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Let’s Talk: How to provide a safe post-pandemic workplace for employees and customers

Keeping employees and customers safe took on new meaning when COVID-19 reshaped how businesses operate. Not only do we now need to provide a physically safe space, but one in which people feel emotionally secure and supported.

Our experts weigh in on the technology, management styles and protocols needed to adapt.

Let’s Talk…

Sally Kirkright, CEO – AccessEAP

“Heading back into the office will be a significant change for many people. So as businesses reopen, it’s important to communicate clearly and guide your people through any new ways of working. This might include creating or updating processes, procedures or plans such as:

  • A flexible working policy, including hybrid working or working from home.
  • A work health and safety policy.
  • A COVID safe plan.
  • A returning to workplace plan (such as after a positive COVID case or after extended lockdown).

“It’s vital that communication channels are open in both directions – your people should feel confident to share their thoughts, concerns and feedback with you, to help improve your company’s processes and initiatives. Surveys and focus groups are two tools which can help tap into the thoughts and feelings of your people, to ensure they feel supported at work.

“It’s important to remember that this transition period will be challenging or even overwhelming for some, but clear communication and assistance will help create a smooth shift.”

Ian Jensen-Muir, CEO of the Genesis Health + Fitness franchise

“Moving forward ‘safe’ is going to mean different things to different people and different segments. We’re all so familiar now with the intensive cleaning practices and hand hygiene that make the physical business environment safe, and I expect that will continue for some time. It may also mean ongoing monitoring of employee vaccination status and booster shots for those who are mandated to do so or have chosen to make vaccinations compulsory for their workforce. 

“As we emerge from lockdowns, providing a safe space will involve placing a focus on mental health. With the intense strain the pandemic has placed on people, employees and customers, individuals and groups will face different challenges as they readjust. 

“A safe environment has always been one where communication is open, two-way and frequent. There needs to be an ongoing level of trust that businesses are doing the right thing and employees and customers should be kept up to date with developments because ‘post pandemic’ isn’t a destination we’re going to arrive at overnight – it’s an ongoing process. 

“Employees and customers need be given different avenues and opportunities to communicate their needs and concerns back to the business because when you feel supported and understood, you feel safe. We all need to keep communicating in an authentic way. That’s been a real positive that has come out of the pandemic and many businesses have really taken the relationship with their customers and staff to a new level.”

Lara Owen, Senior Director, Global Workplace Experience, GitHub

“This new reality of remote work requires a growth mindset to successfully navigate the organisational and cultural shifts it brings. To forge ahead in the ‘new normal’, decision makers need clarity on their core cultural priorities and needs before making tactical changes and investments, irrespective of the operational path they choose – be it hybrid or digital by design. Companies with a clear mission and purpose, invested leadership, and a willingness to let go of old ways of working that don’t serve them, will be the trailblazers in the new future of work.

“Offices still play an important role and they will be redesigned for collaboration, providing a space where employees and customers can connect and share ideas. We surveyed our own employees and found the main reason they want to return to work is because they miss their colleagues. So, we are working to optimise a remote-first workplace, with office environments and programming that prioritise socialisation. 

“Organisations that decide to return to the office need to be fully engaged in planning for all aspects of employee wellbeing, from physical and emotional, to financial and community. At the heart of this is providing individuals autonomy over how, when and where they work best. Now more than ever, employees are looking for companies that balance individual needs with a safe, inclusive and flexible experience.”

Andy Hurt, ANZ MD, Poly

“As we return to the office and re-open our doors, business leaders must do everything they can to protect employees and customers against the potential risks of COVID-19. To do this, it’s imperative to implement clear health and safety policies and procedures, establish effective communication around the new rules, and promote good hygiene to help minimise the spread.

“Businesses should also consider adopting smart technology such as contactless doors and lifts and voice-assisted room controls to avoid unnecessary touching. The addition of antimicrobial coatings on high-touch surfaces and shared desk phones to increase cleaning and sanitation will help keep the office environment hygienically clean.

