Op-Ed: A perfect storm of tough choices faces today’s pandemic-weary workplaces

masks in the workplace

If I hide behind my mask, I wonder if it will protect me from the perfect storm that’s brewing in workplaces today.

It’s only been a few weeks since we were all given permission to take our masks off, but in our COVID world things change very quickly.  

Do you remember where you were the first time you had to make the big decision to mask or not to mask? I know I do. Looking back on that moment, what went through your mind as you made that choice? Would you make the same choice today, given that the landscape seems to be shifting on us again? Now imagine if you had to make that choice for others!

As a human resources expert, what’s worrying me is we seem to have a trifecta happening in our workplaces.  

First, mask mandates are lifted, but are they? Despite the lifting of mask mandates, employers are being “encouraged” to ask that masks continue to be worn indoors. Second, we’re seeing some employers mandating a return to the workplace, while others are adopting hybrid or fully remote work options. Third, in some cases, unvaccinated employees who were not previously permitted to be in the workplace are now being invited back. All the while, we are being told not to place our confidence in rapid tests.  

Can you see the dilemma?  

So, let’s unpack this and take a sneak peek at the day-to-day pressures that are placed on leadership teams and entrepreneurs who must navigate all of this and what others can learn. 

Previously, employers were mandated to have a COVID-19 safety plan that outlined the safety measures the employer had in place. This included personal protective equipment like masks and physical distancing. It also included the organization’s vaccination policy, which outlined the specific decisions around whether employees were required to be vaccinated and what accommodations would be in place. The requirement to have such a plan has since been lifted for most workplaces. That means employers are left to make their own decisions about whether employees must be vaccinated and whether masks should continue to be worn. 

That sure does put managers in a tough spot. 

In some workplaces, the choice was made that everyone would continue to wear masks. In other cases, people were making a personal choice and asking that individuals be respected, no matter the choice. Slowly we were starting to see posts and photos on social media about the return of the in-person meeting or in-person event. Together, we saw a nice variety of masked and unmasked people going about their day-to-day activities.   

Then, a new layer of complexity was added last week when Ottawa Public Health announced it is “encouraging” employers to ask that masks be worn indoors for a couple of weeks.   

Also at the heart of this storm is the vaccination policy. Many unvaccinated employees were placed on unpaid leave if they chose not to comply with the organization’s requirement for all employees to be vaccinated.  

In some circumstances, employees were terminated for not complying with the vaccination policy because the work they performed was “safety sensitive in nature” and/or their workplace had to comply with specific safety requirements.  

Now that mandates are lifted, many employers are inviting employees back to the workplace. In some cases, that includes an invitation to unvaccinated employees. At the same time, we are being told that rapid tests are not reliable and may give a false sense of security. Employment lawyers are following this closely, as you can well imagine.  

There isn’t a leader I know who hasn’t had sleepless nights trying to unpack all of this and find a way to make the best choices, based on their organization’s context. Everyone is keenly aware that we are in a talent crisis. Cost of living is the highest it’s been in decades and employers can’t afford to alienate their employees or their customers.  

So, let’s go back to my earlier question.  

What if you were the person responsible for making those decisions and your livelihood and the livelihoods of the people who worked for you depended on you making the right decisions? Would you make the same choices today, given that the landscape seems to be shifting on us again?  

There is no right or wrong choice. There are only tough choices. Leadership teams and entrepreneurs deserve our love and gratitude. They’re weathering this storm the best way they can.  

Karen Brownrigg is the CEO of Ottawa-based iHR Advisory Services. She has spent decades helping employers of all sizes, within Canada and around the world, navigate difficult questions and implement solutions.