Small-business leaders get answers to pandemic-related questions

Leading Through COVID-19 and Beyond emphasized need for communication

A fleet of paper airplanes is led by a slightly different coloured airplane.


Leading Through COVID-19 and Beyond, held virtually on May 6, turned the spotlight on the economic, legal and human impacts of managing small- and medium-sized business in Alberta through the pandemic and beyond.

Presented by the Faculty of Continuing Education at Mount Royal University, the event featured Todd Hirsch (an MRU honorary degree recipient), Steve Eichler of Field Law and leadership expert Steven Armstrong. Hirsch, vice president and chief economist, ATB Financial, laid out five “truths” Albertans should unlearn in order to better navigate the shifting landscape. Among those, the need to diversify Alberta’s economy. It’s a truism he himself has been guilty of, he said, but one that we should move past. As every economy has a dominant industry, it’s the state of that industry that should be examined.

“The challenge is the dominant industry (in Alberta, which is energy) is subject to a lot of volatility, that is the issue,” Hirsch said. “Stability and dynamism lead to prosperity. That is what should be our end goal.”

While Hirsch sees growth in Alberta’s future, likely in Q3 or Q4, he doesn’t forecast that increase to take place in the energy sector. While the sector is currently stable with oil prices above pre-COVID levels, he expects companies to use any profit to pay off debt and invest in mergers and acquisitions. That leaves employment in the sector flat.

Hirsch sees growth in tech and digital, agriculture and agrifood, renewable energy and clean energy technology. However, that forecast is dependent on the relative severity of the third wave of COVID-19, and how many people get vaccinated. If the figures of 16 per cent of Albertans refusing to be vaccinated and a further 18 per cent being unsure about getting their shot he cited hold true, that will have a major effect on recovery.

“The slower it takes us to achieve herd immunity, the longer it will take to reopen and the growth forecast falls,” Hirsch said.



Keep your head up

Despite Alberta being in the midst of the third wave of COVID-19 — the worst so far in terms of active case numbers since the pandemic started in 2020 — the road to recovery is visible, said Armstrong. Leaders need to keep their heads up and focus on what is taking place now, however, he emphasized, likening this portion of the pandemic to troops returning to base from a mission.

“The dangerous time is when you are returning from the objective. . . . When something has gone wrong on an army operation . . . it’s usually when you are coming back,” Armstrong said. “You have done your job, now everyone has let their guard down. They’re thinking about a nice warm dinner at home, not the task at hand, which is getting home safely.”

Leaders — whether their team is 100 or 10 — should be thinking about effectiveness, rather than efficiency, he said. Communication is key to that, whether on the phone or in one-on-one virtual meetings. Armstrong recommended asking your people three things in those conversations: How are you doing? What are you working on? How can I help?

“We need to slow down so we can go fast. If you have a meeting today and there are eight things on the agenda, take seven of them off,” he said. Focusing on one or two issues that need to be addressed will see greater results than a scattershot approach that everything needs to be done right now.

What does the law say?

Employment lawyer Eichler echoed the need for communication. The looming issue for many employers is what is going to happen when people start returning to their physical workspaces. It’s unlikely that a government mandatory vaccination approach will occur; employers are therefore going to address these issues through policies, he said. Employers will be able to enforce mandatory vaccination policies, but they have to be done properly which means including accommodations, alternatives and exemptions for those who have valid objections to vaccination such as human rights issues. It’s also unlikely that workers can be fired for not being vaccinated.

Pointing out that the collection of information as to which worker has been vaccinated or not is actually collection of private personal or health information, Eichler cautioned: “Really think through how you are going to get those policies out. How are you going to manage personal health information? … How are you going to collect it? How are you going to safeguard this information?”  He stressed “the way to address these issues is to really have consultation and engagement with the people whose information you are collecting.”

Answering a question from an audience member on the obligations of business owners, Eichler said “Almost everything an employer has to do, a worker has to do. There are obligations on both sides. The realistic answer is employers have incentives and disincentives to modify behaviour with respect to safety. In reality, it is going to be the employer who has the tools to put these (safety requirements) into effect.”

That said, he pointed out that there are “reasonableness exceptions” in various legislative acts that recognize the weight that businesses — especially small businesses — have to carry in these challenging times.

“It depends on the situation. I think the notion is you have to be reasonable. You have to make best efforts on some things,” Eichler said. “It’s about trying to make this work and trying to move forward. I would talk with your workforce, particularly if it is a small workforce. We all get what is going on. . . . People understand and make accommodations. No one wants your business to go down, particularly your workers.”

May 7, 2021 — Ruth Myles

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