Partial reopening of office spaces: What to expect

This article originally appeared on the Canadian Lawyer InHouse website. 

Agility and adaptability will be essential for Canadian employers moving forward. 

In recent weeks, public authorities across the country have made several announcements regarding the resumption of activities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In certain instances, these announcements have generated some confusion. 

For example, in the province of Quebec, the return of employees to offices has been promulgated, subject to several conditions and only up to a specific occupancy limit. This has been done to stimulate the economy and encourage a return to normal. Still, many observers have noted that authorities simultaneously underlined the importance of maintaining telework arrangements as far as possible for the foreseeable future. 

To put things into context, a provincial decree was adopted on July 15, and came into force three days later. The decree made it mandatory, with a few exceptions, to wear a mask or face covering in enclosed or partially enclosed public places. Therefore, operators of office buildings must now ensure that all occupants comply with this new requirement, as well as with other existing public safety standards, such as social distancing. 

Simultaneously, as this decree was adopted, the Minister of Labour, Employment and Social Solidarity announced the possibility for employers to bring up to 25 per cent of their staff back into the office. However, several warnings were issued, the main ones being the following:

  • Teleworking is still strongly encouraged; 
  • Face coverings are mandatory in all common office areas, including elevators and hallways; 
  • Wherever possible, workplaces should be rearranged to ensure that the social distance of two metres is respected; 
  • Preference should be given to employees who provide direct client service, those for whom telework poses organizational challenges or those for whom family arrangements are problematic.  

In summary, to comply with all the public health measures put in place to curb the pandemic, a worker returning to their office must wear a mask or face covering at all times, except when physically in their closed office. In all other places, face coverings are required unless social distancing between co-workers and/or clients is possible. 

Similar measures have been or will be adopted in other provinces as office spaces reopen. Penalties for violations of public health measures will vary from one provincial jurisdiction to another. Still, in Quebec, it should be noted that anyone who contravenes these standards is liable to a fine ranging from $400 to $6,000. 

Accordingly, employers have a vested interest in enforcing these rules and ensuring that employees returning to the office are properly instructed to wear a face covering at all times (except when they are in their closed offices) and to respect all other rules, including social distancing. 

So far, we have not seen a rush of teleworking employees wanting to return to their offices. In many cases, achieving fluidity between the professional and personal spheres took months of trial and error. Teleworkers who have finally found their balance and are being productive at home are not necessarily eager to get back to the office. The measures mentioned above also make it far less attractive to go back to the office at the moment. 

Employers can use this relatively quiet time to develop their “back- to- the- office” strategy, whether this involves new and improved telework policies, significantly reduced or rearranged office spaces or a more robust IT infrastructure. Employers should also consider adding an appendix to their health and safety policies to include public safety measures, albeit on a temporary basis. 

One thing is clear: Our relationship to office space will be permanently affected by the current situation. While this may be challenging for some employers, there are some positive consequences. For example, from a recruitment point of view, there is now a larger talent pool for companies whose infrastructure supports teleworking, as candidates’ geographic location will no longer pose an obstacle for them. 

Agility and adaptability will be essential for Canadian employers moving forward. Those who can adapt and offer adequate teleworking conditions will be more attractive to potential candidates and better positioned to thrive. 

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