Australian not-for-profits have responded to the COVID-19 crisis in all sorts of ways. Many organisations that deal with family violence, for example, have not only kept the doors open but expanded their services in the face of increased demand. Healthcare organisations have never been so busy (can we ever thank them enough?).
Others have contracted or gone into hibernation, for all sorts of reasons, ranging from financial crisis to lack of demand.
For most organisations, including those that have scaled back, working from home has quickly become the norm rather than the exception. But now we can see light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to Australia’s success in flattening the curve, and we can start to imagine what a return to the office – or the refuge, the church, the op shop, the service centre or the koala sanctuary – might look like.
The thing is, even while we’re looking forward to seeing our colleagues in the flesh again soon, and catching up with long-lost clients and volunteers, it’s critically important to remember that the pandemic has not ended.
Until a vaccine against COVID-19 is widely available – and that could be years off – returning to the workplace does not mean returning to normal.
In this help sheet, we set out the steps and precautions your organisation needs to take if and when it is desirable for you to recall your people from home and bring them back to the usual workplace.
When we say your “people”, or your staff, or workers, we mean everybody who works for you and with you: your managers, other staff, volunteers, partners and contractors. ‘Customers’ includes clients, users, participants, and subjects.
Establish an online committee to plan for returning to work, involving at least
- the CEO
- the OH&S manager
- the HR manager
- a board representative
- a staff representative.
The task of the committee is
- to identify the tasks to be undertaken before the return to work, and to assign responsibility for each
- to monitor the execution of the assigned tasks
- to consult with interested parties
- to document all virus-related policies, procedures, and actions
- to report to the board.
The committee should meet online regularly.
Questions for the Organising Committee
What is our business model in these changed circumstances?
Changes in the business environment may include
- increased debt load
- limitations on operating procedures
- diminished demand
- increased regulation
- the possibility of litigation.
The organisation’s business plan may need to be revised to take these into account.
When can we reopen?
When your state or territory government says you can. When they do, you’ll need to be ready.
When you believe your customers will be ready to take up your services.
When you have enough staff willing to go back into the workplace
Who needs to go back first?
First priority in returning to work must be given to staff or contractors who are responsible for making necessary changes to the workplaces (e.g. cleaning, moving furniture to meet social distancing requirements), followed by
- staff who are responsible for human resources and accounting, to manage the return and to update records, policies, and procedures
- Staff involved in instruction, training and information on new procedures.
After that, prepare and follow a consistent plan that identifies necessary functions that can’t be carried out effectively by staff working from home.
Here’s some further information about those main tasks.
Which staff work where?
Only staff from those parts of your operation who can’t work from home effectively should be required to come into the facility. It’s best to still keep in position all the safety measures you can, including working from home.
Beyond that, you should recall only as much of the operation as you anticipate demand for. If you believe that demand will be reduced by coronavirus concerns, begin with reduced staff numbers and increase them as demand increases.
You might also take the chance to reconsider some of your previous assumptions about ‘normal work’ and look at a wider range of work styles. Can any elements of your operations be satisfactorily carried out with some staff working from home even when lockdown rules are relaxed, and even after a vaccine is widely available?
If functional considerations mean that only a certain proportion of your staff can work from home, staff in high-risk groups (over 65, immunocompromised, diabetic, etc.) should be given preference.
What has to change before we can open?
The environment that your workers return to, and the procedures they work under, will require amendment. The committee must ensure that the facility is assessed and a plan drawn up to make your workers as safe as possible.
As the crisis requires free co-operation and honest negotiation across all levels of the organisation, transparency is essential. Management should keep staff continuously informed about
- the organisation’s work towards its mission
- reopening updates
- the organisation’s financial situation
- the organisation’s health and safety protocols
- any support the organisation is providing for employees
- communicating any procedures if staff, volunteers, or visitors suspect an infection
- any health incidents that have occurred
- all industrial matters where the organisation is obliged to consult with its employees (see ‘Duty to consult’, later)
- the tasks they are and will be required to carry out.
As above, encourage staff to work from home where this is feasible, and continue to make all efforts to preserve the physical and mental health of employees working from home (see your organisation’s Working from Home Policy and these guidelines we produced).
If possible, introduce shifts (staggered work) to minimise the number of staff on the premises at a time.
Where not all staff are returning to work at the same time, maintain a transparent process where clear criteria for choices are in place.
Where layoffs are likely or underway, maintain a transparent process where clear criteria for choices are in place.
Keep a record of which staff attend each area of the premises on each day, to allow contact tracing.
Provide for worktime breaks for staff to use hygiene procedures. (See notes around “Fittings”)
Staff can’t be required to
- get a COVID-19 test
- receive a flu vaccination
- use a pandemic notification app.
