Workplace Physical Distancing Opportunities

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The business is eager to return to operations, but physical distancing is creating challenges, like preventing the spread of coronavirus and managing work refusals. But by piggybacking remote work due to physical distancing, it also creates opportunities, like the reduction of overhead costs.

  1. Downsizing the Office or Downsizing the Payroll  

The business used different strategies to control costs, since the first 2020 lockdown started. Most of them opted for temporary layoffs, terminations without cause or government’s wage subsidies.

Now, it seems to be the time to rethink those strategies and recall employees within physical distancing environments. What if the business could keep the workforce performing remotely while downsizing physical offices and reducing lease costs? Or, should the business reorganize its workforce altogether?

Many things can go wrong, and a COVID-19’s transitioning plan is needed.

If the business opts for downsizing the workforce, it needs to think about terminations costs, and after recovery, hiring and training costs.

If the business opts for remote work, it will have to assess whether it can support its payroll. If it turns out that it cannot, there are ways to transfer part of its payroll cost without reducing the workforce.

For example, the business could apply for an extended work-sharing program, which is an agreement between the government, the business, and its employees. Employees agree to reduced hours of work and gain access to Employment Insurance. The business keeps their workforce and employees maintain their skills updated.        

  1. Preventing the Spread of Covid-19 and Work refusals

If the business can recall its employees to its traditional working space, it faces the prevention of the highly contagious novel COVID-19 and the employees’ fear of catching it at work. Occupational health and safety laws (H&S) mandate the business to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, like COVID-19.

The way the business prevents COVID-19 includes several steps, such as having a H&S policy, which should be aligned with the nature of the business. For example, a food manufacturing plant would take different workers’ protective measures than those of office spaces. This policy will list the potential sources of contamination, the steps taken to prevent the spread, the steps to take in case of contagion, and the responsible person or group of people managing the policy.

On the other side of the same coin, workers have the right to refuse to perform work when they have a reason to believe that part or all the workplace’s physical condition is likely to endanger them. Refusals must be reported, investigated, and a decision would be made as to whether it was appropriate or not, and whether the employer has taken or will undertake measures to control the workplace’s endangering conditions. If you want to know more about work refusals, listen to Working Title. An Employment Law Podcast, Episode: Work Refusals.

In the meantime, we wait for Martians to land on Earth, business leaders make sure that you understand your health and safety responsibilities well, and have a COVID-19's transitioning plan in place.

Stay safe! Stay healthy!

Antonio F. Urdaneta is a marathon runner, a workplace lawyer, investigator, compliance coach, and thought leader at Workplace Legal.  He uses coaching skills and tools to inform, advice and represent workplaces in digital and physical legal challenges and endeavours, including COVID-19 challenges.