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Words to Lead By:

Employers share lessons learned in 2020

Posted by Medavie Blue Cross on December 15, 2020

Editor’s Note: This blog was inspired by the words of wisdom we heard from leading employers, top industry experts and high-performance athletes on workplace health, productivity and leadership during the pandemic and beyond at our Benefits Together conference in November. This one-of-a-kind event featured inspiring keynotes, main stage and breakout sessions, exhibit hall and networking lounge in a state-of-the-art virtual setting — all with the goal of delivering on the promise of the conference’s title: benefitting from the lessons we learned and insights we gained from our common experiences.

Employer perspectives on the pandemic

Employers who have demonstrated exceptional leadership in exceptional times shared how they responded to and adapted to the challenges of 2020 for a documentary-style presentation on day one of our two half-day conference. Here are their stories.

Employer Stories


Sharon Ranalli is Vice President, Marketing & Communications for Chartwell Retirement Residences, the largest provider of seniors' housing in Canada, with over 200 locations and over 30,000 residents. In addition to protecting the health and safety of a vulnerable, at-risk population, Chartwell had to manage higher regulatory compliance and intense media scrutiny. Over the Easter weekend, Sharon conducted 22 media interviews outside her home. That’s on top of having to recruit employees to replace those who might become ill or could not be exposed to the risk of infection.

“At the same time other businesses were scaling down, laying off and reducing their employee commitment, Chartwell ramped up. We had over 17,000 resumes and we hired over 1,500 people at Chartwell Residences during COVID. It was quite remarkable.

The hospitality and travel industries have been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Angela Racco, Director Human Resources, for Hotel X Toronto, said the lakefront resort went from being in an optimistic growth mode to closing down business and laying off 160 members of its 180-member staff in just 10 days in March.

For Transat AT, Canada’s leading holiday travel airline, COVID-19 closed the skies to air travel for 112 days, compared to two days in the wake of 9/11. Christophe Hennebelle, Vice President Human Resources and Corporate affairs at Transat, said operations continued to be disrupted after the skies reopened.

“Every time we had a passenger suspected of having the infection, we had to quarantine the entire crew. We were losing crew after crew after crew, which came as quite a challenge.”

Transat responded to the situation “with a lot of operational agility”, supported by Medavie Blue Cross, which helped to make sure crews were paid and covered during their mandatory quarantine.

The pandemic’s immediate impact on the Halifax Police Association was that “almost everything we do on a daily basis changed overnight,” said Mark Hartlen, Executive Director. There was heightened demand for police services, compounded by lack of personal protective equipment among the people they served. The union representing 500 sworn officers and 100 civilian employees of the Halifax Regional Police “needed to be creative in its response.”

“Everyone not showing up one day and closing the office just wasn’t an option.”

WorkSafe NB faced similar pressures as the crown corporation dedicated to promoting healthy and safe workplaces for New Brunswick's workers and employers. Like many organizations, WorkSafe NB asked questions about what its immediate priorities should be as the first wave of the pandemic washed over Canada, said Douglas Jones, President and CEO.

“Do we look at employee engagement? Does the employee come first, or do we focus on the customer experience? There was a compelling argument that says neither, because you really have to focus on the human experience. And the human experience says you need to focus on both (customers and employees).”

At the onset of COVID-19, Medavie laid out a strategy that would be rolled out in three phases: business response, continuity and recovery.

“We knew that during the pandemic people would depend on us and we had to be ready to be the (health solutions) partner that everyone expects from us.” Bernard Lord, Medavie.

Lessons learned

Each employer stressed the importance of demonstrating leadership by actively listening, showing respect, empathy and gratitude to employees and communicating with them on a regular basis.


Chartwell increased communication among the staff that included a daily email sent to the residences and distributed by leaders. The business also set up a toll-free clinical health care line that residents, employees and family member of residents could call for support. The CEO conducted a “Listening Tour” and 14,000 stakeholders were surveyed to take a pulse check on Chartwell’s operations during the pandemic.