However, they can be encouraged or incentivised to do so.
The physical workplace
Workstations may need to be moved apart, or distributed across different rooms, to reduce staff density.
Staff numbers in any facility can’t be raised above the capacity of the building when strict social distancing is in effect. If minimum operational numbers are unable to fit into the building under these constraints, you need a new building.
Post signs giving maximum numbers for each room. Meeting rooms, canteens, break rooms, etc., may be unable to meet staff demand in light of social distancing requirements. And, if you can’t find additional space, you might need to revise your procedures such as through Zoom meetings, staggered meal times, eating at desks etc.
Other measures may be to
- Reduce lift capacity to one or two passengers
- Minimise hot-desking
- Shut down every second urinal in the row
- Where possible, establish one-way workflow, with ‘In’ and ‘Out’ doors, to avoid contact
- Ask employees to propose improvements to protective work practices.
How can you alter the environment to minimise surface contact? Are any of these adjustments feasible?
- Automatic doors
- Automatic lights
- Automatic bathroom taps and hand-dryers
- Cubicles and room dividers
Erect signs at the entrances to lifts and meeting rooms to ensure the maximum safe capacity is not exceeded.
Provide hand sanitiser stations at entry and exit points and around the workplace.
Offer employees the use of non-invasive temperature testing (subject to device cleaning etc).
Ensure bathrooms are well stocked with handwash and paper towels.
Clean any areas frequented by workers or others (e.g. visitors to your premises) at least daily with detergent or disinfectant.
Tell workers to wear gloves when cleaning and wash their hands thoroughly with soap or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser before and after wearing gloves.
Clean frequently touched areas and surfaces several times a day with a detergent or disinfectant solution or wipe. This includes EFTPOS equipment, elevator buttons, handrails, tables, counter tops, door knobs, sinks and keyboards.
Instruct workers to clean personal property that comes with them to work – e.g. sunglasses, mobile phones and iPads– with disinfectant, such as disinfectant wipes.
Your cleaning staff numbers will almost certainly have to be considerably increased.
For more information on cleaning, see the Safe Work Australia website: https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/covid-19-information-workplaces/industry-information/general-industry-information/cleaning
Consider whether changes to the cleaning regime for your premises mean you will need to add new employees, expand the hours of existing staff, or change job descriptions or duty statements.
PPE and Masks
Wherever necessary, provide staff with adequate personal protective equipment.
If authorities have not ruled that masks must be reserved for medical facilities, instruct staff to wear masks.
Provide staff with masks.
Issue masks to visitors to the facility.
While there has been considerable publicity given to safe hygiene and social distancing, posters and reminders should still be posted in bathrooms, kitchens, canteens, and public spaces. Combine these with other communication measures such as offering guidance from occupational health and safety officers, briefings at meetings and information on the intranet.
Brief your staff and customers that if COVID-19 starts spreading in your community anyone with even a mild cough or low-grade fever (37.3 C or more) needs to stay at home. Staff should also stay home (or work from home) if they have had to take simple medications, such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin, which may mask symptoms of infection
Keep communicating and promoting the message that people need to stay at home even if they have just mild symptoms of COVID-19. Encourage testing.
Instruct workers on other ways to limit the spread of germs, including sneezing into their elbow, washing their hands frequently, and not touching their face. Set up automatic alerts on computer systems to remind workers about these measures.
Instruct your workers to limit contact with others; there should be no shaking hands, no touching objects unless necessary, and as little interpersonal transfer of objects as possible.
Staff should be encouraged to report breaches of safe hygiene and social distancing, and if a breach is established the staff member(s) concerned should be advised, warned, or rebuked, as appropriate.
Staff may also need refresher training in other procedures following the layoff.
Organisations with challenges involving, say, client work or outdoor environments will have to develop particular applications of general hygiene and social distancing procedures.
Duty to consult
You must consult with workers on workplace health and safety (WHS) matters relating to COVID-19. When consulting, you must give workers the opportunity to express their views and raise WHS concerns. You must take the views of workers into account and advise workers of the outcome of consultation.
You must consult:
- when you conduct a risk assessment
- when you make decisions on control measures to use to manage the risk of exposure to COVID-19 (e.g. working from home arrangements, or restricting the workplace to allow for physical distancing)
- when you make decisions about the adequacy of the workplace facilities to allow for control measures such as physical distancing and hygiene
- when you propose other changes that may affect the health and safety of workers, and
- when you change any procedures that have an impact on the health and safety of workers.
If you and the workers have agreed to procedures for consultation, the consultation must be in accordance with those procedures.
