COVID-19 abruptly changed almost every aspect of our lives, but we now need to settle into the new normal at work. We’re all social distancing, with workplaces separating workers from each other to abide by the 2m rule. Others are working on staggered shifts to reduce contact and keep to the 10m x 10m rule of having a maximum of 25 people in that space at the one time. Most non-essential front line employees are working from home.
All of these arrangements are making managing workplace health and safety challenging, especially for safety and human resource professionals. They are also likely to be working from home and managing from a distance. However, these arrangements are the new normal at work and are likely to remain that way for many months to come.
This article provides strategies that safety and human resource professionals can use to remain effective managers during this period of disruption. We look at communication, safety training, legislative requirements and worker wellbeing.
Regular Communication is the Key
Regular and quality communication has never been more important than now, as we all settle in to the new normal at work. You may have employees working from home, on staggered shifts, ramping up production or in a COVID-19 downturn. Managers should set clear objectives from the outset and address any issues or concerns early and before they escalate. Listening, feedback, support and communication are vital.
Managers need to provide their employees with the autonomy to get on and get the work done without keeping constant tabs. A quick daily check-in should be enough together with weekly planning sessions. Job-autonomy is strongly linked to mental health, and the last thing your employees need while trying to adjust to the new normal at work is the helicopter manager!
Technology is front and centre in the new normal at work and you may use it for your on-site and off-site communication, for example, Slack, Teams, Skype etc. But you must ensure that your employees understand how to use your communication tools and which tool should be prioritised for specific use cases. For example, what you will use for inter-office messaging and what you will use for conference calls and virtual team meetings.
You should always encourage your employees to regularly communicate about what they are working on. Even if they seem to be ‘over-communicating’, especially when managing people from a distance, for example when they, or you are working from home.
See our article, Developing a Business COVID-19 Response Plan.
How Do We Keep Our Training Up?
Training has now become a problem in the new normal at work because of how separated many of your employees are from you and each other. It’s even more difficult when you as the safety or human resource manager is working from home and trying to arrange training at a distance.
And just because COVID-19 is here, doesn’t mean safety and employee obligations stop. All organisations have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their employees, so far as is reasonably practicable. This includes making sure the work environment is safe and that you manage all foreseeable risks. You also need to perform a risk assessment on COVID-19 to ensure that your systems are suitable and effective.
See our article, COVID-19: How To Perform a Risk Assessment.
You must continue to provide information, training, instruction and supervision. But how do you do that as part of the new normal at work? The escalation of coronavirus changes the way you should train your employees.
Wherever possible, you should NOT be undertaking training activities face-to-face, in the classroom or in a group. The risk is too high that you will spread the virus and may breach self-distancing requirements. By continuing with traditional training delivery methods, organisations are unnecessarily bringing people together.
Once again, technology has a critical role here. Thankfully, most of your safety and mental health training can be delivered online.
In the new normal at work, online training traverses the distances between employees, adheres to self-distancing requirements and ensures a consistent message. You are not relying on the vibrancy of a face-to-face trainer. And as long as the training you deliver has robust reporting, you are likely to meet your OHS obligations.
See our article, Coronavirus: Stop Classroom and Group Training.
Don’t Fail to Meet Your OHS Obligations
In this time of disruption from COVID-19, and establishing the new normal at work, you still have to meet your OHS obligations. You can’t let workplace safety slip! As a business, you need evidence of your employee’s knowledge of the risks in their work environment and the correct control measures they need to use to keep themselves and others safe. And you must continue with your VOC’s.
You need to include both physical and psychological risk. And it’s imperative, in light of industrial manslaughter laws, that you keep accurate training records and evidence that your employees remain competent and compliant.
In Australia, the Model WHS Act outlines the employer’s OHS responsibility. The Act describes employers in terms of the person running the business or PCBU. The Act discusses OHS obligations in terms of duty of care.
As far as is reasonably practicable, you must:
- provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, including safe access to and from the workplace
- provide and maintain plant, structures and systems of work that are safe and do not pose health risks
- safely use, handle, store and transport plant, structure and substances
- provide adequate facilities for the welfare of your employees at work (including while working at home)
- inform, instruct, train or supervise your employees so they can work without risks to their health and safety and that of others around them
- monitor the health of your employees and the conditions of the workplace to prevent injury or illness arising out of the conduct of the business or undertaking
- maintain any accommodation owned or under their management to ensure the health and safety of your employees occupying the premises.
Also, to meet your OHS obligations, you must consult, cooperate and coordinate with your employees, and health and safety representatives on how to keep them and others safe at work.
See our article, How to Adhere to Industrial Manslaughter Laws.
Managing Employee Wellbeing From a Distance
During this COVID-19 pandemic, your employee’s anxiety is skyrocketing. Many are worried about losing their job, some are isolated working from home and trying to settle into the new normal at work, and everyone is worried about the COVID-19 virus. To manage employee mental health from a distance there are some strategies that you can offer them to reduce their anxiety.
They should avoid watching, reading or listening to news that may increase their distress. It is less stressful to set aside specific times in the day to review news bulletins and social media, rather than consuming a continuous stream.
If they are experiencing rising stress levels, you should encourage them to take a short break and do something relaxing, for example, sitting outside and getting some fresh air, reading a book or watching a television show.
As a manager, you need to be empathetic and recognise the feelings that your employees may be having at this time as they get used to the new normal at work. Always think before you speak or type a message about how it could be interpreted. And it is vital that you avoid inflammatory and discriminatory language and labels.
See our article, COVID-19: Reduce Your Employee’s Anxiety.
The way we performed our work before COVID-19 is exceptionally different today. The new normal at work requires self-distancing, staggered shifts and working from home. For all of us, these changes are challenging.
Organisations need to include a heightened focus on physical and psychological health during the crisis because employees with underlying mental health issues are at high-risk. The OHS obligations have not changed and you must keep employees safe and well.
You need to continue to train and keep accurate records and evidence that your employees remain competent and compliant. The requirements to self-distance and self-isolate place the methods we use for our internal and external training under the spotlight. Continuing with classroom and group training is now high-risk, and organisations need to move to online training platforms as soon as possible.
It’s difficult to manage employees at a distance, and there is already evidence of a spike in anxiety levels as they adjust to the new normal at work.
None of this is easy for safety and human resource professionals and patience and careful planning is the key. The new normal at work is likely to be with us for much of 2020 and some changes may even become permanent after the COVID-19 crisis.