July 8, 2021

No question, COVID has made everything about business more complicated. 

Managing through the pandemic is personal, divisive, and frightening. We’ve all been affected to some degree, right? We’re trying to keep business going, adjust where we can – and then there’s the momentous task of managing, and caring for, our teams in and out of the office. 

Where’s an HR expert when you need one?! 

Well, I was lucky enough to speak to an HR expert recently and peppered her with questions about policy in general and Covid complications in particular. Sarah Mullins is Founder, Principal and CEO of uptree HR, putting over 20 years in senior, corporate HR roles to work for small businesses, providing expertise in HR strategy, hiring, performance management, policy and program development, and payroll and benefits administration.  

Sarah and I had an honest chat about what she’s seeing coming through the pandemic.

Clear expectations have never been so important.

Whether you have one employee, five or 50, the biggest mistake you can make is throwing work at your people without parameters or explanation. After all, how can an employee meet your expectations, if they’re not clear on what those expectations are?

“It’s always been an issue — especially with entrepreneurs — people come on board and you just start giving them stuff, and you assume that they know how to do it and are comfortable doing it. And you assume that they’re going to say no if they’re not comfortable. With COVID, that’s become even more emphasized because… you don’t see that confused look on their face in front of you, you just expect them to be productive. They may not know what they’re supposed to be doing. What’s the priority? What are my core accountabilities? What are the expectations, especially during COVID, around productivity?”

Clear communication is so important, as is constant communication. Frequent check-ins keep activities on course and expectations in-line. Which brought up another important question I had, now that businesses are faced with different expectations around vaccinations.

Is employee vaccination a legal issue, or a cultural issue?

“I don’t see any time in the near future that we’re going to be able to mandate employees to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. That’s just a really tricky subject. 

“I take the approach of education — making sure that people have appropriate resources, whether that is Health Canada, Nova Scotia Health Authority or the World Health Organization. (Making sure) that people are getting information from reliable sources, not necessarily Facebook or TikTok.”

“And then pick your words carefully. You can communicate expectations. You can encourage employees. You can say things like, our expectation is that everyone make an effort to become vaccinated and educate yourself around vaccination.”

We agreed that it’s important for employers to back up their decision by making it easy for employees to comply. Like everything, you want to set employees up to succeed. So if the expectation or hope is that employees choose vaccination that might be directing employees to vaccination clinics, giving them time off to get vaccinated, even providing in-office vaccinations, the way some employers offer flu-shots on-site. 

“When things settle down and our vaccines are a little bit more available, rather than just by appointment, employers might be able to do that. You’re not forcing employees to get vaccinated, but you’re giving them every opportunity to do so.”

I believe what the ‘workplace’ looks like has changed forever, that some blend of in-office and out-of-office work will continue to be an option, and for some, a struggle. I had to ask Susan…

Will we be going back to the office?

Susan has such a good grasp of people, and what works for them, that of course she had already seen the value of ‘hybrid’ work. 

“I was pretty passionate about this before COVID hit. My team’s always been 100% virtual, and that is to reduce our carbon footprint, to create some work-life integration. Even before COVID, we were in contact via zoom every week, sometimes every da. And we have in-person, connections at least monthly, if not two or three times a month, but we don’t have an office.

“100% remote doesn’t work for every organization; you have to be able to still build culture and build relationships in that environment.”

Susan emphasizes that different people need different things. We have to remember that no matter what our preference is, that won’t suit everybody you work with!

“I feel like the future needs to be a little bit more flexible. I would like to see more flexible work schedules, meaning that people have an opportunity if they want to work from home, they can. Maybe not a hundred percent of the time… face-to-face collaboration is important. One thing to consider. too, is working from home does not work for everybody. And kudos to those people for raising their hands and saying this doesn’t work for me.”

At one point during our “second wave” here in Nova Scotia, Susan saw a survey report that showed 50% of people wanting to continue working from home and 50% ready to return to the office.

“A lot of us assume that everyone wants to be at home, but that’s not the case. A lot of people thrive in environments where they’re socially interactive with other people, where they’re commuting, their home life and their office life is completely separate. You really have to look at the needs of your employees and the organization.”

Let’s face it – work is personal. Which makes all these conversations super-complicated. Because it’s often not *just* about work. And that’s one of the most valuable services an independent, trained expert like Susan can provide to organizations: facilitating safe, productive, unbiased conversations. 

Pre Covid, post-Covid… a big part of HR is “really about having honest conversations.”

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Wendy Brookhouse

Wendy Brookhouse


Wendy has been getting people to their financial goals faster and easier than before for over a decade. She has known what it’s like to control cash flow from childhood, where her first job was raking blueberries for ten cents a pound.