As Australia begins to turn the next page on the COVID-19 pandemic, Charles Sturt University Acting Head of School in the School of Management and Marketing Dr Stacey Jenkins says many businesses are faced with a new challenge – how and when to reopen safely and legally?
While many hope to soon return to the workplace, there's a lot at stake and proceeding with caution is recommended. Reopening requires more than just flipping the lights back on and resuming business as usual.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced Australia’s ‘Three-Step Framework for a COVID-Safe Australia’, and each state and territory will move at different speeds based on local conditions.
As we progress towards Step Three and the return to workplaces, there are some considerations businesses should keep in mind.
Developing a COVID-Safe policy and action plan
It is a necessity for businesses to be agile in response to safety requirements for staff and customers. Organisations should have a COVID-Safe plan in place, which covers risk management contingencies and seeks to ensure there are systems for maintaining effective hygiene, health monitoring, and cleaning.
Leaders should be ready for changes on a day-to-day basis, as there are concerns of a ‘second wave’.
Business may need to continue to scale-up and -down depending on their local environments, and consider if staff contract the virus at work, how they manage this from workers compensation and workforce planning perspectives.
As part of their plan, employers need to ensure they comply with employment legislation and do not interfere with the private lives of staff.
They should not be telling them where they can go and what they have to do. For example, employers can’t tell employees they must download the federal government’s COVID-Safe app; they should merely encourage it.
Employers can’t stop staff or customers from entering premises if they won’t download the app. If staff are bullied or excluded for not downloading the app, this can amount to a legal problem or adverse action.
If staff refuse to return to work over alleged unsafe conditions, especially if for some the workplace may still carry risk due to pre-existing disabilities or newly-developed disabilities, employers should carefully think through such refusals.
Considerations around whether staff can perform the inherent requirements of their role from a remote location will need to be part of the deliberations, and will differ between industries and worksites.
Providing flexible work arrangements
Some staff may have carer’s responsibilities, so this will require additional consideration by their employer. Hasty decisions could amount to discrimination claims, or again, adverse action. There could also be issues surrounding exposing staff to unnecessary risk through commuting.
Employers could look to introduce staggered start and finish times to avoid peak public transport times.
Employers should be taking the opportunity to carefully weigh up the pros and cons of staff working from home, not just for safety reasons, but for productivity outcomes.
Some employers and staff may find that their output has increased through working remotely from home. This may be due to the ability to work during what would otherwise be commute times, less office distractions and interruptions, and staff may have a preferred working environment as they can control their surroundings.
Originally, some staff may have dreaded working from home, but may now have happily adapted, and some may have always been keen and still relishing the opportunity to work from home; moving back to the office could be a shock to the system.
In this case, there should be consideration of a reintegration plan or hybrid model which fosters alternative work arrangements.
A three days at the office and two days at home working week, or even a compressed working week, could be implemented. This could help maintain a work-life balance for staff, help with enhancing morale and satisfaction, reduce overall operating costs, and lead to a more effective transition.
Mental health support
Due to operational requirements, some workplaces will have had to lay-off some staff. So as staff return to the office, they may be returning to a workplace in which some colleagues have lost their jobs. This can impact their mental health and productivity levels, and is often referred to as ‘survivor syndrome’.
Some staff may have also found the isolated work environment detrimental to their heath due to loneliness and their own personal circumstances. To help address this, a workforce wellness strategy could be implemented, or evaluated if in place already, to ensure appropriate support in the workplace is occurring.
Such measures extend beyond an employee assistance program to initiatives such as team building and social events.
At the end of the day, the health and safety of staff needs to be a number one priority for employers as we emerge from COVID-19.
But there is also an opportunity for us to embrace a new way of how we work so we don’t just resume business as usual without any deeper reflection of how the workplace can change and improve from the pandemic we find ourselves in.
Employers and employees should refer to Fair Work Ombudsman, Department of Health and Safe Work Australia websites for supporting information and resources.