21.
"It's forced us to stretch ourselves, which I think is a good thing," said Kembel, who discussed the big shift in thinking on employee engagement and supporting those who are working remotely.
"The (management) playbook has been shredded and burned in the campfire," added McKissick.
At her school board, all staff, with the exception of sanitation personnel, are working at home, likely until September. But at Synergy North, a Thunder Bay electrical distribution company, Kembel said they took the pre-emptive planning steps in March to physically separate their workforce of 75 into two divisions.
Administrative and support staff were sent home to work while tradespeople remained in the field.
In working with their union and local health unit, they developed modified work schedules to stagger out start times, procedures for entering buildings, use of vehicles and employing PPE masks.
They also instituted a process of daily screenings of all their contractors.
"It was a very busy time right out of the gate," said Kembel.
"It's created a very busy work environment but different problems to solve, which has been really interesting."
The physical separation of the workforce, they discussed, has brought employee mental health issues to the forefront, in a good way.
Working from home for an extended period can heighten anxiety levels among some employees trying to function in uncertain times.
As a manager, Kembel said it's important to regularly check in with employees and have those open and honest conversations, particularly those who struggle with isolation, and simply chat on non-work-related stuff.
"It's OK not to be OK."
Kembel, who set up her home work station on the dining room table, admitted she felt her anxiety swell when Ontario declared a state of emergency and the reality sunk in that "we're not going anywhere" for an extended period.
"I broke," she said. "I really felt myself struggling."
She re-established a dedicated home office space in the basement, stayed within her routine, set rigid start and end-work times, and mentally prepared herself that she was in it for the long haul. Scheduling non-negotiable times for an early-morning workout proved a big help.
"It changed my entire game."
McKissick found herself gravitating toward coworkers who exhibited a positive attitude and began cultivating closer relationships, injecting humour wherever she could.
Webinar moderator Angèle Poitras shared her own experience of Workplace Safety North's decision to move their annual spring mining health and safety conference online for the first time.
It forced her out of her comfort zone as she was being asked to host the virtual event on a technology platform she had no familiarity with.
The building anxiety was almost more than Poitras could bear, but she found her footing in adapting to the technology.
The pandemic, they said, should influence the way bosses adapt their leadership styles to engage individual staff.
That can be done through better communication, transparency and honesty.
McKissick noticed a trend among some remote colleagues where there are three or four days of productivity, followed by a dropoff, then a reset, as people struggle with the isolating effects of COVID-19.
By way of performance levels, Kembel said it's unrealistic for employers to expect the same level of productivity every day from their at-home workers.
Work still needs to get done and expectations have to be made clear.
But employees must be given the flexibility to perform when they're in the right frame of mind, Kembel said, whether that's late at night or early in the morning, considering they may be parenting in the middle of the workday.
Working from home also means delivering a level of accountabilty. It's forced both managers and employees to stay connected through virtual meeting technologies that's opened up new doors, Kembel said.
"I think it's the ultimate experiment. You wouldn't have ever done this to try it out."
She was unfamiliar with the Zoom videoconferencing platform but now has chaired several virtual meetings.
All acknowledged employers need to walk a fine line to keep staff engaged and feel supported, but not act in an obtrusive Big Brother way.
They agreed that wildly popular employee-monitoring software, which offers digital computer surveillance of staff working at home to measure productivity, is not the way to engender trust.
McKissick said how they treat their staff during this period of uncertainty and volatility will ultimately go a long way toward employee retention for when the economy returns to normal.
"This is the time for management to recognize they can make or break their employees," said McKissick.
Looking ahead, McKissick suspects working from home might become part of the new normal.
Her school board is reassessing various positions to potentially create a new hybrid workforce, particularly in accommodating those with immunocompromised systems.
"I think it's going be a new, interesting, blended workforce."