“To best plan for possible outbreaks, embracing data analytics and AI will boost businesses’ tracing efforts. This will enable them to locate the hotspots areas and make informed decisions in real-time around safety measures, social distancing requirements, and act rapidly in case of potential contact issues.”

Stuart Taylor, CEO & co-founder of Springfox

“Returning to the office may be exciting for some, but for others it will mean an increase in stress and anxiety as we prepare to re-enter shared workspaces and attempt to revert back to our old routines. Business leaders therefore have a vital role to play in reducing these concerns by fostering a workplace that not only adheres to COVID-safe guidelines, but one that is safe and inviting to return to – both physically and mentally. 

“The first step in ensuring employees feel safe to return to work is by actively checking in with staff and listening to any concerns with compassion. Many staff may feel burnt out after such a drastic and prolonged change to their normal work routines, which is why revisiting your employee well-being program and making sure all mental health resources are ready and available will be critical. In addition to this, rebuilding resilience – both collectively and individually – should be a key focus for leaders and their teams. This starts with cultivating a psychologically safe work environment where employees feel able to voice ideas and make mistakes, as well as re-establishing a sense of work-life balance to help maintain productivity, well-being and job satisfaction.

“Ensuring your staff have a safe, welcoming and mentally healthy workplace to return to will go a long way in boosting productivity, performance and morale both during the pandemic and beyond.”

Kate FureyCareer Insights Specialist, Indeed

“One way to ensure a safe post-pandemic workplace for all employees is by offering a hybrid or flexible workplace arrangement. Not only do flexible working arrangements encourage employees to stay home if they feel unwell, but these policies may also aid in social distancing requirements, meet COVID-safe workplace guidelines and support business continuity should your workforce experience a surge in positive COVID cases. 

“While physical wellbeing is important, employers also need to consider the emotional wellbeing of their people. Regular check-ins with colleagues and training for mangers on how to spot the signs of burnout, exhaustion and disengagement will ensure that everyone has opportunities to raise concerns both for themselves and others. Having a well-rounded and accessible wellbeing program in place will be key for employers who value post-pandemic workplace safety.”

Paul Hadida, General Manager APAC, SevenRooms 

“As Australia’s hospitality industry reopens, it’s important that venues provide a safe environment for employees and customers. According to SevenRooms’ recent study, before the pandemic, 35% of Aussies thought about health & safety in their dining experiences. Now, it’s important for 60% of consumers. Technology plays a vital role in keeping employees and customers safe. For example, many businesses are setting up ‘tags’ verifying a guest’s vaccination status, allowing customers to show proof of vaccination on their first visit to a venue, but not on subsequent visits. Virtual waitlists and mobile order and pay are also easy ways to adhere to social distancing measures while keeping safety top of mind. 

“One of the most important aspects of returning to a COVID-normal life is communication, helping alleviate uncertainty as we enter the busy summer season. Across both online and on-premise, put guests and staff at ease by outlining your COVID-safe plan, including what measures you’re taking to provide safe and exceptional experiences.”

Margrith Appleby, General Manager, Kaspersky ANZ

“For a safe workplace, ensure these three cybersecurity measures are covered in your ‘return to office’ checklist:

1.       Restore any security controls disabled for remote work. Some companies may have weakened or disabled some cybersecurity controlsto allow employees to connect to the corporate network remotely. Turn these back on when returning to the office to protect internal IT systems.

2.       Update internal systems. The IT team need to identify any unpatched servers in the office before letting anyone in. With everyone connecting their laptops to the corporate network at once, just one unpatched domain controller can provide broad access to, for example, employee data and passwords.  

3.       Keep remote security processes in place: As we start to commute and travel again, any additional protection measures implemented at the start of the pandemic should remain, if not improve. Using VPN access and doing regular security checks and awareness training can help ensure a safe return to the workplace.”

