Last Friday, we hosted a Calm COVID Conversation with Justine Ansell (IR Legal Services) and Jo Kitney (Kitney OHS).  The discussion was very much a focus on returning to the workplace and considerations business owners need to address and implement.  

This blog will cover off a number of aspects that you should be considering, including social distancing; hygiene practices; bringing the team back into your workplace from employment conditions and workplace health and safety perspective.  

Social Distancing and better Hygiene practices are here to stay.

Let’s take a look at your workplace

Assess the layout of your workplace, if you have people in an office environment where they are going to be co-locating for periods of time (i.e. during a working day) then make sure you abide by the following conditions.

4m2 per person

a. You have worked out the size of your space (allowing for unoccupied space – ie cupboards, storerooms) and you understand the amount of people that can occupy the remaining space, allowing 4 metres squared per person.


Our office space is 850 sqm – if we allow for unoccupied areas such as storage spaces, corridors, and other small areas, our true space is more like 700m2.  If you divide this by 4m2 per person, this means that we can have 28 people in the workplace at any one time.

1.5-meter distancing

a. Now you need to overlay the 1.5-meter distancing rule, with the 4m2 rule.  This applies to desking and communal spaces.  Assess the desking configuration and if you have 28 people in your office at any particular time, can they safely keep their distance, both at their work area and the communal areas.

Here are some of the things we are implementing to help with the 1.5-meter rule;

1. Spreading people out

2. Back to back desking configurations where possible

3. Staggering desking so no one is facing directly on to another person

4. Limits on meeting room occupancy

5. Social distancing reminders in communal areas, including signage, floor stickers, etc

6. Break out spaces reconfigured to accommodate a maximum number in those areas.

7. Staggered times for starting work and having lunch.

Office limits

So what does it mean, when you have a space that will only be able to accommodate a maximum of 28 people based on the rules and yet you have, say 60 employees?

This means that for the immediate future and likely beyond, you will need to consider a whole array of alternative arrangements.  A few ways to tackle this;

1. Keep as many people working from home as practical, in the next little while as you work on the best solution for your business in the longer term.  There are no points for rushing in.  A steady and gradual approach to this, will serve you well.

If you have people struggling to work from home, either their environment is not ideal or they are not performing well, bringing them back to the office as a priority may be the best way forward.  Just note, you can still manage performance remotely, quite effectively.   However, there will be people (and they often know who they are) that need supervision and support to work effectively.

2. Consider the roles that require people to be in the workplace.  For example, at our organisation we are the registered office for many clients and so we need to have a team member present to receive mail and documents on a daily basis.

Take the time to assess each role and those tasks that are easier and often necessary from the office location.  Ask your team, what would they prefer to come into the office to do?

3. Consider the people who work better when they are surrounded by others.  This could simply be extroverts needing a bit of company through to those people who work more effective coming into the office regularly.

We surveyed our team and asked them a number of questions;

  • Do they want to come back into the office and why
  • What would be an ideal arrangement for them
  • If you were to come into the office, what are the primary reasons for coming in
  • Concerns around coming to the office
  • Any roadblocks to returning to the office

4. Think about how you can introduce combinations of working from home with working from the office where people will be able to collaborate, interact, and get certain tasks done.

5. Consider the people who are actually nailing ‘working from home’ those who’s productivity has soared.  They have fewer distractions and they have worked out how to separate home from work. So mentally they are in a good place. Perhaps their arrangement can be unchanged or adapted to allow for some office time.

6. Consider the people who work better in an environment where they can interact with others.  This may be a trainee or junior team member.  It might be someone who prefers to talk with people face to face (at a safe distance) vs people who are okay with the phone or email.

It might be necessary to think about how your workplace is utilised.  Will there be people sitting at a desk all day, tapping away at their computer.  Or is your space becoming more of a meeting point for certain discussions?

Good Hygiene

Along with safe distancing, this is the other line of defense.

Have you thought about how to encourage your team to have good hygiene and what controls will you put in place to assist.

Some of the things we are doing with our team;

  • Sanitising stations through the communal areas and at the entrance and exit points
  • Signage in the bathrooms and office about hand washing, sneezing/coughing
  • Kitchen overhaul, leaving essential items
  • Introducing new processes using the kitchen and handling utensils and plates
  • Scheduled Deep Cleans and daily cleans on high traffic areas and items (such as door handles)
  • A big push on remaining at home even if they have a sniffle.
  • Updating our WHS policies and training to take people through all of the new protocols

Employment Conditions

Do you need to unpick recent changes your business has made to all or some of your employees’ working conditions?

