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How prepared are we for our employees' return to the workplace?

​At Paxus, like with other Australian companies, it hasn't been easy to develop strategies to begin the process of transitioning employees from working at home back into the workplace. Complicating matters further, each state has quite different rules. For example, Victoria has issued an official Public Health Order, whereas it's left up to the personal choice of the employer and employees in South Australia. Not only that, such rules and guidelines appear to be changing every day. This means any plans that are developed need to be agile enough to respond to this rapidly changing situation.

What is certain is that the workplace we will return to will look a lot different. We can't take a one-size-fits-all approach either. Each business and office location has its own requirements for it to operate. Plus, we also need to consider the implications these measures will have on our business culture and productivity.

Lastly, most of us are eager to send our employees back to kickstart our revenue flow as soon as possible. However, there can be major consequences if we ask them to return too soon or our Return to Work plan isn't robust enough. We still need to be careful of the legal implications and the negative impact it may have on our business' brand if there is an outbreak.

The Physical Space of the Office

There are two primary ways a person can become exposed and catch COVID-19. The most likely of these is from someone breathing in microdroplets that's been expelled from an infected person's cough or exhale. One measure being employed to reduce the likelihood of becoming exposed is physical distancing.

In relation to the traditional office setting, physical distancing will greatly impact the layout of our space and how we'll move around it. The Department of Health has advised everyone must remain 1.5 metres away from each other, and there must be 4 square metres of space per person.

So, like Paxus and talentCRU, if you're located in a CBD location where space is at a premium, you may not have enough room for your entire workforce to return. For us, we've decided to transition some functions and teams back, while the rest remain working remotely. This allows us to spread people throughout the office, as well as reducing the volume of people using shared facilities like kitchens and bathrooms.

Applying floor markings and signage can also help to direct the flow of traffic around the office, further helping to comply with physical distancing. You may want to consider having ‘lanes' in your corridors, and decals on the floor directing people where to wait in areas like the printer and in reception.

Many organisations have started to install physical barriers between workstations and other areas, such as perspex screens and high partitions. At Paxus and talentCRU, we've decided against this as we feel the negative impact it would have on our company's culture outweighs any benefit gained from mitigating risk. A better option for us was to reduce the headcount physically in this space and spread our workers out. However, as each situation is different, this might not be possible or ideal for other businesses.

Cleaning and Hygiene Practices in the Office

The second way someone is likely to contract the virus is through the hand-to-face pathway. This is where someone has touched a contaminated surface and then proceeded to touch their mouth, nose or eyes. To mitigate the risk of this occurring, strict hygiene and cleaning practices should be adhered to.

For us, we will conduct a daily, thorough clean of our office space. On top of that, we'll also frequently clean high-touch surfaces throughout the day. This includes things like door handles, countertops, printer buttons and so on. We also plan to reduce the need to share equipment wherever possible and ensure that people only use their own stationery supplies such as staplers and pens.

Kitchens and bathrooms are hotspots for infections. So, we'll need to pay special attention to these areas. Scheduling in lunch breaks, allocating kitchens to teams, using hand sanitiser after returning from the bathroom – on top of practicing good hand hygiene, are some measures we'll consider. If it's possible, you can also look at installing sensor taps and automatic doors to further mitigate risk.

Arguably one of the most successful measures to implement is to not allow workers who are unwell into the office. We are investigating taking people's temperatures with an infrared forehead thermometer before they enter. Plus, we'll also encourage people to take their laptops home at night so there's no excuse to return and potentially risk infecting others if they get symptoms.

All measures I've discussed will help mitigate the risk of an outbreak, but they can only go so far. Every individual must take responsibility for their own actions. If someone is feeling sick, it's no longer acceptable to ‘suffer' through and continue to work in the office. Post-pandemic, I think this is the behavioural change that will have the biggest lasting impact, and hopefully it will reduce instances of sickness and subsequent loss of productivity in the long-term.

The Damaging Impact of Not Doing it Well

We can't completely eradicate the risk of someone contracting COVID-19. If someone does contract the virus, it will be difficult to prove that it was contracted at work. However, as business leaders, we could be liable if that person spreads it to other workers. Not only will this have a financial impact on the business through potential WorkCover claims, but it might have a lasting negative impact on your brand. Obviously not all publicity is good, and no-one wants to be that business in the news.

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