Adapting to Work Amid the COVID-19 Crisis

Adapting to Work Amid the COVID-19 Crisis

Things are moving fast, the COVID-19 threat has surged and the upheaval is unprecedented. It’s not business as usual as organisations shift their focus to the twin challenge of protecting employees and maintaining business continuity during the crisis.

The reality at the moment is the immediate, short and medium-term future is uncertain. COVID-19 has changed business operations and brought remote working front and centre, like never before. And, while communication has always been an essential function, an effective strategy is crucial.

Now more than ever businesses need to be flexible, communicate more rather than less, rethink strategies such as work-from-home policies, and adjust the way they work.

Communicate with employees early and often

Employee safety and experience are at the very heart of communication at a time like this. Employees will be anxious about the risk of the pandemic and questions will arise about working arrangements job loss.

Business needs to implement a clear communication plan to engage and inform employees to ensure they are connected, included and supported. To be effective, and due to the evolving nature of the crisis, the plan needs to ensure connection 24/7.

The communication plan should be multi-pronged and use all channels of communication available, especially rapid notification systems capable of SMS, Automated Phone Calls (text to voice) and email.

It is important to engage early and often with open and honest communications to reduce rumours, needless anxiety and fear. Provide opportunities for your team to ask questions and share information about their concerns. Two-way communication is essential so any worries and difficulties can be raised and addressed.

Provide summaries of company policies and explain how the business is working to respond, be sure to cover the issues of attendance, paid time off, working from home requirements and expectations, as well as emergency employee support.

People desperately want information in a crisis so connect your team to a dedicated and reliable source of information to educate and reassure them about the situation and reduce anxiety caused by misinformation. Ensure staff have access to credible sources of information about COVID-19 such as that supplied by the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health.

Remember employers have an obligation under Work Health and Safety legislation to consult and provide information to employees about health and safety in the workplace.

Embrace remote working

As we have seen COVID-19 has caused many companies to rapidly embrace remote working, which is widely viewed as the best way to stall the spread of COVID-19 through the workplace and community more widely.

But as many of us are now seeing flipping the switch to remote work is not always a simple transition. A working from home policy or procedure needs some planning and preparation, and must detail what the ideal state of remote work looks like. This is to ensure implementation is done safely, maintains connections and accountability.

To keep productivity and morale up, it is important that teams have tools to enable them to come together online and work collaboratively. There has been a significant uptick in deployment of online communication tools, which include instant messaging, video calls and screen sharing. Video conferencing technology such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack are just some of the platforms surging in popularity at this time.

Key considerations to support employees working from home:

  • Infrastructure for remote working must be in place, this includes laptop computers and printers
  • Integration of technology is key to maintain productivity and efficiency, and it should be as simple as possible
  • Employees must have enough bandwidth to ensure ease of access
  • There needs to be IT support for remote workers, especially for those who haven’t worked from home before
  • Employees may need to be trained to use the hardware and software

Planning requires your team to have a clear outline of how they’re expected to behave. What are work hours? What are the expectations around when they are at their desk? When are they making calls? Remember, many staff are adjusting to working from home while managing children as well, this is a complicated juggling act and makes ‘business as usual’ tricky to say the least.

Guidelines should include:

  • How to setup a workspace, with an emphasis on what helps individuals focus and be productive
  • Check ergonomics and technology so the environment is safe and productive, hazards need to be considered and managed
  • Ensure all technology is up-to-date and operating well, this includes phones, computers, printers, emails etc. as well as video conferencing platforms or software that may be required
  • Outline expectations about priorities and talk to individuals and teams through any challenges and questions, agree on expectations together
  • Schedule meetings and connect with your team so they’re not isolated, this includes team meetings and team members having direct communications
  • Working from home should be treated like a normal day with a lunch break, start and finish at a decent time
  • Care and connect, pick up the phone to talk to people and ask how they’re going, if they need any extra help or support.

For employers, workplace health and safety laws still apply even when an employee is working from home. Having clear policies and procedures around working from home is a must, particularly given employers will generally have the same exposure to liability from work-related accidents as they would if the employee was working in the office.

Working remotely may not be possible for some employees; employers must then identify and control risks to health and safety. Useful information to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace is available from sites like Safe Work Australia and the World Health Organisation.

Other initiatives to support employees and manage disruption for staff in the office

  • Rethink leave policies: Support sick employees to stay at home and consider leniency in regard to sick leave
  • Shorten working hours: Encourage workers to consider reduced hours in the short-term, which can be ramped back up when demand picks back up
  • Support health and wellness: Many people are anxious and afraid, it’s important your teams feel supported by reminding them of the availability of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Care Corporate support services such as Emergency Care provides access to a network of back-up child care providers at times when there’s a clash of work and home commitments
  • Restrict social office visits: Take steps to reduce the risk to employees from the virus by temporarily halting social visitors to the office
  • Cater lunch: This will minimise exposure to food halls and will bring the team together – but don’t forget to maintain a 1.5 metre social distance!
  • Engage in new ways: Get innovative and creative, try creating a video blog for your team or arrange a Friday afternoon virtual happy hour for remote workers on a video conferencing platform.

In light of the unprecedented nature of this crisis, it’s important to understand your businesses legal obligations and seek advice in areas of uncertainty.

This is a fluid situation and business needs to adjust and keep their employees updated as the issue evolves. While it’s certainly not business as usual, it’s a time when the value of caring comes to life.  Remain flexible, proactive and resilient to ensure ongoing operations and the health and safety of all.

References and other resources

Australian Government: Coronavirus information and support for business

Beyond Blue: Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak Australian Government: The Treasury, Support for business

Safework NSW: Advice and guidance for NSW workplaces – this site is a handy and comprehensive reference for all states and territories