Returning to work after a long Covid break can feel a bit like the anxiety we used to experience getting ready for a new school year after a long summer. But the checklist for school books, stationary, uniforms, and everything else has been switched out for a new checklist that has health, safety, and legal compliance as its main concerns.
Addressing these concerns is not only going to be critical in keeping everyone safe but also keeping business operations working optimally. A surefire way to disturb productivity will be to have employees taking days off work because they are either known Covid cases or because they are close contacts, and who knows if hotspot shutdowns will become a thing again?
Of course, most of us now are able to work well enough from home. But the real disruption will come from chopping and changing.
In this article, we walk you through all the major considerations of returning to the office in a safe way so that wellbeing and productivity can reach and remain at peak levels.
If you’re looking for a quick executive summary to check your plans against, here’s a ready-made return to work checklist.
Now, let’s go into some detail.
It’s become pretty standard now, wherever you go in public, to have sanitation equipment on hand—and for good reason. This is your office’s first line of defence.
A quick checklist of sanitation supplies for your consideration:
It’s easy enough ordering these things in. The most important part is making sure all sanitation stations throughout the office remain fully stocked, all the time.
Almost all workplaces will have some sort of professional cleaning service in place, whether there’s a pandemic or not. But it’s critical when returning to work that your professional cleaning service is top-notch.
You want to make sure that the cleaning is effective at curbing the spread of Covid-19, not just picking up dust from the carpet.
So, first things first, make sure your cleaning service has the proper training and qualifications to actually be disinfecting. Taking a wet cloth with a bit of soap to table surfaces won’t cut it in this fight.
Secondly, you need to have clear protocols in place to make sure the right things are being cleaned. In particular, your plan should make sure that all of the surfaces being touched throughout the day are being properly wiped down with disinfectant.
When talking with your cleaning service, you want to go through the office and highlight all of the critical surfaces that get the most exposure throughout the day and week. Think about:
The last critical aspect of a cleaning protocol is making sure that it’s carried out regularly enough. It’s been shown that the virus that causes Covid-19 can stay on surfaces for up to a month, and with the possibility of new, more transmissible variants on the horizon, you can’t clean often enough.
For this reason, you shouldn’t leave all the cleaning to your professional service. You should have clear protocols in place for your employees to wipe down surfaces once they’ve touched them—meeting room tables and printers, for example.
One of the best ways to stay on top of the virus and make sure it doesn’t affect your business is to get your employees to get tested regularly. Of course, they can do this at the free testing sites set up in the various states and territories.
But since November, it’s also possible to buy DIY tests at home or in the office. Telling your staff to walk or drive to a testing site might be difficult, but providing them with tests they can do in the office will probably make the uptake much better.
These DIY kits—called Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs)—can be done on your own. They’re really straightforward to administer and you’ll have the results in under half an hour. The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration has now approved a number of them as being effective.
People don’t need to get tested every day. A lot of organisations have adopted a policy of testing once at the beginning of the week and once at the end of the week. This can just help keep an eye on things and stop the whole office from isolating if the virus spreads internally.
Do you find it really annoying when one of your colleagues turns up to work and is coughing, sneezing, and generally spluttering all over the place with illness? It can be frustrating because you’re sitting there thinking to yourself whether you’re inevitably going to catch what they have.
But in the current era, the stakes are higher. So, it’s essential that you encourage colleagues and employees to stay at home if they are unwell.
You should also encourage them to get tested as soon as they begin to feel unwell.
As we now all know, the spread of the virus is largely caused by the transmission of droplets or aerosols. We’re talking coughing and sneezing, but also just general breathing. This is why the use of masks has been enforced in so many parts of the world.
In terms of returning to the office, we need to keep this major form of transmission in mind, even if (most people) won’t be wearing masks anymore.
To tackle it, you want to be trying to keep people out of spaces where lots of droplets are being released into the air with nowhere to go. That means spacing workers out as much as possible, using flexible work rotas, and utilising outside space where possible.