 Rolf Howard, Managing Partner, Owen Hodge Lawyers

“While NSW, Victoria and the ACT have or are in the process of lifting restrictions in a bid to “live with COVID”, it’s too soon to declare we’re in a post-pandemic environment. In fact, we may be dealing with COVID-19 in some shape or form for several years to come.

“Providing a safe workplace will remain a priority. Not just to comply with any health orders in place, but to enable your business to continue to operate productively and ensure your staff and customers feel safe and protected. This may include enforcing social distancing and masks in workplaces, requiring employees to work from home at times, checking customer COVID-19 digital certificates, requiring customers to check-in, and possibly mandates around COVID-19 vaccinations. 

“COVID-19 policies and procedures in the workplace should be revised and updated regularly in light of shifting requirements. That way you’ll be best equipped to adapt to any future outbreaks, regulatory changes or evolving employee or customer needs.”

Rebecca Kline, SVP Marketing, Loom 

“As COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease across the country, Australian organisations have started to encourage employees back into the workplace. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted the paradigm to a more remote and asynchronous environment creating a new way of working – hybrid working. 

“To ensure your employees feel safe within the workplace or working from home, it’s vital to equip them with the right digital tools to get work done, wherever they are. Digital tools aimed at scaling collaboration — like asynchronous video — have become a fundamental part of how our employees communicate. Async not only aids productivity by reducing meetings and accelerating communication, but using video can also empower employees to express themselves and maintain visibility within a distributed team, no matter what time zone they live in.  

“Hybrid working is our reality moving forward. It’s important to embrace this “new normal” instead of trying to revert to an old normal that no longer exists. Giving employees the flexibility to work from home, on-site, or both during uncertain times is an essential element of hybrid work.”

Erica van Lieven, Managing Partner, InSites Consulting

“If there’s a silver lining in the global pandemic, then it’s definitely the increased awareness and attention for mental health. We continue to see a greater need for mental health services, and as employees return, employers need a long-term commitment to help manage well-being at the workplace. 

“Employers can make employees safer when they recognise them as whole human beings, whether they include challenges at home as parents and caregivers, or they require more support in the safe transition to a new version of normal. Employers who allow their employees to show up as their whole selves will ultimately benefit from a happier, more productive workforce.

“When it comes to employee well-being, there is no one size fits all. Some great measures to start including:

  • Hybrid working contracts for all, regardless of experience level or circumstance, allowing 100% flexibility to work where and when employees wish
  • Informal and formal communication and feedback loops, from daily check-in to weekly barometers and quarterly surveys
  • Promote diversity and inclusion through employee initiated ‘communities’ and employer-led strategies.”

Damien Sheehan, Country Head of Australia, IWG

“The hybrid way of work, where employees divide time between home, a local office, and at a corporate HQ, will prevail post-pandemic. New technologies are transforming the world of work and play a pivotal role in reinforcing safe workplaces. Communications are also key; business leaders must consistently outline workplace safety plans and listen to employees’ concerns. Leaders need to invest in ways to support their workers in whatever way they choose to work. This includes investing in technology, HR resources, and office space. 

“Not all employees will have access to a suitable set-up which is potentially problematic for companies that have an ongoing responsibility to ensure that people are treated fairly, and with health and safety in mind. Providing flexible workspaces offers everyone the same access to secure, comfortable, distraction-free spaces that allow safe distancing and provide support for staff who may not feel comfortable returning to a CBD HQ.”

Paul Flatt, Director, Secure Shred & ITAD, ANZ, Iron Mountain

“Keeping employees and customers safe is a critical priority when planning the post-pandemic workplace transformation for 71% of business leader surveyed by Iron Mountain.

“Old files and outdated equipment cluttering many workplaces put businesses at risk of compliance issues, data breaches and theft. The more data a company collects, the bigger the opportunity for hackers and with this comes financial and reputational risk.

