As Melbourne’s seemingly interminable lockdown approaches its end (fingers crossed), it’s time to start thinking about how to ensure a safe yet productive return to the office. If this transition period isn’t handled properly, employees may become ill and your business may face fines. However, as this is a new situation for many employers, it can be hard to know what to do. But we can help.
Make hygiene and cleanliness a priority
One of the best ways to combat the spread of viruses, including COVID-19, is to ensure that everyone maintains good hygiene and can work in a clean environment. Therefore, you need to make cleanliness a top priority.
When getting your office ready to reopen, start by checking local government guidelines. This may include capacity restrictions, mandates for wearing masks and heightened cleaning regulations. These guidelines will form the basis of your return-to-work strategies.
From there, it’s best to hire a commercial cleaning service to clean and sanitize your office daily. Offices are a haven for germs at the best of times, but professional cleaners will know how to neutralise any infectious viruses or bacteria that are present, making your office safer for employees.
Using the guidelines in your area, as well as your own initiative, be clear with your employees about their own hygiene and cleanliness. This can include wearing masks while in the office, avoiding public transport, social distancing and regularly sanitising their hands and their workstation. Be sure to provide plenty of hand sanitiser and face masks for your employees.
You should also be firm with employees about not coming in if they are feeling unwell. When people are first showing symptoms of an illness is often when they are most contagious.
Have a contact tracing plan
A workplace contact tracing plan means you can easily determine which employees need to isolate if someone becomes ill. It also lets you advise the relevant agencies if people in the wider community may be at risk from infection. Having a contact tracing plan may even be required by the government in order to return to your office.
Your contact tracing plan should include information about what to do if contact with an infected individual is suspected. This could include notifying government agencies, quarantining the office, and those in contact getting tested and working from home until a negative result is returned.
Depending on your office’s location, your contact tracing plan may also need to take other businesses into account. If your office is in a large tower block, you may need to work with other businesses in the tower to trace any infection within the building since there will be shared spaces where infection can occur, like lifts, stairwells and foyers.
Aim to gradually return to the office
Rather than having all your employees return to the office at once, it’s better to stagger the return to a full office. Doing so reduces the risk of transmission and makes it easier to contact trace and social distance.
A staggered return also allows for adjustments to routines that may have been in place for the last six months. It also gives you time to figure out what return-to-work approach works best and adjust it in order to make working from the office as safe as possible.
An example approach could be to have all team leads return to the office for three days a week. Then the following week, other staff members could return also for a few days. Slowly build up the number of staff in the office as well as the number of days they are present until there is no longer a risk of COVID-19 transmission in the area.
Consider making changes to layout
The open-plan office is prevalent in many businesses. However, an open plan may not be the best layout for a post-COVID-19 world. An open-plan office makes it harder to socially distance and can therefore make it easier for viruses to spread.
While you may not have the space for everyone to have their own office, you can change the layout to reduce transmission risks. For instance, you can move desks further apart or have fewer desks occupied. This may be more achievable if employees are able to work from home a few days a week in order to limit how many people are in the office at any one time.
Be prepared for things to be different
Although restrictions are easing, it isn’t business as usual again yet. The most important thing to remember as you try and move your workforce back into the office is that things will have changed or will need to change.
For instance, to meet local guidelines around space capacities, you may not be able to have all employees in the office at once. Therefore, you need to ensure employees can continue to work remotely if necessary.
You may also need to consider how you will meet with clients and stakeholders. It may not yet be feasible to meet in the office or off-site. You may need to rely on video communication tools for some time still.
As you deal with these changes, try to embrace any positive aspects that have come about the time spent working remotely. It may be that flexible hours have improved workers’ productivity. Or it could be that a regular weekly casual chat with all staff has led to some much-needed team bonding or even effective initiatives in the business. Try and retain these changes as much as possible, if you can, to keep your business going from strength to strength.
Returning to the office is a big change for you and your employees. Take the time to plan a careful approach that prioritises everyone’s safety and meets local guidelines and regulations.