Watch on YouTube or download the audio version/ podcast. The reality is that the COVID-19 isn’t going away. What does this mean for employers as staff return to the workplace? Even once 70 to 80% of the community are vaccinated, people are still going to get COVID. We will need to learn to adapt to live with it. Join a panel of iHR Australia experts in legal, workplace relations and workplace psychology as they discuss: the cultural impacts mental health concerns and compliance and legal aspects of organisations adapting to this new environment. If you have questions about any…

webinar experts


 Watch on YouTube or download the audio version/ podcast.

The reality is that the COVID-19 isn’t going away. What does this mean for employers as staff return to the workplace?

Even once 70 to 80% of the community are vaccinated, people are still going to get COVID. We will need to learn to adapt to live with it.

Join a panel of iHR Australia experts in legal, workplace relations and workplace psychology as they discuss:

  • the cultural impacts
  • mental health concerns
  • and compliance and legal aspects of organisations adapting to this new environment.

If you have questions about any of the topics covered in this webinar, please send the iHR Australia team an email at info@ihraustralia.com


Transcript:

– Welcome and thank you for joining us. My name is Inga Feitsma and I’m from iHR Australia. We are proud to be Australia’s leader in workplace training, investigations, mediations, and HR solutions. For today’s session, we have tapped into our vast array of knowledge and experience to bring you a panel of experts in legal, workplace relations and business psychology, to explore a topic that is causing many managers a lot of angst and uncertainty. What are the challenges leaders will face as we start to open up, knowing we will be living with cases of COVID-19? And what does that mean for employers as staff begin to return to the workplace? Joining me today from iHR Australia is managing director of iHR Australia, Stephen Bell, director of workplace relations, John Boardman, senior workplace relations advisor and lawyer, Costa Brehas, and business and counseling psychologist and training facilitator, Steven Booker. So let’s begin. Our first question is, how can employers be best prepared to meet their obligations in a COVID-normal world? So we’ll start with the business owner’s perspective from Stephen Bell.

– Thanks Inga. Well, I think the most important element for business leaders to demonstrate throughout this period, and especially as people return to work is an understanding of what’s expected of their organization. That’s from a health and safety point of view, and the regulations that will surround people returning to work. Working safely, but also working productively. Also, the whole idea that everybody’s gonna have views about returning to work, and leaders need to be objective. They need to demonstrate objectivity. And one of the biggest traps will be for leaders to express frustrations, to express controversial points of view, points of view that may some people may agree with, but others may significantly disagree with for their own reasons. This is a time where leaders need to role model the right behaviors, follow the regulations and ensure the welfare of their people.

– So from a compliance perspective, we’d like to hear from Costa, our senior workplace relations advisor and lawyer.

– – Thank you very much Inga. Look, I echo Stephen’s views, and I agree from an overall perspective, those are the type of issues that we need to look at. Ultimately, I think there’s four key elements that need to be taken into account regarding the challenges that employers are faced with, and that is the industry that an employer is in. Obviously different industries have got different requirements. You’ve got your professional type of environments, your clerical environments, and then you’ve got your environments where employees need to physically be in the workplace. So all of those will require different types of arrangements. The second matter would be health and safety considerations, which I think is critical in this new type of environment that we’re living in. And for employers to ensure that they’ve taken all reasonable measures to maintain healthy and safe workplaces for their employees to return to. Thirdly, the reasonableness of any directions to be vaccinated. and finally policies, having clear policies in place, dealing with a range of issues, which we’ll go through later on.

– That’s great. Thanks so much, Costa. So our director of workplace relations and also expert in investigations, John Boardman, what perspective can you provide?

– One of the keys to all of this is clearly information, and there’s a lot of fear, and fear is best met with good information. So there’s going to be a whole lot of information recorded in newspapers, governments are going to be putting information out. The employer is going to be putting stuff out. No doubt, unions will put information out. But employees need to prepare by providing training to staff and reinforcing about workplace behavior, how to handle grievances and complaints. There’s a real danger in my view of employees harassing or bullying colleagues who have refused to be vaccinated, or perhaps refuse to wear PPE, or otherwise comply with what they’ve been asked to do. Now, having robust processes in place for dealing with conflict, including mediation and investigation of complaints will be critical. In my experience, the situation is not so much between the employer and the employee in terms of conflict, but where you might have Fred working with Harry, and Fred and may have lost a family member to COVID, and Harry has refused to become vaccinated. Now, Harry may have a medical reason that he’s not vaccinated, but his privacy entitlements is such that he’s not required to share all that information with all of his colleagues. So an employer will need to make sure that there are key people in the workplace that they can raise their concerns with. And we saw early in the pandemic that people were being accosted at places like Bunnings, and over a period of time, people learnt to in some regards mind their own business. And if they wanted to ride with a shopkeeper, then they could raise it with the shopkeeper. But I think it’s that sort of settling down process where those processes, information, and a go-to person who’s going to give them some sensible advice will prevent these sorts of blowups.