Critically, you want to check and double-check that your air ventilation system is in tip-top shape. Also, keep as much natural airflow going as possible with open windows.
You can create all the plans and protocols you like for a safe return to work, but the truth is that they won’t count for much unless you create a workplace culture that values them.
In any crowd, you’re always going to have those that think they’re a bit too cool to follow the rules (wiping a desk down after you use it can just be a bit lame), those that can’t be bothered, and those that just flat don’t believe any of it makes a difference.
You need to bring all of these people into the fold. To do that, you first need to make sure everyone actually understands why being Covid-safe is important—it’s not just about following government restrictions but also keeping colleagues healthy and keeping the workplace productive.
The next step is to make sure the message is communicated in the right way, on a person-to-person level. Depending on the structure of your business, this might mean you need to take on the responsibility of making sure everyone is keyed in yourself, or it might mean dispersing that responsibility through a leadership group.
A shared workspace requires us to think about Covid safety in some more particular ways.
For example, you should definitely have hot desk guidelines in place to help stop people from picking up the virus from the surfaces of shared desks and chairs. The guidelines need to be directed at hot desk users themselves because your cleaning service won’t be able to clean surfaces after each use in a dynamic office space.
Here are some example guidelines:
To stress what’s been mentioned, hot desking protocols won’t count for much if you don’t have sanitisation supplies near at hand for people to use. Not only do you want to have all of this equipment in the office, but you want to have it spread throughout the workspace in plain sight. Otherwise, it’s easy for people to forget.
More cynically (but quite truthfully), we could say that, if people have to walk too far or look too hard to find cleaning supplies, they’re just not going to bother. Again, too, a Covid-safe culture is critical.
If you’ve been searching for shared office space near me, check out Christie Spaces’ beautiful locations across Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. All of our shared office spaces are fully set up Covid-safe locations, so you can come in and get working straight away without having to worry.
While restrictions have eased across Australia, each state still has slightly different requirements in place. So, to finish, we’re going to look at some of the nuances in each of the states where Christie Spaces maintains office spaces.
As of 18 November, the Victorian government lifted most Covid-19 restrictions, and there are no specific restrictions being placed on office settings. But that’s only if you’ve been vaccinated. Unvaccinated workers will be excluded from workplaces, as well as many other venues throughout the state of Victoria.
For your return to work program in Melbourne, you should be aware that offices won’t have to close if positive cases are identified amongst employees. However, close contacts will be required to get a PCR test and isolate until they get a negative result (which should be within 24 hours).
In Sydney, office workers are allowed to not wear a face mask if they have been fully vaccinated but unvaccinated workers must wear a face-covering throughout the office.
It’s also not a legal requirement for workers to be physically distanced in an office setting, but it is expected if it is possible and feasible to do so.
Up until 17 December, indoor businesses in Queensland have to follow the 1 person per 2 square metre rule, but it will not apply thereafter.
It is not a legal requirement for office workers to be vaccinated, but there are workplace circumstances that may enable an employer to mandate vaccination.
It’s important to remember that, whatever the specific restrictions are that may apply in your state, all businesses across Australia have strict legal obligations to protect their employees’ health. That means that if you don’t take reasonable steps to protect your employees from Covid-19, in general, you may be leaving yourself open to legal liability.
It’s a good idea to not only take steps to make your office safe for workers but also to have formal plans and protocols in place to cover all your bases.
For many different reasons, a lot of us are very keen to get back to the office after a difficult year. With government restrictions easing, in particular, we might be inclined to rush back to our old ways of doing things and get that difficult year behind us.
But it’s important that we stop and take the time to do things right.
As the past two years have shown us, anything can happen, so it’s best to be prepared.
But most importantly, planning a safe return to work is crucial for keeping your people healthy and productive. In the first place, you have serious legal obligations to safeguard their health. But protecting your personnel from illness (whether it's Covid-19, the common flu, or anything else) is also critical if you want your work going on without any hiccups.
Let’s get 2021 (and 2020) behind us by planning ahead. That way we can deal with whatever 2022 might throw at us, full of confidence.