Navigating working from home or returning to onsite work

This article was supplied to by The Real Media Collective’s GM of IR, Policy and Governance, Charles Watson.

Many employees in our industry, particularly those directly employed in production, have continued to work onsite for the last 18 months. Throughout that time workplaces have been operating under heightened risk management that has included COVIDSafe Plans, worker travel permits, social distancing, and PPE. Additionally, and to ensure production workers have been able to undertake their work as safely as possible, their co-workers have been required to work from home wherever possible.

The ability for workers to undertake their work from home is strongly tied to their particular occupation and the tasks they are required to perform. Working from home has suited more office-based workers and the adoption of various technologies, particularly video meeting platforms, has enabled this to occur.

As the various states and territories hit pre-determined COVID-19 vaccination rates, workplace and social restrictions will start to ease. The mandatory requirement that employers permit workers to work from home will become discretionary. Businesses should be considering a variety of factors and determining an approach for when, how, and if those workers will return to onsite work.

Do I need to do anything?

If current arrangements suit the needs of the business, and the worker, you could hold fast at this time. Weigh up productivity and efficiency levels, the short term needs of the business, and whether there would be any improvements from having your entire workforce return to onsite work at this time. While most workers have been productive when working remotely, some have felt disconnected and isolated.

Given Australia has shifted to a ‘live with it’ rather than ‘eradicate it’ approach to COVID-19 there could be ongoing risk amelioration from continuing with such an approach for the remainder of the year. Additionally, your current onsite workers are probably enjoying the quicker workplace commute, particularly in metropolitan areas.

Do you need to provide a direction to workers to return to onsite work?

If you require workers to resume working onsite, then probably. Many of those workers have been operating remotely for lengthy periods and have become accustomed to the practice. For smooth transitioning, a clear direction as to the date to return onsite and any related health and safety conditions and requirements that apply would provide clarity for those workers. Generally, a worker cannot refuse to comply with such a reasonable direction. Additionally, don’t forget to communicate with those workers who have been working onsite that the carpark is about to start getting full again.

Do your workers need to be vaccinated to return to onsite work?

Each state and territory have different requirements, some are broadly mandated under public health orders whereas others are LGA specific. For instance, in Victoria permitted workplaces and authorised workers who are currently working onsite are required to have been fully COVID-19 vaccinated by 26 November 2021. However, if the employee is not working onsite that requirement may not apply. For those businesses that operate across state borders, you will need to be aware of the differing requirements in each state and territory. Each business needs to consider the issue for their particular workplace and for the safety of their workforce.

Hybrid arrangements are the new black, but blue and green should never be seen without a colour in between

Will workers currently working from home continue under such arrangements? Will there be a return to onsite work, or will hybrid style work models be implemented where workers attend onsite for certain days of the working week occur? Although there is always a good business case for workers and businesses negotiating mutually beneficial outcomes, there are a range of potential benefits and costs to both parties from any arrangement.

If you determine a hybrid work model might benefit your business and certain employees it will require ongoing management. Such arrangements should be drafted into company policy and be periodically reviewed and adjusted as necessary. This should include offering the option while reserving the right to revise or end such arrangements where necessary. It should also include the that workers attend the workplace when directed or required such as for performance management reasons. When we move past COVID, a Zoom or Teams meeting will no longer be considered an appropriate setting for addressing such issues.

With COVID ever so slightly starting to enter our side mirror view, now is a good time to cast adrift or replace those workplace practices that don’t contribute to high levels of performance. However, I do not believe there is a ‘one size fits all’ in our industry, and would caution a judicious approach to this multi-faceted issue.

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