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Canadian businesses are busy planning their next steps as we emerge from lockdowns and restrictions right now, but I often wonder how far ahead they are really looking.

Return-to-office scenarios, for example, are a hot topic, but will hybrid and flexible work models stand the test of time, or will they slowly and organically fade back to a pre-pandemic status quo? Futurists say working from home is here to stay because of cutthroat competition for talent – recent studies show that many people want to maintain the remote-work model going forward. Skeptics say the long-term drive for productivity, not to mention creativity, will inevitably compel workers back into the office.

Whether you’ll be working at home or commuting again in the years to come is a big unknown, yet there are some certainties in other aspects of the future workplace. While businesses had to react with unprecedented haste at the outset of the pandemic, they’ve had time to refine and evaluate work processes across all facets of their organizations. From our experiences at Purolator, I believe some of those approaches are here to stay.

Leveraging technology to communicate

The pandemic forced new ways to communicate upon all of us, and technology filled the gap admirably. Microsoft Teams went to 145 million users from 32 million users in just over a year, and platforms such as Slack and Zoom evolved from their early-adopter base to the mainstream. When workers return to offices, companies won’t be cancelling their subscriptions to these tools. The collaborative energy unleashed by new technologies will continue, whether your colleague is three offices or three cities away.

I can foresee reduced usage, however, when it comes to larger team gatherings. The in-person pre-shift huddles that used to be the key way for Purolator’s managers to communicate with our front-line employees were valued for consistent messaging, on-the-spot feedback and two-way dialogue. Front-line leaders and staff alike are very eager to resume these huddles when health circumstances allow, as technology or micro-gatherings haven’t been able to replicate these as effectively.

Healthy workspaces create healthy workforces

After a year and a half practising caution and discipline, the benefits of healthy workspaces are undisputable. Sanitization, physical distancing, plexiglass screens and masks were the arsenal for reducing the spread of germs and viruses in the workplace. Cold and flu bugs have been rare at work and at home – cold medicine sales plummeted by nearly half last season – delivering enormous savings to employers through reduced absenteeism and improved productivity.

Even as COVID-19 diminishes, stepped-up measures to minimize pathogen transmission in the workplace will become a mainstay. Workforce health justifies the additional cost of sanitization supplies and modified workflows. Don’t be surprised to even see mask-wearing continue – maybe not universally, but at least in situations where physical distancing is not feasible.

Finding the sweet spot with virtual training

One of our biggest challenges at Purolator has involved the onboarding of 3,600 new team members in a virtual setting, replacing traditional in-class training. After investing in the necessary technology, modifying our content for online delivery and providing instructors with training and resources, the experience proved quite successful when measured by participant satisfaction and learning outcomes.

But drilling down, we found that some training aspects are better suited for virtual delivery than others. Knowledge-based training, such as learning the ropes of an organization’s policies, processes and priorities, is excellent in the right virtual setting. Content can be delivered consistently and cost-effectively online, wherever the recruit happens to be based.

Skills-based training – which covers a lot of health and safety curriculum – is more complex. We can show a video on safe lifting techniques, but how do you ensure the trainee understands and can perform the task correctly? It’s certainly achievable with robust two-way video communication and small class sizes. However, we found that while some skills adapt reasonably well to virtual instruction, others are best taught through established techniques. In-class driving simulators, for example, continue to be the gold standard for teaching road safety.

Stepping up on mental health

The pandemic transformed the way employers view the mental health of their employees. Now there is a much deeper notion of responsibility for employee mental health, perhaps best demonstrated by the uptake of mental health first-aid training that helps identify individuals who may be struggling through day-to-day interactions within the workplace.

Employers can certainly do more, notably by pulling the rug out from under one of the more undesirable consequences of the pandemic: workload creep. Front-line staff and work-from-homers have much different work-life experiences, but a common denominator is that workloads are higher – and consequently, so are stress levels. For businesses to sustain any progress on supporting employees’ mental health, they’ll deliberately have to tackle workload creep by better prioritizing projects, insisting on vacation time and staffing up to cover any obvious gaps.

For business leaders, these are certainly anxious, uncertain times we are living in – but they are equally exciting. Fuelled by unprecedented dynamics in the workplace, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the nature of work and the ever-elusive work-life balance. We should all grasp the challenges at hand to help build a better workplace with a larger sense of purpose.

John Ferguson, CEO of PurolatorJ.Christopher Lawson Photography/Handout

John Ferguson is the president and CEO of Purolator. He is the Leadership Lab columnist for July, 2021.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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