As companies are returning to the workplace, it is recognised a COVID-19 vaccine is required on a global scale to return to some ‘like previous’ normality. Optimistic vaccine availability predictions as early as 2021, does not preclude employers and their employees facing the future of the workplace in the coming months.
In addition to the current return to work guidelines, there are public health practises and regulatory compliance setting ‘community standards’ for assessing the conduct of employers, as well as emerging legal, social and cultural issues that will impact the workplace.
The impact of COVID-19 on the emotional well-being and resilience of the current and future workforce cannot be overstated. Whether employees tele-work or return to work, a key focus for employers will include thoughtful development and transparent implementation of concise communications to inform employees, reduce stress and heighten morale.
Due to the long-standing interrelationship between job satisfaction and employer litigation risk, facilitating meaningful two-way communication opportunities between employer and employee will not only ease the return of the workforce, but assist employers manage related labour and employment litigation risks.
With the ongoing return to work and continued teleworking, Australian Government Agencies have recognised two-way communication within the workforce is critical to reduce employee stress, maintain safety at work and protect the business interests of employers from the impact of COVID-19.
Employers dismissing their obligations regarding workplace health and safety, as well as the workforce communications to achieve this objective, may be particularly vulnerable to litigation.
The transparency of information and the ease with which it can be transmitted and accessed are essential to ensure workers feel understood and supported and know where to access answers to relevant questions.
Transparency includes not only the disclosure of, and reasons for, new policies and practises, but also the provision of accessible and straightforward information. Employers may wish to incorporate some or all the following communication strategies in their return to work communications:
Establish a robust internal COVID-19 webpage
The volume of old and new employment policies, practises, and expectations to address COVID-19 can present daunting challenges for employers. A robust internal COVID-19 webpage can be an effective employer tool to house and disseminate information, as well as showcase the employer’s commitment to providing necessary resources to their workforce.
The COVID-19 website may include:
- Access to and description of new COVID-19 policies and practises,
- reminding the workforce of the continued implementation of relevant pre-existing workplace policies, including those related to anti-discrimination and retaliatory measures,
- explaining the health and safety efforts that implemented to protect the workforce, including screening and testing protocols,
- and a directory of accessible resources for the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, including links to federal, state, and local websites.
Develop a resource for employees to ask questions and obtain reliable answers
Many workers are likely to have the same questions and concerns regarding their return to work or continued tele-work. While some may not hesitate to seek an answer to their concerns, others may be afraid to ask. While the cited internal COVID-19 web-page may be used as one resource, employers may also wish to identify individuals or the team responsible for fielding and developing answers to the most common employee questions.
Disseminating regular updated Q&A to the workforce is likely to reduce stress on employees and employers’ systems, build collegiality among co-workers who recognise others share similar concerns. In addition, this resource ensures the employer provides a consistent response across the company, regardless of location, to the host of questions likely to arise.
Create a safe platform for employees to report concerns
As employees’ confidentiality concerns increase along with the employer’s continued obligation to comply with applicable disability, discrimination and wage and hour laws; employers may consider providing an opportunity for employees to share their concerns anonymously or confidentially. This may include establishing an internal or third-party hotline for employees to report perceived or actual health and safety violations, misconduct by management or co-workers, wage, and hour concerns, along with any other complaints arising from work or tele-work.
The hotline would not only provide employees the assurance they are being heard but also allow employers to remain informed enabling meaningful workforce policy adjustments and ongoing communications.
Host regular web-based training and workplace socialising opportunities to maintain a strong company culture
Recent workplace changes and the necessity to communicate whilst maintaining the social fabric and corporate culture employers and employees have invested in, is challenging due to continued social distancing and teleworking. The development of webinar policies and practises training programs providing opportunities to ask questions, is essential.
Employers need to create new ways to ‘gather’ employees enabling them to share experiences. Employers may elect to provide live or recorded formal training on policies and practises, as well as time and space for peer groups to unite for less formal socialising opportunities.
As employees and employers face the stress of returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, employers must assess the future of the workplace. This forward-looking approach requires employers to demonstrate compassion and emphasise their commitment to providing secure workplaces by providing easy access to the information tools required to ensure employees are fully informed.
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