With Social Distancing restrictions slowly starting to ease, it poses the questions – how do I bring my workforce back into the office and workplace?  Many business and employees will welcome the opportunity to return to work when given the green light by the Government. However simply inviting everyone back into work on Monday is not the safest approach and a well thought out plan should be put in place to ensure your workforce stay safe and healthy when they return to work after COVID-19.

These are a range of considerations to be included in your workplace planning.

Staged return to work

Whilst restrictions will ease, social distancing practices will likely remain in one form or another for quite some time.

Limit the number of staff working in the office at one time and plan a staggered approach to returning to the office. This may include establishing a rotational system of staff in the office whilst some staff remain at home. If you have essential staff that you cannot do without, split them so that not all are in the office at one time.

Those who are in high risk vulnerable groups due to age or underlying medical conditions should remain working from home as a priority where possible.

Improving Workplace Hygiene Practices

Review the infection control measures and controls you have in your workplace, assigning a dedicated team member to be responsible for these measures. This may naturally lead to updating your policies and procedures to reflect updated infection control procedures.

Assess the requirements for PPE for you staff. The routine use of surgical masks is not recommended for members of the general public who are well. Further information on the use of surgical masks may be found here.

Review your staff’s access to Hand hygiene facilities for high traffic areas and areas with interactions with the public consider setting up additional hand hygiene stations.

Ensure you have adequate cleaning supplies to facilitate regular cleaning and disinfection, particularly of hard surfaces and review your external cleaning requirements – are there high traffic areas that need to be cleaned more regularly?

Review your tea rooms facilitates to see where hygiene practices can be improved at high touch points and ensure all staff understand their role in keeping shared work spaces clean and hygienic. For example can you replace cutlery with disposable alternatives to reduce the spread of germs? Instead of communal lolly jars can these be replaced with individually wrapped lollies and biscuits instead?

Mentally prepare your workforce

Happy and Healthy employees are a business’s greatest asset. It is important to prepare your staff to transition back to the office as not all staff may be returning. It is very important that you place a lot of thought and planning into improving the workplace culture as the landscape of your employee’s work and roles may have shifted in the last few months.

Acknowledge your staffs concerns and address those head on, presenting the vision for the future as a goal for everyone to collectively work towards.

Plan for culture building activities, commencing them now in the lead up to returning to the office. Investing in a health and wellness program for your staff is a timely opportunity to build morale and support employees to stay healthy leading in to winter, increasing team productivity. These can be offered to your team via webinar ensuring you connect and engage your whole team.

Prepare for a second outbreak  

We have to remember that it is common to have a second wave in most pandemic viral infections, usually much smaller than the original but still a risk. The underlying immunity of the majority of our community is still very low. Opening of the borders to overseas travel will also increase risk again. Remind staff of the importance of NOT coming to work if they experience ANY symptoms. It is one of the lessons we have learnt so far that some individuals may not experience any symptoms, or their symptoms may be so mild that they don’t recognise their significance.

Prepare your team for the eventuality that they may need to work remotely again in the case that a second wave requires a return of strict Social Distancing rules.

Realigning your workflow process

You may need to reconsider the way in which your teams operate to accommodate social distancing practices. Installing personal safety equipment such as screens between workers are not always an option, i.e. manufacturing. In these cases you may need to look at rearranging workflows within your workplace to priorities safety over efficiency and establish workplace screening prior to entering the workplace.

Job task analysis are one such mechanism that can be used to identify opportunities for improving the way tasks are completed in your workplace.

For those workplaces such as office spaces and retail outlets you may need to rearrange your floor plans to ensure employees and customers are able to maintain social distancing whilst they work. If your workplace uses a ‘Hot Desking’ arrangement – you may need to reconsider this to maintain good hygiene and social distancing. It is preferential to have allocated desks spaced 1.5m with partitions in-between stations.  

Maintain regular communications

Working from home requires increased communications across your workforce to be successful, and in many cases will have increased your workforce’s productivity. Maintaining these levels of communication are important when you return to your workplaces. Continuing activities such as ‘Coffee Chats’ to ensure your workforce aren’t being isolated are also important – whilst the original intent of the activity may be repurposed, offering the opportunity for your employees to continue to connect via teams and chats should be maintained for workplace morale.

Communications to your customers are also important as we transition back to a COVID safe workplace. Ensure you have adequate hygiene posters displayed within easy view within your business, the government have a range of excellent resources that can be found here.

You will also need to communicate updated process or practices to your customers, ideally prior to them coming into your business so they know how to enter and access your business safely. Reinforcing this with posters displayed at your shop front is also important, particularly those business operating in large public spaces such as airports and retail centers.

Review your business needs

Many business will never return to operating as they did before as the pandemic forced us to relook at the way we work. Some workplaces may reduce the size of their office spaces as productive employees choose to remain working from home. Make sure you review the needs of your business and ensure that any employees that remain working from home permanently have adequate resources and infrastructure to continue working from home.

For those employees that wish to continue to work from home, ensure they receive a workplace home assessment to mitigate any workplace accidents at home. An economics assessment in the home office is also a good idea to reduce injuries in your at home workforce.

Sonic HealthPlus has a range of Doctors and Allied Health professionals that can support your workforce in your return to work after COVID-19. Ranging from workplace screening including screening vulnerable at risk workers, Dr Consultancy for your return to work plans, to workplace health and wellness programs, Sonic HealthPlus is here to support your workforce.

Click here for further information. 

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Dr Keith Adam
M.B., B.S., Fellow ACOM, Fellow AFOEM, RACPChief Medical Officer

Dr Keith Adam is a Senior Specialist Occupational Physician with Sonic HealthPlus and an Associate Professor of Occupational Medicine with the University of Queensland. Treating and rehabilitating injured workers since 1984, Dr Adam has extensive experience in determining what duties injured workers may be able to perform, and managing return to work programmes.

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