Returning to the Workplace Post COVID-19: Navigating the Legal Issues

15th June 2020

Highlights

  • Michelle Cowan, Senior Associate, Active Law, talks about the legal issues around returning to work post-COVID and key considerations for employees and employers.
  • Reintroducing workers into the workplace post COVID-19 will present challenges for both employees and employers.
  • Read more to find out the resources available and the best ways to deal with these issues.

The COVID-19 outbreak has challenged workplaces around the country, testing the robustness of existing workplace standards and individual expectations. In forcing workers out of the workplace, to continue working in their homes, employers had to quickly turn their minds to whether their internal systems and policies supported remote working.

The IT sector was in the perfect position to lead the way in remote work while facilitating what is predicted to be the ‘new normal,’ where workers can work as successfully from home as they can in the traditional work environment.

Now the time has come for employers to consider the COVID-19 recovery. We have learned through COVID-19 that whilst we can technically do office-based activities outside of the office, we are social creatures and still need to maintain personal connection for teamwork, project focus and quality outcomes. Productivity is generally improved with personal contact.

The disconnected nature of remote work has presented challenges for some in managing staff effectively and for employee mental health. Reintroducing workers into the workplace will present further challenges for both employees and employers. Some people struggled with the isolation of working from home, now others will struggle with the reintegration process.

There are many resources available for employers to access, as they prepare for and manage the re-entry of their teams into the workplace. Accessing those resources, understanding them and applying them where possible, will help you through the transition period and reduce the risks of disputes and WHS issues.

Flexible Work Arrangements

Before you issue a blanket direction for staff to return to work, be prepared for some push-back. Many employees have developed a pattern of work that has resulted in the much-touted work/life balance and they may fight a return to pre-COVID-19 operations.

Vulnerable employees will also resist returning to the workplace if they would be seriously affected by COVID-19 infection. Some workers have been advised that it will not be safe for them to physically attend the workplace until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed. Their employers need to consider if there is capacity to allow those staff to continue working from home, what will be the deciding factors for granting long term work from home arrangements and how will their performance be monitored.

You should be clear about why you need your team entirely in the office. Consider whether you can introduce scheduling to reduce over-crowding, both in the workplace and on public transport, if you do need people to be physically present.

Forming workplace policies that genuinely reflect the needs of the business, including your capacity to monitor staff, will assist you, to manage your team, and if there is ever a dispute between you and your employees.

Good workplace policies create the foundation of your decision-making regarding employee conduct and added entitlements. Many employers have ended up with decisions against them because they have no or poor workplace policies.

The cases establish that where an employer relies on a workplace policy that has not been documented; that the staff have not been properly trained in; and the employer’s rights not appropriately enforced, they will have difficulty relying on their alleged rights.

Creating your own ‘roadmap’ will help everyone understand what is planned and what their part is in the process. Be assured, everyone has a responsibility to ensure a safe return to work.

Work Health and Safety

Safe Work Australia has provided a range of COVID-19 resources to assist employers manage their health safety obligations in relation to the virus. Things for you to consider are:

  • How will you ensure the health and safety of your staff in the workplace and the journey to and from work;
  • How will you quantify and manage the real risks;
  • How can you get property owners and co-tenants to take responsibility for managing shared environments; and
  • How quickly and effectively can you respond to possible outbreaks in your workplace.

Safe Work Australia has prepared:

  • National COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles;
  • Work health and safety guidance for COVID-19;
  • Information about:
    • Duties under WHS laws;
    • Worker’s rights;
    • Guidance about vulnerable workers;
    • Cleaning;
    • Working from home; and
    • Mental health guidance.

Coupled with the Queensland state government’s resources around health management, restrictions, recovery roadmap and managing related issues, there is a thorough suite of tools available for employers to mange their responsibilities and for employees to understand their responsibilities.

The Active Law team can assist you to form compliant, effective workplace policies or to better understand your WHS and performance management responsibilities. You can reach us at [email protected] or on (07) 3160 000.

Disclaimer:

Reliance on content the material distributed is general information only. The information supplied is not and is not intended to be, legal or other professional advice, nor should it be relied upon as such. You should seek legal or professional advice in relation to your specific situation.

 


Active Law is ACS Queensland’s Preferred Legal Partner. Active Law is offering ACS Queensland members a 10% discount off legal services up to $2,000, and a 5% discount thereafter. To take up this offer, just mention you are an ACS member when you contact the team on (07) 3160 0000 or email [email protected].