Returning to the workplace

“Nothing you do is the same in the pandemic.”

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has repeated this warning every morning since that state’s restrictions started to be eased in early May. As low case numbers allow restrictions to be lifted, there is genuine concern among all our political leaders that complacency is now the greatest risk.

Many Ai Group members who kept their factories and warehouses open throughout the pandemic know the challenge in maintaining heightened vigilance over time. At the same time, many people working from home are very concerned about the thought of returning to the office, braving public transport, sharing facilities with colleagues or even merely adjusting to being around people all day who are not part of their household.

Working from home if you can is still being officially encouraged by the Prime Minister and by most states. As at 25 May, only WA has explicitly encouraged a return to workplaces unless you are sick or vulnerable. In contrast, Victorians have been told to keep working from home until the end of June at the earliest. The public health orders in each state express the work from home direction in slightly different ways, but employers and employees effectively share the responsibility to make working from home work if at all possible. However, even if your particular business can function well remotely it does come at a significant economic cost. Hospitality, retail and services in CBDs, commercial and industrial zones are suffering and that loss of income flows through the whole economy and, for the life of JobKeeper, on to taxpayers. The mental health risks are huge too, as anyone can attest if they have endured a solitary period of isolation, or juggled home schooling with earning dual incomes from their kitchen table.

The reopening of schools in many states will ease the difficulty in working from home, and also free many parents to return to the workplace. Lifting of restrictions allows some public-facing businesses to reopen. So, as more people gradually return to the office and other workplaces, how should we best manage the transition?

Who goes back, and when, will be the first consideration. Companies are canvassing options with employees and surveying to see who is keen and who is not. Strong views appear on both sides, with concerns about public transport and shared lifts and amenities uppermost for those who are reluctant returners and social isolation and inadequate home office setups driving those most keen.

Getting to work will be the next problem.

Public transport is expected to operate at about 25% capacity to accommodate physical distancing on all modes. State governments have announced or are working on transport plans to deal with these temporary realities. The NSW plan, for example, includes encouraging a wider spread of work start and finish times; limiting places on buses, trains, trams and ferries; pop-up event style carparking near the CBD; temporary additional bike lanes in the inner city; and adding real-time capacity indicators on transport apps.

Active transport is being promoted as part of longer-term trends they hope to cement. Walking and bike-riding is being encouraged for shorter trips and as the first or final stage of longer commutes. On the other hand, encouraging driving is only a short-term measure during the pandemic. Vehicle traffic has already recovered to 80% of normal levels in some state capitals and unusual congestion is already evident around schools, daycare centres and transport hubs.

The response of companies is likely to include staggered start and finish times, mixed rosters of office and home-based work, and enhanced end-of-trip facilities where possible (showers and bike storage) for walkers, joggers and riders. Safe Work Australia (SWA) will soon be releasing COVID-19 guidance for end-of-trip facilities.

Managing physical distancing and hygiene in the office will require some attention.

Handwashing remains the number one protection at key infection points, such as before eating, after coughing or using common touch points like doors and handrails. 20 seconds with soap and water if available, hand sanitiser if not.

The requirement to observe 1.5m distance and 4m2 space is expected to be applied in workplaces where possible, whether the public is present or not – if not, other measures may be necessary like screens. Masks are not currently generally advised by Australian health authorities unless you are sick or a medical worker. The split work team approach to separation is popular, either one in and one away, or keeping the teams apart if everyone is in the office which requires discipline to ensure integrity of the separation. All these measures serve the dual purpose of minimising infection risk and facilitating contact tracing by limiting contacts at work to a smaller bubble.

Avoiding physical meetings or holding them outside when possible, opening windows, avoiding cooking or food preparation at work, and eating outside or at desks rather than common rooms are among other recommended measures.

Organisations whose industrial workforces continued to work on site during the lockdown will do well to consider how managers, engineers and administration staff return to the workplace, and the potential to disrupt well-established protocols of those who have worked through. The two groups of staff may be at dramatically different levels of practical awareness. Re-induction is emerging as part of the solution.

Maintaining cleaning regimes is an important part of infection control to minimise transmission through touching commonly used surfaces. Cleaning materials and most PPE are now easier to obtain after initial shortages but still not abundant. Having a basic understanding of why and what you clean is important to focusing valuable resources on the things that will make the most difference. There is a real risk of mistaking quantity for quality – how often shared surfaces are used and by how many different people are key risk parameters. Those who have kept operating, but with reduced maintenance needs during the past months, need to consider how they enforce physical distancing when normal maintenance work recommences.

When and how to venture out to clients will be a key question for sales, account management, project and consulting staff in particular. Again, SWA is producing guidance on that issue.

Considering how visitors and public access will be handled is important as they introduce a new element of risk and contact extension. Limiting access is still wise and they should be asked to confirm they understand compliance with risk actions on site is a condition of entry. Consider health screening potential visitors prior to arrival.

What to do if you have a positive test is still important, despite the low numbers. A small number of workplaces have been hit by case clusters and while health authorities have been supportive of the business concerned, it can be very disruptive and lead to total closure, at least for a time. Having good internal contact management through distancing protocols will do most to minimise the operational effect. Knowing what to do when the case first arises is also important – what to do with the person affected and fellow workers and who to notify. Have these protocols in place and agreed with staff (and unions if relevant).

In summary, arming yourself with a clear understanding of how the virus is transmitted and the main ways to interrupt transmission is the starting point for all the risk management we need to undertake, regardless of how our workplaces operate. A number of training modules have emerged that can assist with this. Ai Group members can obtain discounted access to Deakin University’s COVID-19 awareness training and accreditation, a 30-minute online course that does just that.

Ai Group has a comprehensive Pandemic Planning tool that includes detailed checklists and tools on  many of the issues raised above.

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Innes Willox
Ai Group Chief Executive since May 2012, Innes joined as Director International and Government Relations in 2008. Prior to this he held a number of senior roles in both the public and private sectors: Australian Consul General to Los Angeles (2006-08); Chief of Staff to Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer (2004-06); and Manager for Global Public Affairs, Singapore Airlines (2000-04). He began his career as a journalist, with his positions including Chief Political Correspondent and Chief of Staff at The Age.
Innes Willox

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