Health and safety

Resuming Operations: Is It Time to Go Back?

May 08, 2020

Are you and your employees tired of working from home? Well, we might have some good news! Many jurisdictions across the country are starting to pull back restrictions, allowing many Canadians to go back to work. While it might still be some time before employees working from home can return to offices, there is hope right now.

There are a few things you need to consider, though: just because you can let everyone come back to work, should you? And, if you choose to, what other challenges may arise? We received many questions like these after our most recent COVID-19 webinar. We’ll take a look at some of the most popular questions, but you can also download the full webinar at the bottom of this article to get valuable advice from one of our experts.

How soon can we end WFH?

Above all, don’t resume operations unless government orders permit it. Provincial and territorial governments have instituted shutdown orders under their emergency powers, and violating those orders could bring significant legal penalties.

Once your jurisdiction’s government lifts the shutdown order, you can start resuming normal operations. Most governments have announced no firm date for ending their shutdown, but it is likely they will lift restrictions gradually, relaxing measures to see what happens, then deciding to relax further or strengthen again. We don’t know yet whether further shutdowns will be necessary, so it’s important to move cautiously.

What should our transition plan look like?

Of course every transition plan will be unique in its particulars, but in general you should prioritize the work to be done and bring employees back according to those priorities. For example, if your organization has been entirely working from home, prioritize functions that are best served in person, and wait on bringing back employees whose work can be done just as easily remotely. Likewise, if some employees couldn’t work from home, you might bring them back first, and leave the remote workers until later.

If layoffs are involved, follow the appropriate recall procedures you established. In a unionized environment, the collective agreement generally specifies recall procedures in case of a layoff. Otherwise, determine whether you can bring everyone back at once or need to prioritize certain functions. Let employees know what your plans are and communicate any changes. The transition back to work will pose new and unique challenges, so don’t leave employees confused and guessing.

How can we keep employees safe when they return?

All employers have a duty under their respective jurisdiction’s occupational health and safety legislation to do everything reasonable to keep employees healthy and safe, including continually assessing risks. Although the pandemic has changed many things about how we live and work, the responsibility for health and safety remains the same.

Even once businesses are allowed to re-open, there will still be danger of infection, so don’t abandon your precautions. Continue cleaning high-touch surfaces frequently , limit contact, and maintain social distancing. Where necessary, re-arrange the workplace to allow for two metres between people at all times . If you have client-facing employees, install physical barriers (for example, acrylic glass panels) to keep them safe. Encourage employees to disclose symptoms immediately, and be generous about sick time and leaves. Resuming normal operations will be a slow process, and not necessarily steady. Expect setbacks and plan accordingly.

What if some employees complain that they’re being brought back? Or that they’re not?

First, bear in mind that without a collective agreement, the employer can choose whom to recall and when. That said, you need to be mindful that your approach isn’t inadvertently discriminatory. There may be human rights considerations in how you recall employees from layoff, so give some thought to your method.

One of the best ways to address complaints is communication. Complaints are generally symptoms of misunderstanding, confusion, or uncertainty, so take steps to understand what employees are concerned about and address their worries directly. Employees may worry about contracting COVID-19 if they return to work, so explain the precautions you’ll take for their protection. Employees might be worried about income if they remain off work, so explain what programs they might qualify for. Recall processes might strike some employees as unfair or biased, so be clear on who is being recalled and why. There are still many tough decisions ahead, and resuming operations will be a fraught process, so be patient and understanding with employees, and communicate early and often.


What does resuming operations mean for benefits, EI, or other government programs?

With most governments having yet to offer formal plans or firm dates for relieving restrictions, we can’t say how the programs and benefits rolled out for the pandemic response will be affected. It is likely that governments will gradually phase out supports. Some programs were announced with endpoints. Certain protected leaves introduced for the pandemic, for example, are set to be revoked later this year. Follow payroll procedures for reactivation as you would for any other protected leave, and offer the employee guidance on reporting earnings from EI.

The government responses to the pandemic are still evolving, but as we learn more, we will continue to update our resources with answers.


As your employees begin to return to work, be mindful that it will still be an adjustment. We’ve spent months away from other people, and it may take time to get used to being at work again.

It’s also important to continue health and safety measures and, in some cases, implement new measures. Communicating what you are doing to protect your team may help them feel more comfortable as they return to work.


Get the webinar replay and more information

Click here to download the webinar replay to learn more about government programs, keeping employees safe, and employee wellness tips from one of our HR experts.

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