Preparation for the Return to Normal Work Premises

A few weeks ago, many organisations sent their staff home as they rapidly implemented working from home arrangements to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. This was done with relatively little difficulty for organisations that were mainly office-based and if employees had ready access to reliable IT and home facilities. More effort was required by organisations in relation to addressing IT infrastructure issues, staff balancing school children/childcare arrangements and work, and challenges in monitoring work and performance.

With the swift responses of governments across the country and a massive deployment of health staff to prepare and test for COVID-19, we have done well as a nation to ‘flatten the curve’ and avoid catastrophic rates of infection and death. As a result, organisations are now moving to a new version of ‘normal’ sooner than was generally predicted.

So, what do organisations need to do to attain or adjust to this ‘new normal’? The ‘new normal’ for Australian society and most organisations will probably be a hybrid of what we were used to before COVID-19 struck, and some of the adjustments that have been part of workers’ lives for the past couple of months, such as stricter hygiene practices, social distancing, combining staff that work from home with others working in their usual location, alternating working rosters, and other different ways of working and collaborating. The return to the ’new normal’ may well be more difficult and require even more planning than the transition to working from home.

In this article, we suggest strategies that organisations may wish to consider as they plan for the ‘new normal’ in the improving national COVID-19 environment. There are varying approaches being deployed by the state, territory and federal governments in easing restrictions. These approaches are informed by medical advice and the number of ongoing or new COVID-19 cases that are being recorded daily in each jurisdiction. We have also been warned of a ‘second wave’ or ‘spikes’ as winter approaches and restrictions are eased.

 

Managing Return to Work Risks

Managing the essential hygiene aspects of the workplace will be a vital step in keeping your staff safe. We will address that a little later in the blog. First, we will look at a number of organisational risk control strategies for organisations to contemplate in preparation for employees’ return to their usual work premises.

 To adequately prepare for a return to their usual work location, organisations should consider the following:

  • Reviewing the work premises to identify how social distancing can be implemented: how many employees can be in any part of the office at any time, should desks be moved, will kitchens be used, will meeting room seating be spread out? Will there be sufficient room in the office to accommodate government physical distancing guidelines?
  • What cleaning processes should be put in place before employees return, and should cleaning contracts be reviewed to ensure that adequate ongoing cleaning procedures (see below) are implemented?
  • Where reduced hours have been implemented and/or staff have been stood down, how soon will they be returned to work i.e. what threshold of workload must be reached before they can be brought back, and on what terms? For organisations that have stood down workers, care may need to be taken where not all workers will be directed to return at the same time. This may well be relatively straightforward if entire departments or business units return at the same time, but if there is a phased scaling of activities, care should be taken in how the workers who return to work first are selected. While this is relatively new ground from an employment law point of view, the discrimination and adverse action provisions under the Fair Work Act are likely to apply. Consultation with affected workers may be a way of reducing the risks of harm to the employment relationship.
  • Workforce planning: which staff must return to work on the premises (and this may include staff who need greater levels of supervision) and which staff may return in a more phased way in terms of workflow?
  • Are there vulnerable staff who may need amended arrangements in returning to work or to stay working from home?
  • Should working from home form some part of the ‘new normal’ with some staff working from home a few days a week? Can organisations stagger their workers’ return or use a rotating roster in order to maintain social distancing in the office?
  • How will meetings (both internal and external) be conducted?
  • Do additional protocols need to be put in place to accommodate some staff working from home and others being in the office?
  • Should organisations have some method of daily check-in form/reminder for all employees, emphasising that COVID-19 has not disappeared and that social distancing and hygiene practices must be maintained?
  • How should visitor or contractor hygiene be addressed?
    Employees’ travel arrangements will also need to be reviewed to reduce the risk of transmission. Should workers travel by public transport or use their own vehicles? Should staff who need to use public transport be given greater opportunity to work from home or can arrangements be made to facilitate their driving to work? 
  • Organisations may need to decide to what extent they should screen workers, clients, contractors and visitors before they enter the premises. The Australian Privacy Commissioner advises that it is reasonable to ask employees and visitors if they are well and whether they have been in contact with someone with COVID-19. Note that it is illegal for an employer to insist that staff upload and use the COVIDSAFE app.
    Staff will require very clear boundaries regarding social distancing when they return to work. In addition, organisations will need to monitor staff, to ensure that they are coping with the return to work protocols and that face-to-face interactions with colleagues and clients are effective both in terms of COVID-19 safety as well as achieving organisational outcomes.

