With the Australian government now planning the way out of COVID-19 restrictions, there has been some talk of businesses reopening and this means the return to work at some stage for employees. While we have seen some businesses reopen now that JobKeeper payments have commenced, many still remain closed. Which means that for many employers it’s an opportune time to start thinking about preparing the workplace and preparing for situations that might arise in those first few weeks.
For some employers, the return of employees to work will be a smooth transition. For others there may be situations that arise which have never been dealt with before – as let’s face it, COVID-19 is new to everyone!
As HR Consultants dealing with established SME workplaces, we are starting to get a lot of questions about a post-COVID-19 world. Questions such as how do I ensure my workplace is safe? What happens if my stood down employee doesn’t want to come back to work now that they are receiving JobKeeper? What if my employee asks to work from the home long term? Many of our clients express initial anxiety about such scenarios, but the reassuring thing is that there really is an easy solution for each question. Sometimes you might just need someone experienced in these situations to speak to and guide you through a logical process.
Let’s address these three common questions about returning to work following COVID-19.
1. How can I ensure my workplace is safe for employees to return to work to, following COVID-19 restrictions?
To meet their obligations, employers should take all reasonable steps to ensure a safe workplace. Simply placing some sanitiser out is not enough. Employers should be deliberate in taking steps to ensure risk is minimised. Some examples of what employers should be doing are:
- Ensuring any public health directions and suggestions from official sources such as www.health.gov.au or your state health authority are strictly followed.
- Putting in place control measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 such as making soaps and hand sanitizers readily available, regularly disinfecting surfaces, and promoting good hygiene practices for employees, contractors and customers.
- Implementing spatial barriers such as moving work stations to adhere to physical distancing rules, systems for ensuring physical contact is reduced, and where appropriate installing screen shields to protect in high customer contact roles.
- Introducing technology to the workplace which promotes distanced social and work communication, and which reduces the need for as many face to face meetings. E.g. Zoom, Workplace by Facebook, Slack etc.
- Talking to staff about employee obligations to adhere to workplace health and safety rules, and monitoring and encouraging the rules throughout this pandemic period.
2. What happens where my stood down employee doesn’t want to come back to work now that they are receiving JobKeeper?
The first thing to ascertain in this situation is the reason/reasons your employee doesn’t want to return to work following a stand down. Is it simply because they are enjoying their newfound freedom or is there a deeper issue that needs to be investigated such as a genuine safety concern about returning to work?
If there is no genuine reason for not wanting to return to work following the stand down, the employer is able to direct the employee to return to work where the direction is lawful and reasonable, and it doesn’t expose the employee to risk. Where the employee refuses following the direction, the employee may be able to consider addressing the issue in accordance with usual disciplinary processes.
Where an employee has provided genuine reasons relating to their health and/or safety and has refused to attend work, it is more complex. Generally, where the employer has taken all reasonable steps to ensure the workplace is safe, the employee should not refuse to return to work. However, we strongly recommend speaking to an employment relations specialist to work through the specific situation with you, as it will depend on the circumstances. There are a number of protections for employees under various legislation, particularly in relation to health and safety. Therefore, to avoid breaching your obligations it’s better to seek advice prior to acting.
3. What happens if my employee wants to work from the home long term?
COVID-19 has changed the way many of us work. It has also changed many of our attitudes to working from home – for both employees and employers!
Our HR Consultants have heard many stories of employees loving the flexibility of working from home. In contrast, there are also many employees who cannot wait to get back to the structure and social connection that physically attending a work site offers.
The majority of employers we have spoken to have embraced working from home arrangements, with a strong desire to keep their employees safe and their businesses as operational as possible. There have even been some employers who are considering implementing permanent work from home requirements for staff as a potential cost-saving strategy for the future. I.e. smaller premises required.
Due to COVID-19 arrangements, it is likely that employers will soon see a rise in requests to work from home, whether it be full time or for a few days per week. Whatever the case, we recommend that employers get on the front foot about flexible working arrangements so that there is a clear and consistent message and process being followed. The best way to do this is via a Flexible Work Policy, which outlines how flexible work requests are handled in your workplace. Where inconsistent and unlawful decisions are made, discrimination-related claims from employees become more likely.
In regard to your flexible work policy, keep in mind that it should align with Fair Work laws, so it is recommended that your policy is drafted by an employment law expert so that you can be assured your policy meets these obligations.
Once your Flexible Work Policy is in place and communicated, leaders will be in a better position to confidently handle requests. Employers shouldn’t be afraid that because an employee worked from home during the pandemic that they will have absolute rights to work from home in the future. This is simply untrue. However, employers will need to work through requests and consider their policy and any flexible work laws that may apply. We also recommend arrangements are always placed in writing.
Keep in mind that the best outcomes are often those where the employee and the employer decide to meet in the middle. Flexible work can look like many things – reduced hours, condensed hours, earlier starts with earlier finishes or working from home 1-2 days per week to name a few. It is well documented that flexible work improves work satisfaction, which in turn improves workplace productivity. Therefore, now employers having firsthand knowledge that flexible work can work, it might be the right time to relax antiquated attitudes about the 9am-5pm work week and implement some flexibility for employees.
*This article is not intended to be advice. We recommend employers seek specific advice for their situation from an employment relations expert.
Industryus HR is a specialist human resources agency, providing employment relations advice and support to established small and medium-sized organisations. If your organisation needs assistance with advice or drafting a Flexible Work Policy, head online to arrange a free 30 minute Introductory Call.
Or call us on 07 5655 4047.