You must allow workers to express their views and raise WHS issues that may arise directly or indirectly because of COVID-19. You must take the views of workers into account when making decisions and advise workers of your decision.
Workers are likely to know about the risks of their work. Involving them will help build commitment to any changes you need to implement in the workplace.
Consultation does not require consensus or agreement, but you must allow your workers to be part of the decision making process for COVID-19 related matters.
If workers are represented by health and safety representatives, you must include them in the consultation process.
The Safe Work Australia Model Code of Practice on work health and safety consultation, cooperation and coordination provides more information about your duties to consult.
Direct workers to stay home if they are sick, and if they are displaying symptoms of COVID-19 ask them to call the National Coronavirus hotline (1800 020 080).
In addition, your organisation’s Pandemic Policy should ensure that leave procedures provide no incentive for anyone to come to work sick. Notify all staff of these arrangements.
Identify a room or area where someone who is feeling unwell or has symptoms can be safely isolated until they are moved to a medical facility.
Identify the nearest COVID-19 testing centre.
Identify the nearest emergency medical facility equipped to deal with suspected cases.
Put up signs about the symptoms of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Instruct workers to tell you if they are displaying symptoms of COVID-19, have been in close contact with a person who has COVID-19 or have been tested for COVID-19.
If a worker is identified as having the symptoms of coronavirus, follow the procedures set out by Safe Work Australia:
- Isolate the person in the designated isolation area
- Call the state COVID-19 hotline.
- Provide transport to the nearest suitable medical facility.
Inform all staff that the employee has shown symptoms (and, later, of the results of testing). Treat personal information about individual workers’ health carefully, in line with privacy laws. If possible, don’t use the name of the individual.
(This may seem silly, considering how much information you will unavoidably have to give out: “The person who tested positive sat in this room, worked with this team and touched these doorhandles and that keyboard. On a completely unconnected topic, Jenny is now taking 14 days of leave.”. But it is, nonetheless, recommended for legal reasons.)
Decide whether the situation requires that the premises are shut down
- in part or as a whole for cleaning
- until procedures or fittings can be changed
- until all affected workers have been tested.
- Define the affected work area and affected employees. This might be one office, a team area, an entire floor, an entire building, or an entire campus, depending on the interactions of the individual. Agencies should take a precautionary approach and close as much of the workplace as is reasonable to support employees’ peace of mind. For further advice, contact the Coronavirus Health Information Line.
- Facilitate working from home, if possible, for staff who are required to self-quarantine but are not displaying symptoms of COVID-19, in line with your organisation’s Working from Home Policy. (See our guide to Working From Home)
Any or all of these outcomes may also be ordered by public health authorities.
If your organisation becomes aware that a person who has been in the workplace has tested positive for COVID-19 coronavirus, you should do the following:
- Consult the attendance record (see staff procedures, earlier in this help sheet).
- Direct affected employees to leave the workplace, immediately self-isolate and await further information from the Department of Health and/or the organisation. For further advice, contact the Coronavirus Health Information Line.
- Prepare appropriate communications. Employers should acknowledge the impact of COVID-19 coronavirus on the physical and emotional wellbeing of their employees. Inform all affected employees that:
- there has been a person with COVID-19 coronavirus in the workplace. (While employees should be informed, privacy requirements prevent agencies from identifying the person who has tested positive.)
- they should self-isolate at home unless advised by the Department of Health Contact Tracing Unit or CEO that it’s safe to return to the workplace
- the Department of Health Contact Tracing Unit will contact anyone identified as having been in close contact and employees must follow its directions. Employees who have not been in close contact with the affected person are not required to self-isolate.
- the agency’s employee assistance program services are available for all employees should they require personal support for themselves or their immediate family.
- Immediately arrange for the work area to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected in line with specific cleaning advice for workplaces before advising employees that it’s safe to return to the workplace. For government offices, there is already increased daily cleaning and disinfecting.
Employees should be contacted during the period of closedown and advised of the steps being taken to clean the work environment.
When the workplace has been cleaned, employees should be advised that they can return to the workplace unless they are sick or are required to continue to self‑isolate.
Employees who have tested positive may return to the workplace only after they have been medically cleared in line with Department of Health guidelines. Public health officials advise affected employees directly in relation to their self-isolation and medical clearance requirements.
Meetings and events
For maximum allowable meeting sizes, check the advice from the authorities in the community where you plan to hold the meeting or event. Follow their advice.
Develop and agree on a preparedness plan to prevent infection at your meetings or events.
Whether or not people from outside the organisation are involved, ask whether a face-to-face meeting or event is needed. Could it be replaced by a teleconference or online event? Could the meeting or event be scaled down so that fewer people attend?
