Returning to the office? Comcare gives tips on APS transition plans

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday June 4, 2020

Agencies must be prepared to support public servants who are returning to their usual workplaces by considering a range of measures such as staggered hours and saying goodbye to hot desking, according to new guidance from Comcare.

The guidance published on Wednesday states that while each organisation’s transition plan should be tailored to their unique circumstances, the plan must align with broader government policy and health advice, restrictions, physical distancing guidance, and the COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles.

The plans should focus on the “continued delivery of critical functions” while also ensuring workplaces are safe.

Altered working arrangements

It’s important that employers undertake an assessment of who should return to work, as some people might need to more than others. Transitional arrangements could be based on vulnerabilities, carer’s responsibilities, workers’ concerns, equipment or preferences, and organisational requirements.

Comcare recommends looking at the circumstances of each worker and discussing how they might plan to return to the workplace. Workers should also be open to discussing options for returning to the office with their manager, and what this could look like in the short term.

In considering alternative working arrangements, factors to be considered include current state and territory advice, the ability to meet operational requirements, as well as security, health considerations, IT and remote working capacity.

Other considerations could include “lessons learned from the COVID-19 response” (the potential benefits of flexible work, for example), whether staggered work days or hours would suit physical distancing and business continuity requirements, and how team meetings and catch ups can occur while physically distancing.

Where an agency can’t maintain physical distancing in the workplace, employers should change attendance arrangements by rostering workers to work from the office or home on different days or weeks, for example.

Employers should support workers that are working from home. This could include regular check-in arrangements, team catch-ups, teleconferences and other virtual ways to regularly communicate. To support those who are returning to the office, employers must communicate local restrictions and information to workers, including advice relating to public transport.

As the upheaval of the coronavirus may cause stress and anxiety for some workers, Comcare has developed fact sheets on responding to uncertainty and supporting others in times of uncertainty.

Physical distancing and hygiene

In order to enforce physical distancing in the workplace, Comcare recommends employers:

  • Calculate the area of any enclosed work spaces and divide by four, to identify the maximum number of people that can be in the space at once. Mark the walls and floors.
  • Implement measures to limit the number of people in the workplace such as continuing remote working arrangements, postponing non-essential work, and splitting worker shifts to reduce the number of workers onsite.
  • Redesign the layout of the office — moving desks, for example — to enable workers to keep at least 1.5 metres apart.
  • Postpone or cancel non-essential gatherings, meetings or training.
  • Reduce the number of workers using common areas at any given time.
  • Hold meetings via video conferencing or phone call.
  • Provide hand sanitiser for all staff and cleaning products for high touch surfaces.

Last month Australian Public Service commissioner Peter Woolcott suggested the pandemic may have signalled the end of hot desking in the office, and Comcare agrees.

It calls on workplaces to avoid hot desking and any sharing of IT equipment. If that’s not possible, employers must provide workers with disposable disinfectant wipes and rubbish bins to enable them to clean shared items regularly.

Good hygiene should also be enforced among all staff and office visitors. Aside from the obvious hygiene measures (like covering coughs and not shaking hands) employees should wash their hair and clothes thoroughly every day, and clean and disinfect the workplace between shifts.

For agencies that don’t have control over their building’s cleaning regime, they should speak to the property manager or landlord to ensure regular disinfecting takes place — especially in communal areas and high touch points.

Comcare recommends both employers and staff read Safe Work Australia’s information on key considerations for businesses to take into account when assessing the risks associated with COVID-19, and its risk register template. Employers should ensure there are signs and posters around the workplace to remind workers of COVID-19 risks and control measures.

Finally, staff who feel unwell should stay home, tell their supervisor or manager, and let them know if they’re experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms. Workers with cold or flu-like symptoms should seek medical advice and get tested for the virus even if the symptoms are mild.

Comcare urges employers to notify them of all confirmed COVID-19 cases that are work-related.



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