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Returning to Work with the Known Knowns, Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns of COVID

With COVID-19 restrictions finally easing, how can we prepare to return to work while minimising risk to our staff, colleagues and customers? How can we ease the transition back to the workplace and return to enjoying our city and our lives? There are a few key areas to focus on.
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COVID-19 restrictions are finally easing and while everyone is pretty stoked about this (in Melbourne, in particular!), it does stir up feelings of trepidation for the hundreds of businesses opening their doors and the thousands of people returning to the workplace for the first time in many months. There’s suddenly so much to do, so much to change and so many actual people to engage with...in new and strange ways. And that’s only based on what we know right now!

When Donald Rumsfeld introduced the concept of “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns” in 2002, he was referring to another global threat – terrorism. But the point still stands that there are always things we don’t know, and that’s where the real risk is. 

So how can we prepare to return to work while minimising risk to our staff, colleagues and customers? How can we ease the transition back to the workplace and return to enjoying our city and our lives? There are a few key areas to focus on.

Health and Wellbeing

For some, ‘home life’ and ‘work life’ have become synonymous with one another. And while our trackie-pant vibes may have been relaxing at times (provided you didn’t stand up in a Zoom meeting!), those four walls seemed to get awfully small in a short space of time. For others, forced to stop or pause on work engagements, the days may have become extremely long, with hours spent scrolling through Netflix or searching for that next passion project to sink your teeth into.

Whatever the journey, one thing is clear – our lives, our routines, our goals and our feelings definitely changed in 2020, for better or for worse.

More than ever, the mental health and wellbeing of your staff, your colleagues and yourself is of the utmost priority. There is not going to be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to broaching mental health and wellbeing in the workplace; however, communication will be key. Understanding individual challenges, exploring ways to overcome hurdles and adapting to the new “COVID-norm” with open dialogue will assist in realigning your workforce, enhance performance and reset expectations.

One big shift across the globe as a result of the pandemic is the recognition that flexible work arrangements are not only possible but beneficial to many businesses and their staff. This will mean different things to different people but, generally speaking, workplaces are likely to adopt a more flexible view when it comes to working from home and the juggle of family and work. 

But flexible arrangements are just that – flexible – and need to be regularly reviewed to ensure the arrangement is working for everyone. Constant communication is key, so ask for feedback on what’s working and be willing to let go of assumptions to try new ways of work. We talk more about this in our article about Keeping Up Productive New Habits And Ditching The Bad After COVID-19.

Like Chameleons, we may need to change our colour to adapt.

So what are some key ways in achieving this?

  • Consult with employees about changes in the workplace and what those adjustments will mean to them
  • Ensure employees are aware of the steps the workplace has taken (or is intending to take) to prevent the spread of COVID-19
  • Listen openly to the suggestions or concerns of your employees about returning to the workplace and implement changes where reasonable
  • Stress the importance of looking after mental health and wellbeing
  • Encourage your staff, colleagues, friends and family to find two or three things each week that you're looking forward to, and gain strength and enjoyment from those things.
  • Set yourself mini-goals and celebrate when you achieve them.
  • Ensure employees have access to, or are made aware of, resources available to them, including Safe Work Australia or counselling and support services
  • Make time to recharge the batteries and ensure your employees do the same.
  • Try to feel grateful each day and if you actively write down what you’re grateful for, you’ll notice even more positivity as a result. Suddenly that awkward day won’t seem so bad.

The key takeaway is that everyone (in their own way) is feeling off-balance. We are walking a tight-rope out of lockdown, but creating dialogue to set new routines and prioritising mental health and well-being, will see your business and staff find their feet and balance sooner.

Workplace Safety and Policy

Employers and employees must follow occupational health and safety laws. In particular, employers are under obligations to provide information to employees about health and safety in the workplace and monitor and maintain a safe working environment (so far as reasonably practicable). Likewise, employees have a duty to take reasonable care of their own and their colleagues’ health and safety.

So what does “reasonably practicable” mean when it comes to workplace health and safety during this transition?

Well, first off, it is going to be different for each industry or job sector. Risks must be anticipated, appropriately assessed and minimised or eliminated based on the type of workplace. We recommend that you check out the resources and useful guides available from Safe Work Australia, and safety regulators and health departments in your state or territory. These are regularly updated. 

Secondly, it is going to be different for each state or territory, as enforceable government directions in response to COVID-19 vary in each jurisdiction.

The bottom line is, what is “reasonably practicable” will depend on what, at a particular time and with the particular circumstances of the workplace, should reasonably be done to ensure health and safety. This involves weighing up:

  • The likelihood of the risk occurring
  • The degree of harm that may result from the risk
  • What is known, or ought reasonably to be known, about the risk
  • What is known, or ought reasonably to be known, to reduce or eliminate the risk
  • What is available or suitable to reduce or eliminate the risk
  • Whether measures to be implemented to reduce or eliminate risk are practicable and proportionate.