Ensure sufficient supplies and materials, including tissues and hand sanitiser, are available for all participants. Have surgical masks available to provide to anyone who develops respiratory symptoms.
Advise participants in advance that if they have any symptoms, or feel unwell, they should not attend.
Make sure all organisers, participants, caterers and visitors at the event provide contact details: mobile telephone number, email and address where they are staying. State clearly that their details will be shared with local public health authorities if any participant becomes ill with a suspected infectious disease. If they won’t agree to this they can’t attend the event or meeting.
Develop and agree on a response plan in case someone at the meeting becomes ill with symptoms of COVID-19 (see Infection procedures, earlier).
Arrange seats so that participants are at least one metre apart. Set attendance limits on this basis. Install signs in each meeting room giving the maximum capacity of each room.
During the meeting or event, provide information or a briefing, preferably both orally and in writing, on COVID-19 and the measures that organisers are taking to make this event safe for participants.
Keep a copy of this documentation in each room for reference purposes. Store personal information securely, and observe privacy requirements.
Encourage regular hand washing or use of hand sanitiser by all participants at the meeting or event.
Supply tissues and closed bins for their disposal. Display hand sanitiser dispensers prominently around the venue.
Open windows and doors whenever possible to make sure the venue is well ventilated.
Keep meetings short.
If anyone starts to feel unwell, follow your preparedness plan or call your hotline.
After the meeting:
- If you are informed that someone at the meeting or event was isolated as a suspected COVID-19 case, let all participants know this. They should be advised to monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days and take their temperature twice a day. If they develop even a mild cough or low-grade fever (i.e. a temperature of 37.3 C or more) they should stay at home, self-isolate, and telephone their healthcare provider or the local public health department, giving them details of their recent travel and symptoms.
Minimise local travel.
Volunteers must in every respect observe the same physical and procedural precautions as staff. Persons volunteering during the crisis should be required to sign appropriate waivers.
Transactions with the public
As far as possible, confine access to the workplace to essential employees only. Don’t permit casual access by members of the public or family members.
Display signage outside the entrance
- setting out general cautions warning patrons not to enter if they have elevated coronavirus risk factors (symptoms, contacts, etc)
- notifying people of any specific conditions of entry.
A facility may ask, or require, patrons to
- maintain social distancing
- wear a mask
- undergo non-intrusive temperature checks .
Require (or, in a weaker formulation, offer the opportunity for) the leaving of customer contact details, to allow customers to be notified if any staff test positive.
Provide social distancing markers on the floor in areas where customers line up or where workers perform tasks. Put up signs asking customers not to touch objects unless they are going to buy them.
If possible, accept only cashless transactions.
Arrange for contactless deliveries.
Provide closed bins for tissues, masks, etc.
Nominate a person on the work floor to be responsible for requiring customers to keep the required 1.5 metre distance apart in accordance with the applicable government requirements.
Can staff be directed to work from home, or to return to work?
Yes, subject to consultation.. Safe Work Australia’s most recent advice says:
Whether or not you can reasonably direct workers back to the workplace will depend on a number of factors, including public health requirements and the individual circumstances of the worker working from home.
Workers must follow any reasonable policies or directions you put in place in response to COVID-19. You must consult with workers and HSRs prior to decisions being made to return to the workplace. You must also ensure return to work arrangements adhere to relevant Commonwealth, state or territory government advice (e.g. physical distancing requirements).
Where circumstances change – if, for example, it’s no longer safe for a worker to continue working from home due to a change in the worker’s home situation or the ability of the worker to continue working from home effectively – the worker may after appropriate consultation be directed to return to the workplace.
Before requiring workers to recommence work at their usual workplace you must, in consultation with workers and HSRs, have a plan to ensure the safe return to work for all workers.
Decisions to direct employees to return to office work should not be taken with any bias towards pre-existing routines – indeed, the contrary. If it’s possible to negotiate a satisfactory arrangement that doesn’t involve attendance, this is a win-win.
If an employee working from home contracts the virus they may not return to the workplace until they provide evidence that they are no longer contagious and are fit for work. It’s possible that a worker with COVID-19 could potentially work from home, if, for example, they have no or minor symptoms. This would be subject to advice from the relevant treating clinician that they are fit to work, and discussions with the worker. For example, a doctor might recommend reasonable adjustments, including reduced working hours or changes to a worker’s workload. In this situation, however, the employee would also be eligible for leave under the ICDA pandemic policy.
This help sheet is just one of the ways the Our Community Group is working to support not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis, as part of our major campaign to help the not-for-profit sector to survive, re-invent and sustain.
Safe Work Australia: More FAQs about working from home and returning to the workplace
(note the question ‘Can I direct my workers back to the usual workplace?’)