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Transitioning Back To The Workplace

A return to work, whether after a complete mandatory shutdown or after remote working, is inevitable as COVID-19 restrictions are reviewed throughout the country.

On 30 April 2020, Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner announced the easing of many COVID-19 restrictions including a gradual return of people to their workplace, subject that businesses have a health and safety plan and meet specific safety protocols. It is likely that over the next few weeks and months, other Australian states will follow the Northern Territory’s plan as they ease restrictions.

Although a welcomed relief to businesses that have suffered through numerous disruptions during this time, the reintegration into the workplace should be handled with thought and care. If you are looking to make the transition, it is important you have a well-thought out plan that maintains a good standard of hygiene, safety and care for employee’s health.

What are your legal obligations?

 First things first, under Work, Health and Safety legislation, businesses are required to appropriately manage the risk of COVID-19 in their workplace.

SafeWork NSW requires businesses to:

  • Comply with national and state public health directions
  • Promote the simple but effective social distancing and hygiene measures
  • Raise any concerns about the risk of contracting COVID-19 immediately with the employer and work with them to identify solutions.
  • Monitor the extent of COVID-19 in your community and share advice from stateand federal authorities regularly

Key considerations when transitioning employees back into the workplace

  1. Consider how your employees will get to work

Consideration needs to be given to employee’s transport to and from work. Likely, employees will need to utilse public transport during their commute.

Businesses should consider the risk to employees who will need to use public transport and attempt to ease the need for people to travel to the workplace unnecessarily. Staggering the number of employees returning to the workplace will greatly aid in this. It is important to remember also that your staff will not be the only ones returning to the workplace and as such, there needs to be a collective effort from the business community to ensure that public transport does not become so crammed that it makes it difficult for people to maintain social distancing.

You may also wish to provide alternative modes of transport for employees to travel to work, such as subsidised parking if employees drive. If this is an option you can offer, it is important to consider the need for flexibility around start and finish times as it is likely that a lot more people who once travelled by public transport, will also elect to drive to their workplace. 

  1. Manage employee numbers

Managing the numbers of workers returning to the workplace at any one time will be critical to protecting employee’s health.

Plan a staggered reintegration into the office, so that a rotating group of employees attend the workplace every couple of days. Create these groups across functional lines to support both coverage across your business areas, and social distancing measures. The smaller number of employees attending the workplace at any one time, the smaller the risk to the business.

  1. Maintain remote working

Despite the eventual gradual easing of restrictions, it is important that business continue to maintain remote working for at least the next few months, where at all possible.

Maintaining remote working arrangements will also help prepare for any possible future need to return to remote working arrangements should there be future community outbreaks, or should one of your employees contract the virus, both situations during which you may need to have all your employees to return to full-time remote working.

You should also give special consideration to those employees who are considered most at risk, such as older workers or those that are immunocompromised. For those that have family members in this category also, it may be best that the business eliminates, or at least limits that employee’s need to travel to the workplace.

Further to this, you should also consider employees who have been ill with COVID-19, especially if their case warranted hospitalisation. Remember that people who have been in intensive care may suffer from muscle weakness, problems with memory, problem-solving skills and post-traumatic stress. Data shows that up to 50% of all people who are treated in the ICU need at least a year to return to their job at full capacity if they are able to return at all.

  1. Consider the workspace

Although restrictions across the states may relax over time, it is likely that social distancing will remain, at least for the short-term.

Businesses will still need to abide by the social distancing restrictions and as such, the physical setup of the workplace will need to be considered carefully and reconfigured accordingly.

If you work in an office, you may wish to consider moving desks apart to the required 1.5 metres, or perhaps, if this is not possible, by ensuring that there are a reduced number of employees in the office so not all desks are utilised at the one time.

Additionally, if you currently have hot-desks or shared desk spaces, it is best that you discontinue the use of this system and assign employees their own workspace to use during this period to reduce the risk of contagion.

As a last resort, if you require a large number of employees working in a shared office space at the one time and cannot implement some of these changes, you may wish to consider installing partitioning systems between employees to lower the risk of transmission.

  1. Change the way you work

Ensure that whatever activity you require employees to perform in groups still enables social distancing. Eliminate, and if not possible, limit the amount of close physical interaction that your employees have to a maximum of 15 minutes.

Businesses need to also build a strong culture encouraging employees to stay home when ill, utilising remote working arrangements if necessary.

  1. Plan for your shared spaces

Develop a plan for how your employees will be required to utilise your workplace shared space, such as the breakout area and kitchen amenities.

This may require considering a rostering system for employee breaks during different times of the day and ensuring that a limited number of staff are in these spaces at any one time. Further to this, you may request that employees disinfect areas that they have utilised each time they use the facilities.

  1. Review your sanitisation procedures

Key to minimising the COVID-19 threat will be to ensure that your workplace has a high level of hygiene and sanitation processes.

Ensure that you always have antibacterial soap available and that you make hand sanitiser readily accessible to employees to ensure that they can maintain their hand hygiene in the workplace.

Also consider making antibacterial spray available for employees to wipe their workstations before they begin working and after they have concluded their shift.

Displaying posters about general hygiene in the workplace is strongly recommended. NSW Health has some great resources that you can print and display around your workplace: https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/covid-19/Pages/resources.aspx

Businesses should also look at increasing cleaning and sanitisation of high traffic areas by having professional cleaners regularly disinfect surfaces. Furthermore, if your workplace is within a shared building, speak to building management to review their sanitation plans for places like lobbies and elevators.

  1. Plan for high rates of absences

Although the COVID-19 situation in Australia looks to be improving day by day, it is important to plan for what some experts predict could be a ‘second wave’ particularly coming into the colder months that bring with them, the seasonal flu. Forward planning for the possibility of high rates of absenteeism is, therefore, important.

Ensure that you have a team that can absorb the work of their ill colleagues if this should happen, and cross-train team members where possible. You should also plan in the event you need to hire temporary labour to cover extended absences.

Businesses should also consider the burden that a larger workload may put on their remaining team members and look to ensure that this does not adversely affect their health or your WH&S obligations.

  1. Let your employees know you care

It is important to understand that employees may feel a great deal of anxiety returning to the workplace and businesses should look to support employees through this process.

If businesses have an Employee Assistance Program, they should promote this. Display posters around the workplace and consider distributing pamphlets and business cards advising employees how to access the service.

Ensure that you communicate with staff often, informing them of the business’ plans and the precautions you are taking. This is important for both employees who are reintegrating into the workplace but also for those that continue to work from home. Ensure you provide an avenue for employees to raise any concerns and be prepared to change your measures in response to the items raised.

Businesses should ensure that they are also regularly communicating with their line managers and supporting them with any Human Resources issues as they arise.

Further questions? 

For more information on the topic, please contact us on 1300 887 458 and speak with one of our HR Consultants. If you are interested in learning more about our HR services, including HR Outsourcing, HR Consulting, HR Advisory Services, contact us at enquiries@liquidhr.com.au.