As employers and employees look longingly ahead to life on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace wellness expert Jennifer Moss has some advice: Stay flexible and prepare for things to keep changing.

“The Delta variant is a wild card,” she says. “One of the things that I’ve been really trying to get leadership to focus on is just not being married to the way that you thought it was going to be. We’re back to that situation where we have to be much more agile, much more fluid in the decisions that we make.”

The Waterloo-based author, journalist and speaker has a new book coming out in late September, The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It, published by the Harvard Business Review Press. While the topic is more relevant than ever, Moss has been spending a lot of time lately talking and writing about issues related to the much-anticipated return to the workplace.

Ontario is currently in Stage 3 of its pandemic reopening plan, one step away from exiting the government's Road to Reopen plan. However, COVID-19 cases are rising again and experts say we’re in the midst of the pandemic's fourth wave.

The need to stay flexible and open to making ongoing adjustments to return-to-workplace plans is more important than ever.

The pandemic has transformed not just how we work but also our relationship to work and our expectations going forward, says Moss.

She’s urging employers to consult and communicate regularly with employees. She is also advising leadership teams to be prepared for dramatic changes in what employees expect in terms of hours worked, start-and-end times, remote versus on-site work, and a blended hybrid approach.

“We are in a new paradigm," she says. "We spent 20 months developing new habits despite us working more.

“It’s going to become employees’ choice. That scares employers because that takes their certainty and their control away. But we’ve paradigm-shifted – it’s the Uber-taxi moment right now for workplaces, and I think if you don’t really make those changes you’re going to see obsolescence for companies that haven’t caught up.”

Many employers are planning for a hybrid return-to-workplace model where employees work a few days remotely and a few days on-site each week. Moss says the hybrid structure is likely ideal for many workplaces, but it comes with a variety of challenges, such as nurturing a workplace culture and making sure that those employees who spend more time working remotely aren’t overlooked for promotions and advancement.

“We’ve been long advocating as workplace experts to have flexibility, and that means employees having more agency of when and how they work,” says Moss, who previously started and ran workplace wellness startup Plasticity Labs with her husband, Jim Moss. “The idea of that compromise of part-time in the office, part-time at home, is a really good step forward. It’s a big shift, which might not have ever happened if we hadn’t collectively all made this leap (because of the pandemic).”

One topic gaining traction is the four-day work week. Several studies, including ones in Iceland and The Netherlands, have garnered a lot of attention in recent years. Closer to home, retail app company Tulip is piloting a shortened work week this summer for its 160 employees, who work mostly in Waterloo Region and Toronto. The results of Iceland's four-year experiment suggest that employees can be just as productive in a shortened work week because they focus more on getting the work done rather than putting in a standard number of hours.

“I’ve always been a big fan of goals, not hours,” says Moss. “People feel like they have targets that they’re connecting to, and they feel like they have more agency in reaching them.”

Moss acknowledges that there are situations where a business needs to have employees on the job five days a week. She believes there are creative ways to accommodate such situations while giving employees more control over their work lives. For example, some employers have allowed employees and their direct manager to decide as a group which day in a five-day week each individual employee takes off, while ensuring the whole week gets covered.

Moss says the data from shorter work week experiments suggests that companies can continue to meet or improve on traditional business metrics, such as productivity, customer experience and shareholder value.

“If they (employees) are continuing to show that they can still deliver on their promise or exceed on their promises to the company, then it’s a huge, major win on both sides.”

Moss is encouraged by a number of significant changes and trials carried out by large corporations, such as Microsoft’s 2019 four-day week pilot in Japan. Even Google has shown a willingness to adapt its famous “campus-centred” work culture to include remote and hybrid approaches to work (although there is concern that Google employees who choose to work from home may receive less pay).

“That’s a big shift for Google,” she says, while acknowledging the concerns over decreased pay. 

In the shorter term, employers will need to continue to live with the uncertainty that has characterized the ebb and flow of the pandemic to date. That uncertainty continues to generate stress for employees, and Moss urges employers to pay close attention to their employees’ well-being.

“Direct managers need to continue asking their employees, How are they feeling? What are their concerns? What are their stresses? What is their biggest concern about returning to work?” she says.

Weekly check-ins with individual employees builds trust by demonstrating that managers understand the additional stress that the pandemic, and the uncertainty that goes with it, is causing in their personal lives.

“Some of that (life stress) is not the manager’s responsibility, but it helps to be empathetic to what’s going on. It could give them context if their employee is suddenly late more often, or they're showing performance problems. Instead of putting them on a path to dealing with it as a performance issue, they might then be able to recognize it upstream, that it’s actually just chronic stress.”

Moss readily acknowledges the additional stress that the pandemic has caused founders and managers. They, too, need to pay attention to their well-being, she says.

“It’s a really complicated situation that we’re in right now, with so many moving parts. And then you add the layer of just people feeling really frightened about returning to work. I think employers have so much that they have to figure out, and it’s a very challenging time for them.”