 

Financial Matters

As we have seen exemplified in the travel industry, the financial impact on organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be understated and may include requests for refunds where it has not been possible for an organisation to deliver the contracted services. This presents a serious financial risk to all types of organisations, particularly those delivering products or services that cannot be facilitated online. Organisations must have strategies in place to accommodate and mitigate these possible financial losses, from which it may take months or years to recover.

Business Continuity Management Plans should be reviewed and adjusted from lessons learned from this first wave of COVID-19 pandemic. What steps does the organisation need to put in place if there is a ‘second wave’?

 

Social Aspects

Thankfully, Australia has suffered very few deaths from COVID-19 compared to other countries and so the risk of a bereavement in the company is low. However, organisations will still need to deal with the trepidation that employees may have regarding social distancing and re-infections. Additionally, organisations need to be wary of xenophobic or other types of bullying targeted towards workers of Asian or European origin, or how to deal with staff who may simply have a cold.

Organisations should send a clear message to all employees, clients, contractors, service providers and other people with whom they may come into contact that they should remain at home in isolation if they are feeling at all unwell, and to be tested for COVID-19 if they are experiencing any ‘COVID-like’ symptoms.

Whether staff are working from home or at work premises, organisations should also monitor and respond promptly to any signs of an employee’s deteriorating mental health, including increased stress, anxiety and depression. All staff should be encouraged to support their colleagues and help them to come forward and ask for help. For organisations that do not have access to a counselling service, this may be the time to consider this.

Finally, consulting with staff frequently and keeping them apprised and involved with changes is critical for maintaining trust and productivity in times of these very unsettling changes.

 

General Office Hygiene and Cleaning

All workers must practise good hygiene to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. This can be accomplished by encouraging everyone to follow the requirements of the Commonwealth Department of Health and Safe Work Australia COVID-19 Information for workplaces, and providing hand soap and paper towels in bathrooms and hand sanitiser in the office, displaying posters throughout the premises modelling desired behaviours and providing training.

The Department of Health has released a number of pertinent suggestions regarding the frequency and nature of routine cleaning and disinfection in the community here. Organisations should:

  • clean and disinfect frequently used high-touch surfaces such as benchtops, desks, doorknobs, taps, and handrails at regular intervals throughout the day with a detergent solution or detergent/disinfectant wipes
  • clean and disinfect frequently used objects such as computers, phones and photocopiers with detergent solution or detergent/disinfectant wipes
  • increase the amount of fresh air available indoors by opening windows or adjusting air conditioning
  • provide bins at every workstation for used tissues, and empty them regularly throughout the day
  • clean toilets at the middle and end of the day.

 

Summary

The return of an organisation’s employees to their usual work location will probably take more time and planning than implementing working from home arrangements.

Where an organisation is not addressing the return of all workers in a fully integrated and systemic manner, it is possible that its response to any one particular risk may be inadequate and the resulting outcomes may lead to a decrease in staff retention, morale, productivity, profit and reputation, not to mention very ill employees.

If you would like to have a conversation about how CompliSpace can help implement return to work checklists and forms for your organisation, please contact us directly on 1300 132 090.

 


Authors

Svetlana Pozydajew

Svetlana is a Principal Consultant at CompliSpace. She has over 20 years of experience in strategic and operational human resource management, occupational health and safety, and design and implementation of policies and change management programs. She has held national people management responsibility positions in the public and private sectors. Svetlana holds a LLB, Masters in Management (MBA), Master of Arts in Journalism, and a Certificate in Governance for not-for-profits.

Hugh Bortolotti

Hugh is a Senior Associate in our Corporate and Financial Services team in Sydney. Hugh holds a Bachelor of International and Global Studies and a Juris Doctor, both from the University of Sydney. He has spent 5 years working in Banking and Finance, and worked in Commercial Law prior to joining CompliSpace.