It is time to think about what work looks like once stay-at-home directions are withdrawn, temporary flexibility measures cease and the curve has been sufficiently “flattened”. It is time to plan for when things start turning back to normal – whatever normal will be.
From a workplace and employment perspective, there are some important issues for which employers should start preparing. The ability of many employers to respond effectively to the post-COVID-19 environment will be critically linked to good planning.
Planning should address a return to work in the short term (what should we do now?) as well as the longer term (what should our business look like?). Work health and safety risks need to be identified and appropriately managed and employers need to be a step ahead of a raft of employment related issues.
In this article we identify some of the key issues for managing safety, employment and cultural risks as a part of a COVID-19 return-to-work plan.
Business strategy: Long-term planning
As businesses take stock of the breadth of the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and the impacts on them, there will be some significant questions and planning required that will have consequences for the size and make-up of the workforce, the way that work is performed and what work is actually done. Some of these big picture questions are likely to include:
- What does the business look like post-COVID-19?
- What changes does the business need to make for continuity planning?
- How will the business respond to an economic downturn?
- Is the business ready and able to be an agile and mostly virtual workplace?
- How will the business embrace change in terms of the performance of work?
- Does the business have a response plan for a possible second wave of COVID-19 or another pandemic?
As businesses start to respond to COVID-19, there should certainly be consideration as to whether employment arrangements, contracts of employment, enterprise agreements or awards provided the business with the tools they needed to quickly respond to the pandemic in a way that supported the business’ needs at the time. Creating workplace flexibility and being able to drive efficiencies should be a key focus for business moving forward.
Return to work: WHS response
The National Cabinet has agreed ten National COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles which include, amongst others, that:
“4. As COVID-19 restrictions are gradually relaxed, businesses, workers and other duty holders must work together to adapt and promote safe work practices, consistent with advice from health authorities, to ensure their workplaces are ready for the social distancing and exemplary hygiene measures that will be an important part of the transition.
5. Businesses and workers must actively control against the transmission of COVID-19 while at work, consistent with the latest advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), including considering the application of a hierarchy of appropriate controls where relevant.
6. Businesses and workers must prepare for the possibility that there will be cases of COVID-19 in the workplace and be ready to respond immediately, appropriately, effectively and efficiently, and consistent with advice from health authorities.”
In the immediate to short term, WHS risk management will be a key driver for physical change in the workplace (which can already be seen in the floor markings, increased signage and screens amongst other measures) as well as a hyper vigilance around workplace cleaning, worker hygiene and physical distancing. It will also require renewed risk management focus around work-related travel and customer/client interaction; where previously the focus may have been on fatigue, mental health and occupational violence risks, there will now also be consideration of the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and infectious diseases.
Safe Work Australia’s information for workplaces regarding how to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 includes a number of useful checklists including for physical distancing, cleaning and health, hygiene and facilities, all of which will assist businesses to address the immediate need to create COVID-19 safe workplaces.
In the longer term, the impact of COVID-19 is likely to significantly impact workplace design, from the possible death of open plan offices (at least without screening) and hot desking, continued widespread use of working from home and video conferencing facilities, to the reduction in the number of worker ‘touchpoints’ including by increased use of automated office design technology such as sensor doors and lifts and bathroom facilities, to directing the flow of persons in one direction for entry and another for exits from workplaces, amongst many other factors.
The key for businesses will come down to planning both for the immediate- and short-term recovery phase, but also for the longer-term workplace of the future. The recovery phase planning will likely address all of the measures referred to above and those matters contained in the Safe Work Australia information in addition to the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission’s ‘Planning tool to help businesses reopen and be COVIDSafe’. The planning will also necessarily involve consideration of how to flex back to more a responsive stage to quickly and effectively respond to any potential for ‘second wave’ infections.
Some of the considerations for employers in the planning for recovery phase would include:
(1) Managing access to the workplace (building or workplace access; lifts; reception)? Will numbers be counted and if so, who will be responsible for the monitoring of access?
(2) How will social distancing measures be addressed in offices, working spaces, meeting rooms, walkways, lifts, tea rooms, kitchens, toilets, etc.? How will tasks that challenge physical distancing be managed?
(3) What kind of cleaning protocols will be used? Who will do the cleaning? If plant/equipment is shared, how will it be cleaned and by whom? What about high-touch items?
(4) What kind of instruction and training will be provided to workers on cleaning and worker hygiene measures?
(5) How to effectively consult and communicate prior to and during the return phase if there are different start/finish times, rotating teams and others working from home?
(6) How to manage whether there is a need for refresher training on work tasks/equipment or information to people returning following stand-downs/absence from work (particularly where those persons may have been involved doing other work in the meantime and may need to be re-trained)?
(7) How to support good mental health where there may be increased general anxiety connected with COVID-19 both due to work changes (e.g. changed work conditions) and change in personal circumstances?
Return to work and/or returning to the workplace?
We have referred to COVID-19 and the return to work/workplace, but in reality there may not be the same numbers of employees returning to the workplace as there were previously. Employers will need to manage the complexity of workforce logistics with one eye on anti-discrimination legislation and the other on legislative and award compliance, while also balancing the operational needs to be responsive in a possibly changed market.
Some of the issues that employers should be considering are:
- As JobKeeper ends in September 2020 and award variations for flexibility come to an end, how will they manage a workforce that will likely still need to be flexible and responsive to business restructures, work shortages and need for greater efficiencies?
- Employers will need to continue to deal with the issues of underpayments, award compliance and ‘wage theft’, which were so high on many employer’s radars immediately prior to the pandemic, driving such enormous workplace and community change.
- Employers will need to be very much alive to the legal risks around employees seeking greater flexibility, including as carers and vulnerable people who are at greater risk of serious infection from COVID-19. How employers make decisions about employee flexibility and the reasons that underpin these decisions may result in potential discrimination and adverse action claims, as well as possible breaches of the Fair Work Act, awards and enterprise agreements.
Top tip: We know many businesses are already planning for the new normal. We have been working with many of our clients about this planning phase. Please let us know how we can help you manage your risks as your business returns to ‘COVID -19 normal’.