Forces of Change

  • April 27, 2021
  • Jennifer Brown

Forces of Change

More than a year after the shutdowns began, many are craving a return to office life as it existed before the pandemic—structured routines, face-to-face interaction with colleagues and a more clearly separated work life from home life. Others, however, have found a new way of working and are hoping to settle into a new "normal."

Even amid current restrictions, and as vaccines continue to roll out, talk of "going back to work" is typically framed in the context of logistics and making sure workplaces have been re-designed to keep people safe from the lingering COVID-19 virus. But what about employee mindset? Many will be returning to their jobs with a different perspective after a year of tremendous societal change marked by the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, renewed efforts to combat anti-Asian discrimination, the ongoing reverberations of #MeToo, and heightened concerns about climate change.

As organizations contemplate life after the pandemic, the renewed calls for social justice, better environmental foresight, and improving the lives of indigenous communities are coming to a head, says Radha Curpen, the managing partner of Bennett Jones' Vancouver office.

"I believe we owe it to ourselves, the people we lead, and to the communities in which we work — for everyone, this is a learning experience," says Curpen, who is also the co-head of her firm's environmental and aboriginal law group. "The expectations for business leaders are growing. The pandemic has shown us that businesses and organizations have been called upon to take care of their people—their employees and communities—and that's not going away."

Curpen will be part of a panel of leading lawyers speaking April 22 at the annual CCCA National Conference as part of the closing plenary panel entitled: Back to Work Does Not Mean Back to Normal. She says conversations around equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), as well as environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues need to continue as the economy rebounds and employees find their way back to the workplace.

Some things to talk about

Curpen says that leaders should draw people's experiences from the last year to foster an inclusive discussion in their organization about what has transpired. They must ensure that all voices are heard.

 "When leaders look around the table at their organizations, they need to see who is absent and who is present," she says. "There's diversity that is inherent and visible, but also acquired diversity that is based on your experience and culture and social skills. I include all of that as being important when I look around the table when we're putting together a proposal, for example. I look at who is missing who has experience. When I speak of diversity, I look at it from the broadest sense possible."

Kevin MacNeill, a senior partner in the employment and labour group at Norton Rose Fulbright Canada, says each business should develop an approach to addressing topical issues, ranging from gender equality to helping employees balance work and family life. It might also be necessary to personal views around vaccination hesitancy.

"The issues are multifold. Larger organizations are developing bridges between diverse people, between women in the workforce, and those in management and leadership positions in the enterprise," says MacNeill, who will also be part of the CCCA panel. "They are creating a flow of information as an ongoing project, so there is a continual flow of information from those who are concerned to those who are making the management decisions."

Worker rights and concerns

From a health and safety perspective, many employers are beginning to develop a vaccine policy that protects and respects all employees. While some companies will be focused on proof of vaccination, some workers may have vaccine hesitancy.

While employers can establish a workplace rule saying employees have to be vaccinated, MacNeill says an employer can't force someone to get a shot either.

"You can say, 'If you don't get one, you're not allowed in the office.' There are, of course, exceptions to that, such as religious beliefs or health reasons, and you have to look at accommodations. You may also have to weigh the HR impact, such as do you want to adopt such a categorical rule that could cause morale issues amongst your workforce? Some people don't believe in the vaccine — it's complicated," he says.

Addressing unconscious bias

Reflecting on an unconscious bias seminar Bennett Jones held in December, Curpen recalls a discussion with EDI workplace expert and human rights lawyer Dr. Tanya De Mello, who is assistant dean of students at the Ryerson University Faculty of Law.

Her presentation included a quote, often attributed to writer Anais Nin: "We don't see things as they are – we see things as we are."

"I thought that was very powerful, and I have adopted those words and found them useful in my dealings with people. I stop myself and wonder if things are really as they are or as I am, in order to try and find the blind spots," she says.

In the end, talking through the issues will help elevate the organization – and the country. "[I]n doing so we are becoming more aware of each other and our blind spots and how we can perform better," Curpen says. "It creates a higher expectation on performance which I think is good for any organization."

Jennifer Brown is a legal journalist based in Toronto. This article was originally published on the CBA's National