Back to the office: essential steps for employers

A common question being asked right now is ‘Do I have to return to work if I don’t feel safe?’ The simple truth is everyone has the legal and moral right to be safe at work, including during this COVID-19 pandemic. However, being safe and feeling safe can be two different things. Employers are wise to take an approach that addresses both.

Ensuring people are safe starts by understanding the risks in your environment and the reasonable steps you need to take to mitigate them. Every workplace is unique so what is considered reasonable and lawful in one workplace could be quite different in another. Any measures you do put in place need to be aligned with the risks in the spaces you expect your staff to work.

In most circumstances minimum standards will include ensuring your team are able to practice social distancing at work, wash their hands regularly and follow any rules imposed by health authorities. In workplaces where it’s reasonable to assume high risk of exposure to COVID-19, face masks and hand sanitiser may be considered essential.

If you are unsure of your obligations or your employee’s rights, get the advice you need. Safe Work Australia and their COVID-19 resource kit is a great place to start. The Australian Government health department have also released resources designed to guide employers through these unprecedented times.

All of us, whether we are an employer or employee have a duty of care to ourselves and one another. So, at the end of the day, no matter how much people may not like safety measure put in place you can hold them firmly accountable for following directions intended to ensure their own safety as well as that of their colleagues.

While it is reasonable to expect people to comply with lawful management direction, the reality is fear is a very powerful motivator of behaviour. If someone is too frightened to return to work, no amount of demand or reprimand is going to change their reality. It’s essential that you listen to what people are saying and work hard to have compassion for how they are feeling.

Getting every member of your team back to work is more likely to happen if they believe you respect their right to be safe and have compassion for the fears they hold. Contemplate for yourself how much more likely you are to comply with someone’s request of you, if you trust them. Mutual trust and respect will unquestionably have the biggest impact on your ability to navigate circumstances when people resist coming back.

Engage in dialogue with your team early in your return to work planning process. Demonstrate that you are aware of the unique circumstances we all find ourselves in and commitment to working with people to determine the way forward. While of course not all aspects of your approach to maintaining safety will be up for negotiation, through open, honest and respectful conversation valuable ideas about ways of working in the future may be identified.

Be willing to look for flexible options to allow some people to transition back at a pace they are more comfortable with. Of course, what those options are will depend greatly on the nature of your business and your ability to keep people actively engage outside of the workplace. For example, if it’s your preference that people return to the office, but they are able to work from home, then be reasonable and negotiate a way forward.

While progress made in battling COVID-19 is allowing some workplaces to reopen, keep in mind we may need to return to isolation if infection rates rise again. If you have taken a fair, reasonable and compassionate approach in returning to work, you will be in a much stronger position to keep your team engaged and productive if working from home again.

Karen Gately, founder of Corporate Dojo, is a leadership and people-management specialist. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical guide to getting the best from people (Wiley) and the host of Ticker TV’s Black Belt Leader.

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