“As businesses start to return to the office, a clean start can decrease security and compliance risks, improve workplace safety, reduce costs, and promote employee wellbeing and productivity via a few simple measures:

  • Understand what you are storing. De-cluttering filing cabinets and securely disposing of old documents and data will reduce risk and increase space 
  • Securely disposing of outdated IT assets and office equipment to recoup and repurpose storage spaces for higher value-alternative uses and enabling social distancing 
  • Involve team members in the discussion to find a solution and new processes that will work for everyone
  • Reviewing internal information management processes”

Simon Le Grand, Director of Marketing at Lightspeed

“As an industry with human interaction at its core, hospitality has become one of the biggest innovators in implementing safe post-pandemic practices. The use of emerging technology-driven solutions is, and will continue to be, the key to keeping the industry safe for both employees and customers.

“When the pandemic started, QR code ordering was almost unheard of. Now, one in five venues use at-table QR code ordering functionality, and Lightspeed research shows that it helps more than 50% of diners feel safer while dining out. Patrons can quickly and easily browse the menu, place their order and pay without having to walk up to a crowded bar, and staff members can service tables while keeping a safe distance. It truly is a win-win for all parties.”

 Pete Murray, Managing Director, Veritas

“It’s no secret that cyberattacks spiked during the pandemic and as we return to physical offices, hackers will continue to put significant time and resources into targeting businesses, especially mid-sized companies. That’s because they know companies are vulnerable as they transition to hybrid working environments.   

“But businesses don’t have to be a victim and put employees and customers’ safety at risk if leaders start assuming cyberattacks and data breaches are inevitable and put protection in place. Three measures to keep the hybrid workplace safe include:

  • Businesses must treat employees’ cyber environment with the same safeguard as their physical one to avoid liability, brand damage, and legal ramifications in the event of an attack. SMEs can approach this by linking digital solutions to company processes including Workplace Health & Safety policies. 
  • Executives and employees need to be cybersecurity savvy to empower a cyber safe culture from the top down to the front line. Mandatory security awareness training modules for all staff should be rerun regularly, including training on policies and collaboration tools (Teams, Zoom, Slack) being deployed – this will help to reduce accidental policy breaches. Businesses should also standardise messaging tools used to limit the sprawl of data, and create a policy for information sharing to help control the sharing of sensitive information
  • Implementing and maintaining robust ransomware resiliency plans with application and data protection solutions. This way, Australian businesses can give themselves the best chance at regaining control of their environment and protecting their organisational reputation and capability to continue delivery for their customers.”

Andy Brockhoff, President APAC, Unit4 

“Australia’s workforce is heading back into the office, so it will be a critical time for employers to react to how their employees’ expectations around workplace culture may have changed during lockdown. Health and safety will be top of mind for staff, so employers must be transparent with information on what precautions they should take when going into the office, and the expectations while working from home.

“With hybrid workplace models more common than ever in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s likely some of your business functions, mainly HR, payroll and financial planning, have become fractured as staff jump between working from home and the office. You should consider leaning on the many digital tools like a cloud-based ERP system, which helps organisations manage their people from wherever they decide to work while offering the same unified experience across all levels of the business.”

Monica Watt, CHRO, ELMO Software

“Employers must appreciate their employees’ concerns if they are going to have any chance of providing an engaged safe workplace. This means talking with and consulting employees through surveys and feedback forms and by analysing data into employee behaviours. One-to-one conversations are critical to understand individual views and needs.

“Unlike the first return to the office post-lockdown, people are somewhat familiar with what a return looks like. The new dynamic that employers need to manage is employees’ WHS&E expectations. The hot topic now is vaccination in the workplace. According to our recent Employee Sentiment Index, 58 per cent of workers do not want to work alongside unvaccinated colleagues. For leaders to manage that dynamic they need to consult to understand fears and communicate to articulate solutions.”


Read more: Fostering Psychological safety in the workplace

Read more: How employees define an ideal hybrid workplace experience


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Clare Loewenthal

Clare Loewenthal

Clare is an author, business commentator and passionate contributor to Dynamic Business. She was the Founder and Publisher of Dynamic Small Business magazine, which became Australia’s largest small business publication.

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