Bringing employees back to the workplace during COVID-19

The key steps to make the transition back to the office as smooth as possible. Plus, where to enlist the help of a legal professional.

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Navigating the effects of the pandemic has been a huge personal and professional challenge for business owners across the globe. For many companies in Australia, it's an ongoing challenge to encourage a return to workplace norms while meeting the primary goal of looking after the safety and wellbeing of staff.

Use this guide to help you plan a Covid-safe transition back to the workplace in a way that's safe and legally sound.

Know the latest COVID-19 developments in your state

When it comes to the COVID-19, the latest restrictions, rules and legislation differ from state to state. The government's COVID-19 restriction checker is a useful tool in understanding what you can and can't do in your area.

The following sites will give you the latest on COVID-19 restrictions in your state:

5 steps to bring employees back to the workplace safely

1. Conduct a risk assessment

Before inviting your employees back to the workplace, it's essential to carry out a thorough risk assessment of your premises. A risk assessment will help you to identify potential risks of spreading COVID-19, and can help you plan ways to minimise this before your employees return in large numbers.

A risk assessment should address the following questions:

  • Are any workers at risk of exposure to the virus?
  • What existing processes may be increasing the risk of exposure?
  • Can we implement any further control measures to reduce the risk of exposure?
  • How effective will these control measures be? How often should we revisit them?

With the many facets of COVID-19 keeping us on our toes, it's essential to also carry out regular risk assessments once workers are back in the office. Any risks should be mitigated as soon as possible. If you need help carrying out your risk assessment, Safe Work Australia has a wealth of free resources.

2. Develop a return-to-work plan

With your risk assessment done, you'll now want to turn to a return-to-work plan. This plan can include details of how you're planning to mitigate a range of risks in the workplace. Details may include as follows:

  • Safely managing the flow of people in and out of the workplace by staggering shift start and end times.
  • Providing each employee with at least four square meters of physical distancing space around them in the office, and making sure workers have sat at least 1.5 meters away from each other.
  • Limiting the number of attendees at training and meetings by splitting employees into groups.
  • Using signage and floor markings around the workplace to reiterate physical distancing rules.
  • Implementing one-way systems on stairs, where possible, and control measures for lifts.
  • Providing personal protective equipment to workers for times when it isn't possible to keep more than 1.5 meters away from each other.
  • Increasing hygiene stations around the workplace with disinfectant wipes and hand sanitiser readily available.

Throughout the whole process, it's important to communicate your plans and ideas with your employees. Writing down your plan for a COVID-safe workplace can help ease employee's anxieties about returning. It will also help everybody know exactly where they stand when they come back to the office and what they need to do to stay safe.

3. Get the right legal help

If you're struggling to get your head around your rights and responsibilities when it comes to your workplace, you may want to consider onboarding the help of a legal professional to guide you through the process.

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Here's some more information on the legal avenues where you can find support:

  • Employment lawyers will be able to provide advice on how you should proceed going forward and help you to draft up new policies with your staff in mind.
  • Online legal platforms, like Net Lawman or Sprintlaw, can also provide document review services should you want to check over policies you've written up yourself.

Depending on the industry that you operate in, you may find it helpful to write up a bunch of COVID-centric policies for your workplace. You may be able to start this yourself by utilising the help of a legal template.

Here are a few key legal documents that you might find useful to put into place:

  • COVID-19 Return to the Workplace Policy. This policy should outline the processes and procedures that are in place to minimise the risk of COVID-19 spreading in your workplace. Check out Lawpath's Return to Workplace policy.
  • Pandemic Policy. While a Pandemic Policy may not be specific to COVID-19, it can be a useful document to clearly set out how your company will cope with the effects of a pandemic in the future.
  • Work Health and Safety (WHS) Policy. Most businesses should have a (WHS) policy in place, but you may well need to update it to specifically address COVID-19.

return to workplace policy sample from Lawpath

Download this template at Lawpath

4. Explore permanent flexible working arrangements

You may find that employees are not ready to come back to the office, or there's simply no need to bring everyone back just yet. Alternatively, some businesses may be trialling two- or three-day weeks where in-person attendance is going to be a requirement. If this is the case, then you may need to edit and cement your working from home arrangements.

Protecting your business with a new policy

One of the best ways to do this is by introducing a new Working From Home (WFH) Policy. Typically, a WFH Policy outlines an employees responsibilities while away from the office along with the procedures in place to support them.

If you already have one of these policies in place, you can simply update the information to reflect the times we live in. If you're not confident with writing up policies like this yourself, again, you can contact an online lawyer from modern marketplaces like Lawpath, LegalVision or Sprintlaw.

Setting up staff to work remotely

The transition between a traditional office space and a remote team can be tricky for many businesses to master. It can also be tough on employees. To set your employees up to work from home successfully, consider the following strategies:

  • Introduce effective communication channels. Software like Slack and Zoom makes it easier than ever for teams to catch up online.
  • Schedule regular check-ins. Keep the whole team connected and promote a positive company culture by setting up regular virtual team events and meetings.
  • Offer a workstation stipend. Offering a one-time stipend to set up a workstation at home may help to boost your employee's productivity.

5. Offer health and wellbeing support to your employees

There's no doubt that the effects of COVID-19 have taken a massive toll on many people across the globe. This makes it more important than ever to offer mental health support to all employees, whether they continue to work remotely or are back in the office – both scenarios come with their own challenges. For example, some have struggled with issues of loneliness and social isolation from remote working. Meanwhile, others may be feeling anxious about returning to your workplace.

One of the best ways to support employees struggling with their mental health is promoting an open company culture, communicating new policies with employees and offering one-to-one support.

There are several places for employees to get mental health support during Coronavirus, including using mental health hotlines such as Beyond Blue, through medicare or private health insurance.

Bottom Line

Keeping up with the rules and regulations around COVID-19 can be a challenge, especially when you have a team of employees to keep safe. By staying vigilant, implementing new health and safety protocols and engaging the help of a legal professional when necessary, you'll be on your way to bringing employees back to the workplace in the right manner.

Frequently asked questions

What should I do if an employee comes to work with COVID-19 symptoms?

If an employee arrives at work with COVID-19 symptoms, they should immediately be separated from other employees and sent home. An employee can only return to work once they have completed the necessary isolation days.

How to help improve health and safety from COVID-19 in the office?

To improve health and safety in the workplace, it's essential to carry out a risk assessment of your premises. By identifying the risks and hazards associated with COVID-19, you can work to minimise the risk of spreading the virus. This may include taking steps such as reorganising workstations, staggering shifts, installing protective screens or enhanced ventilation.

What should I do if one of my employees gets sick at work?

If an employee develops COVID-19 symptoms while at work, again, they should be sent home immediately. Workers can only return once they have fully recovered and met the criteria for clearance from mandatory isolation. This may differ from state to state.

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