Returning to the workplace or staying home…what public sector employers need to consider

Signs are encouraging that our communities will slowly start to return to normal. Students are returning to schools, the Premier has encouraged business to “have a go” at reopening their doors provided adequate safety measures are in place, more people are downloading the COVIDSafe app and encouragingly the curve continues to flatten. In this context, it is likely that within a few weeks, employees will be encouraged to return to the workplace.

It was impressive to see how quickly and effectively NSW government sector employees were able to transition to a largely remote workforce where required (acknowledging of course that many continued to work as normal).  It is evident that there are both the resources and processes in place to facilitate a productive and engaged workforce working from home.  Whilst feelings will no doubt be mixed; it is inevitable that for a lengthy period there will be a portion of the workforce who will remain working from home; even if it is for just a portion of the week.

Flexible work has long been available to all NSW government sector employees.  Given the evidence that is now available to employees to support an argument that flexible work is successful on a large scale, agencies and departments should now start thinking about the circumstances in which flexible work is not desirable and instead when you need employees to be physically present in the workplace.  The preparations that you make now will make the return of your employees easier to manage.  It will also assist you to identify which roles will have greater restrictions in terms of flexible work and to explain why some requests for ongoing flexible work cannot be accommodated.

Of course, maintaining social distancing and hygiene measures will be paramount to any successful return to work planning. COVID-19 safe workplaces will require significant changes for the many thousands of public sector employees who hot desk or work in open plan environments.  These, at least for a time, will require adjustments as hot desking becomes a thing of the past.

What questions do you need to answer?

  1. What work is best done in the office?

The recent period will have given you a clear indication of work which is simply more difficult to manage and complete from home.  It may be work that is more difficult for a team to complete when they all work remotely, or work that requires access to resources that are not available from home.

Identifying the work that is best performed in the office will enable you to identify which roles will require less flexibility moving forward.

  1. When is it preferable to have a team working in person, and why?

No doubt in the last month, you have experienced the challenges that can arise when an entire team is remotely located.  Identifying and specifying that work which requires a team to work face to face either all or some of the time, will enable you to justify why certain teams may have less flexibility than others.

  1. What works from home?

In the same way that you have been able to identify which work is not done as effectively from home, you will also have been able to identify work which can be done efficiently and effectively at home. Employees who perform that work, and who request ongoing flexibility should be more easily accommodated.

  1. When does working from home cause a major disruption to the flow or completion of work?

It is important to identify those projects or other pieces of work that will be impacted if those people working on them are working from home. Those employees working on these projects, or pieces of work, may have less flexibility than others.

  1. How does the physical office environment impact on the above?

Employees who previously hot desked or who work in open plan offices will be anxious to return where there is inadequate consideration of the physical environment and hygiene measures. A natural barrier to full integration, open plan layouts will require proactive planning around staggered working days and start times. Clear communication regarding expectations will be key.  The removal of hot desks, greater distancing and staggered starts will be the norm.

  1. What about collaboration and team dynamics?

Separate from the details of specific tasks and operational requirements, a big factor in requiring physical presence is the need for employees to collaborate, supervise, coach, learn, interact and relate to one another in a physical environment. While this can be done remotely, it is often a poor substitute for a physical working environment and this should not be discounted. This is particularly important for very junior roles and those in supervisory or managerial positions.

How do you manage flexible work by a larger portion of your team on an ongoing basis?

As it is likely that there will be an increase in the number of employees working from home, it will be more difficult to maintain cohesiveness and inclusion once the workforce is split.  You will need to implement practices to:

  1. Mitigate against isolation.
  2. Ensure work is allocated in a fair and equal manner.
  3. Ensure work and performance requirements are clear and demonstrable.
  4. Address issues quickly when they arise.
  5. Ensure that you can properly manage your employee’s performance as well as them meeting deadlines and achieving outcomes.

Remember there are steps you can take to require employees to perform their functions from the workplace.  It is preferable however to consult directly with your employees to resolve issues and questions that arise.

What safety issues do you need to consider?

Of course, the issues identified above raise a number of health and safety issues employers will need to consider when returning workers back into the workplace. We have identified a number of these issues in our article “Are you COVID-19 ready to get back to your workplace?”. These include:

  • Have you identified the physical and psychological risks of your returning workplace arrangements, and what specific controls do you need to implement to address those risks?
  • How will you consult with your workforce about the proposed arrangements including those workers who will continue to work from home?
  • What hygiene and distancing measures do you need to implement to reduce the COVID-19 risks and are compliant with WHS legislation (including applying the hierarchy of controls)?

It will be crucial that you remain up to date with Federal and State health authority updates and information from Safe Work Australia’s COVID-19 Information for Workplaces pages to meet your health and safety obligations.

COVID-19 has given both departments and agencies the chance to lead the way in properly assessing how to make the most of working from home.  Whilst there will be employees who are happy to return to the office as soon as possible, there will be others who want to continue to work from home. It is important that whatever model you implement works for your team, your department or agency and you. Giving consideration to these factors now will assist both with returning your employees to the workplace and managing an increased remote workforce, both now and in the future.

Lucy Shanahan
Partner
+61 2 9169 8405
lucy.shanahan@kingstonreid.com

Christa Lenard
Partner
+61 2 9169 8404
christa.lenard@kingstonreid.com

John Makris
Partner
+61 2 9169 8407
john.makris@kingstonreid.com