As we emphasised earlier, communication will be key. As businesses open their doors, employees should be consulted on the measures taken (or intended to be taken) in the workplace to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Having these conversations early may starve off apprehensions or concerns of staff into returning to their pre-COVID workplaces.

What happens if my employees don’t feel safe to return to their pre-COVID workplaces?

Many states and territories continue to have directions in place (or otherwise encourage) working from home (where possible). If this applies to your business, you must adhere to this government directive.

If a business may resume trading from its usual site, an employer may issue a directive to an employee to return to that site. A direction must be complied with by an employee unless it is not lawful or reasonable. An employee can refuse to do unsafe work or return to an unsafe site. 

Employers and employees must communicate and work together to resolve any safety concerns in returning to the workplace. It may be that alternative solutions can be implemented, such as:

  • The location of work
  • The manner in which the work is performed
  • Temporary alternative duties
  • Car-pooling options to avoid public transport.

However, if an employee doesn’t comply with a reasonable and lawful direction to return to work or their usual workplace, an employer may take disciplinary action against that employee (including termination of employment). Legal advice should be sought before taking such action to ensure compliance with your obligations under the Fair Work Act.

What happens if the reason my employee will not come into work is because they don’t feel safe on public transport?

The stance of the employer will again depend on the government directives imposed in your state or territory at the time. Where possible (and reasonable) to address safety concerns of an employee, employers should consider implementing alternative solutions to commuting by public transport, such as:

  • Car-pooling options
  • Subsidising parking for private vehicle use or car-pooling
  • Changing start and finish times of employees to avoid peak hour commuting on public transport
  • Changing the location of work (including whether another site is available that is easier for the employee to commute to, or allowing the employee to work from home). 

The above alternatives may be temporary in nature and will depend on what is reasonable in the given circumstances. However, ultimately, if an employee is not complying with a reasonable and lawful direction to return to work or their usual workplace, an employer may take disciplinary action against that employee (including termination of employment). Legal advice should be sought before taking such action to ensure compliance with your obligations under the Fair Work Act.

How do I make the workplace safe for clients and customers?

Your workplace must implement measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Information and useful guides about your responsibilities as a business are available from Safe Work Australia, and safety regulators and health departments in your state or territory.

Remember to leverage technology to improve operations and maintain safety protocols. If you’re in an office, retail space or hospitality venue, QR (quick response) codes are a great way to monitor visitors and collect personal information about people on site. Anyone can generate QR codes online for free and because they’re quick and contactless, most people feel more comfortable scanning their phone than writing their details in a log book. 

Contactless payment systems, such as Square or Kounta, are also encouraged to avoid people tapping screens and touching buttons unnecessarily when they need to pay. And many of these systems integrate seamlessly with your other software, so you may see your operational efficiencies improve as well!

Other common ways you can protect your customers include:

  • Providing clear, legible and easily noticeable signage to customers about your business’s practices or changes to your ordinary business practices
  • Ensuring social distancing is maintained
  • Using floor markers as guides to assist with social distancing
  • Creating temporary transparent barriers between staff and customers (where appropriate)
  • Encouraging good hygiene practices
  • Regularly cleaning and disinfecting your workplace
  • Ensuring restrictions on maximum occupants on site are maintained
  • Providing access to hand sanitiser and, where reasonable, face masks.

Operations

A key focus as you transition back into the workplace should be on the fundamental and overall plan for reopening and re-establishing business operations. From a financial and operational perspective, ask yourself how your business is intending to navigate the new COVID-norm.

There are a number of things to consider as you open your doors, and we’ve covered this topic in more detail in our article, Are You Ready To Awaken Your Business From Hibernation?

You will likely need to address the following aspects of running your business in a COVID-normal world:

  • What aspects of your business are expected to financially flourish during this time?
  • What aspects of your business are you expecting to see a downturn?
  • Which of your clients, suppliers or other key stakeholders have been impacted by COVID-19 and what flow-on effect will this have to your business?
  • Where do you need to direct your resources and expenditure?
  • What do your cash flow projects look like?
  • Do you need to develop (or continue to develop) online services or contactless services? 
  • Do you need to implement new payment systems and collection policies?
  • Do you need to vary your trading hours? 
  • Will you need to update company policies to reflect changes implemented?
  • Can you downsize the office space required and become more flexible with working-from-home options? 
  • How is your workforce constituted moving forward?

Working through these priorities will help you navigate the “known knowns”, “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” when transitioning back to the workplace. And when in doubt – don’t hesitate to reach out! BlueRock is here to help you and can advise on any of the aspects mentioned in this article.

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Did you know?
The origin of the BlueRock name is a mash-up of the founders two favourite things.
Through a mutual love of the Carlton football team and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, a firm was born!