Perhaps you have stood them down, in the traditional sense or under the Job Keeper Provision.  Or maybe their hours were reduced?  This is not likely to be a one size fits all.  Justine Ansell advises to put everything in writing and provide your team with the relevant notice.  Justine also advises to work in alignment with the relevant modern award and consult with your employees.  Transparency and Communication will be so important as you make more changes and you want your employees to work with you.  It’s been an unnerving and tough time for some and as you start to return to a new normal, you want this to be as easy as it can be, on you all.  Give your team as much information as you can about upcoming changes and timing.

If there are employees who are worried about getting COVID-19 and do not feel comfortable about returning to the workplace, it is important that you communicate with these people and get a real understanding as to why?  Perhaps they are a vulnerable worker, or live or care for someone who is?  Discuss all the measures that you have put into place, to reduce the risk at the workplace and discuss with them a more personalised approach.

A few ideas for creating a personal plan, particularly for those people who are concerned

  • Limit the belongings you remove from your home
  • Wipe things down regularly with a cleaner (mobile phone, wallet, car keys)
  • Have a shower on arriving home
  • Wash your work clothes
  • Continue the cleaning of hands and limiting touching your face

If after discussing options with your employee, they are still not happy about coming back to work at this time you can consider if they can work from home for longer, perhaps utilise leave or if none of that is an option, have a discussion about ending the employment.  As a business you have options.

The JobKeeper payment is a subsidy from the government to the employer, passed onto the employee, to help the employer keep employees in jobs.  This is not an opportunity for your employees to choose not to work unless their reason is legitimate.  An employee must be ready, willing, and able to work.

With a flexible working arrangement, a few things to remember

  • Some awards (e.g clerks award) have rules around a span of hours.  Although this has been temporarily relaxed, employers need to be aware of it when making arrangements with their employees.  You don’t want to find out, down the track, you have an underpayment issue.
  • The right to request flexible working in relation to your circumstances (a carer or parent of school-age children) is a workplace right for an employee.  A business can refuse a flexible working request but only if reasonable.
  • You might want to have individual agreements in place with those in your team who are working in a different way to your standard work hours.  This could be staggered start times, working from home, etc.
  • Key tip, everything needs to agree and in writing.  Again, never underestimate continual communication in all of these matters.
  • A flexible working policy and procedure is something, if you do not already have this, to consider putting in place.  If you would like some support with this, get in touch with us.

Most importantly, all rules around employment law have not changed.  Yes, there have been some temporary provisions put in place but ultimately, the core rules are the same. 

Your COVID Safe Plan

Regardless of whether you are a business required to have a plan (e.g café’s, beauticians, etc) We encourage you to have a plan in place.  It will provide you and your team with the framework you need to ensure and continue to provide a safe working environment.

1. There is a national road map, and a state road map.  Understand your state’s roadmap and see where you fit within that map.

2. Safe Work Australia is the governing body laying down the guidance, whereas your state Health and Safety body will provide specific information.  Become familiar with your state WHS body and utilise them for resources, checklists, and information.

3. Carry out a risk assessment (and don’t be scared by this).  This is a good place to start.  If you are low touch and low risk and have the same people coming and going from your workplace on a day to day basis, the measures you will need to implement will be different to a workplace with many visitors, like a café.  The risk assessment will tease these things out.

4. When putting together your plan, as well as arrangements for team members, consider some of the following things;

5. Dealing with visitors

6. Notifying customers, suppliers, etc of your protocols

7. Cleaning arrangements, during the day, and by cleaners outside of hours

8. The team visiting customer sites

9. Travel and public transport

10. Face to Face meeting protocols

11. Fit and Well sign off, perhaps temperature testing

12. Protocols if someone is unwell or becomes unwell

13. Sharing of equipment (say no to hot desking)

14. Process and Procedures if there is a case or suspected case of COVID

15. Encourage your team to download the COVID tracing app

16. Review your sick leave policy and educate your team

Click here to download a collection of templates, including a plan.

Is it an option to not introduce a safe work plan around the COVID-19 restrictions?

Our experts would say, no.  Imagine this – you have been closed for weeks, you finally re-open, and due to lack of a few simple protocols, a member of your team contracts COVID-19?  Your workplace is now shut down until the regulators contact trace people and your premises are deep cleaned.

A final thought, take your time and get this right for your business.  If in doubt, ask an expert to help you. Are you looking for business advice? Ask us about our business services today.


Originally authored by Anna Chipperfield.