“We did what we could to make (our employees) feel valued, respected, and that their safety was our priority and that we have incredible gratitude for what their role was during the pandemic.” Sharon Ranalli, Chartwell

With 85 % of staff temporarily laid off, it was essential that Transat stay in touch with employees during this difficult time. Both Transat and Medavie held all-employee webinars to provide regular updates to employees and answer their questions.

“We felt it was essential to listen to our employees, to hear what they had to say and what their experience was with this pandemic, and what they needed to continue to be successful.” Bernard Lord, Medavie

Employee support

To protect both the residents and their own families during the height of the crisis, many dedicated Chartwell employees slept in their cars. Chartwell partnered with local hotels to secure rooms for these employees and set up financial aid, providing $10,000 relief for 170 employees for a total of $1.7 million.

Hotel X kept employees engaged through Instagram to keep communication human and fun. As Angela Racco recognized, “sending out an email wasn’t enough.”

She and other employers underscored the need for mental health services and supports, acknowledging the benefits of having an Employee Family and Assistance Program through their Group plan with Medavie Blue Cross. This helped employees deal with the uncertainties brought about by COVID-19 while being laid off.


At Hotel X, the leadership team stayed on at 40% of their salaries, as well as some security and maintenance employees. They lived at the hotel in rotation to make sure the property was managed and secure.

“We are an industry that is used to dealing with crisis and believe me, we used that capacity at a maximum. It has reinforced the leadership values at Transat of being transparent, resilient and reactive.” Christophe Hennebelle, Transat

At Chartwell, senior leaders jumped in to manage the day-to-day administrative tasks of the homes, helping the staff to focus on resident care.

“The real leaders shine in the most difficult times.” Sharon Ranalli, Chartwell


One of Medavie’s core values is responsive and, as Bernard Lord stated, “if there was ever a time to be responsive, it was during the pandemic.”

In addition to actively listening to employees, Bernard Lord said in order to lead effectively, leaders should maintain an open mind and always look for better ways of doing things to strengthen the partnerships they have with their clients.

He was one of several employers who described partnerships as key to success.

“One of the biggest takeaways from COVID is the need to strengthen relationships as part of everyday work. It’s paramount to do it day-to-day but it cannot be understated when you get a crisis.” Mark Hartlen, Halifax Police Association.


Hotel X secured an unexpected and welcome contract with the National Hockey League (NHL) in the summer to hold training, owing to its extensive fitness facilities.

This allowed Hotel X to bring back 50% of its employees. However, it required the hotel and staff to make some tough decisions: employees had to maintain their family “bubble” during their off hours and sports facility members had to be displaced in order for Hotel X to meet the NHL contract stipulations.

The team at WorkSafe NB, including physiotherapists, found ways to interact with its clients through videoconferencing and to rehabilitate their employees on a virtual basis.

Like all employers, WorkSafe NB transitioned to both virtual and work-from-home environments with results “better than we could have imagined.”

“Employee satisfaction went up. Productivity increased. Yes, we had to be flexible but that’s not a bad thing. Having flexibility, from an employee perspective, can benefit the service we provide to our clients.” Douglas Jones, WorkSafeNB

For the Halifax Police Association, COVID-19 opened everyone’s eyes to possible accommodation opportunities and employees’ ability to work offsite.

“Necessity sometimes provides great opportunity.” Mark Hartlen, Halifax Police Association

Before the emergence of COVID-19, Medavie had been in a transformative mode to become a more customer-centric, digital-first enterprise, establishing partnerships to deliver on its mission of improving the wellbeing of Canada. Early on, Medavie decided not to wait until the end of the pandemic to accelerate its initiatives.

“We’re looking to strengthen some of the partnerships we have to better respond, acknowledging we don’t have all the answers all the time. Finding the right partners is key in a world of uncertainties.” Bernard Lord, Medavie


In her closing remarks, Alaina MacKenzie, host of this main stage session and Regional VP Business Development, Medavie Blue Cross, referred to Bernard Lord’s call to “fine tune our resiliency as we face future uncertainty.”

“I have no doubt that we will all forge ahead and continue to define our new normal as we’ve become change champions.”