– I think that we probably understand the spirit of the workplace safety laws, and that the spirit of those laws have been in place for tens of years. But we probably don’t this stage quite understand how they will apply in a period of the tail-end of a pandemic, when people are going to be returning to work with all different views, but also with all different status around such matters as vaccination. And it’s gonna be a very, very tricky time, at a time where organizations are really going to need to seek advice and be well prepared to answer the questions, and deal with the conflicts that may occur.

– Thanks Stephen. So we will now hear from Steven Booker, business and counseling psychologist, from the perspective of how can employers support their staff during this… In this new COVID-normal environment that we’re going to be facing?

– Thanks Inga. I think it’s true to say that leading people as we’re going through a partial or full return to work is probably the biggest change management challenge that most, if not all leaders and employees have probably faced in their entire working career. And uncertainty driven by the effect of COVID on the workplace have definitely has definitely increased and shifted the psychological needs and concerns of employees. Leaders and businesses who expect a return to normal, normal working culture, normal full office employment, normal team dynamics, and who expect full adherence to compliance initiatives, I think are going to be surprised and disappointed. Team success, wellbeing, and performance now, even more than they did in the past are gonna critically depend on leadership’s ability to consult with and understand, and empathize with individual employee needs and concerns. And as with any significant change, a number people are going to experience significant anxiety, frustration, and as John’s pointed out, conflicts are probably going to rise. People are gonna need a lot of information and reassurance. And as with any important change initiative, it’s easy to underestimate how important it is that that communication be face-to-face within COVID-safe protocols from people that we trust. So when we’re trying to communicate and educate staff about our compliance initiatives, don’t place too much reliance on electronic communication. Make sure you have simple core, repeatable messages about what people need to do to be safe and to comply with the policies, and make sure that those are communicated by people that the employee trusts. Usually their immediate manager, people that they work with, their leading hand, et cetera. And finally, don’t make the communication about what people need to do just one way, don’t make it just top-down. As with any safety initiatives, have a consultative process where you’re actually listening to employees’ concerns and feeding back, and showing them how the approach you’re designing is going to take those concerns into account.

– Excellent. Thanks so much, Steven. So we’d now like to have a look at what are some of the key risk mitigation strategies or tactics that can be utilized. And let’s have a look at covering the policy area with Costa.

– Thank you, Inga. So my recommendation would be that employers review their existing policies to ensure that they are adequately clear and cover the new situations that they will be faced with, or ensure that they’ve got existing policies in place to address that situation. So my focus would be on workplace health and safety policies, flexible working arrangements, mandatory vaccinations, and leave. So those are the four key areas that I think employers should be looking at. And often those are interlinked with other existing policies. But starting off with workplace health and safety policies, particularly in the Australian legislation, we are required as employers to consult with employees when it comes to reviewing the health and safety obligations within a workplace, and make sure that measures that we’ve taken are in fact reasonable and adequate to mitigate any risks. So issues that employers need to look at are obviously protecting employees, but also protecting contractors and their customers, and ensuring that the measures that they have in place, including the workplace environment that employees are expected to work in, and customers enter is in fact safe, particularly from a COVID perspective. Protecting vulnerable employees or workers is of particular importance in that regard. And in that respect, I think employers should consider employees that have got pre-existing illnesses or injuries, which may be adversely affected by COVID, or employees like pregnant employees, given that I understand the risks that they may face are in fact higher. And ensure that they policies take those issues into account and set out how those types of matters will be addressed. Naturally systems of work should be reviewed, and practical measures that we all are familiar with by now, such as sanitizers, masks, social distancing are looked at. But I think a more topical issue is airflow, particularly in office environments. And I think that’s becoming an issue that’s becoming more and more of a contentious one, because you often have employers leasing premises, and they need to work with landlords when it comes to ensuring that proper ventilation exists in the workplace. And there’s various experts who’ve given recommendations and suggestions about how much airflow needs to go through a particular room in certain time limits, whether or not there’s adequate filtration. Using measures such as ultraviolet lights, for example, or other filtering to limit the exposure of employees and customers to potential risks of the virus. So that is going to be, I think, one of the biggest aspects that employers need to grapple with given that it’s likely to result in significant costs. And that’s something that I’m anticipating with time, even governments might need to consider. And then finally, mental health. I think that’s a big part of workplace health and safety considerations, and whether or not employers have taken adequate measures to ensure that employee’s mental health is adequately complied with. And for example, having an employee assistance program in place and engaging experts that can assist employees, should they feel the need to access those types of counselling services, I think are critical. Moving on to the next policy that I think employers need to consider would be flexible working arrangements, including working from home, depending on the nature of the employer’s industry. And currently employees don’t have a automatic right to flexible working arrangements, unless they meet certain criteria. Often those relate to being in the workplace for at least 12 months, and having carers commitments or some type of disability, or being over a certain age, or for example, being a victim of domestic violence. And in those circumstances, employers need to make sure that they’ve got proper policies in place that are able to accommodate those requirements of those employees, whilst at the same time, reasonably taking into account the needs of the business. So while employees will have rights in those circumstances, it very much depends on whether or not an employer’s business can reasonably accommodate those type of flexible working arrangements. So those are issues that employers, I think, need to look at. And insofar as employees may be working from home, there’s additional challenges, such as whether or not the set up in the working from home type of arrangement is safe, and whether or not an employer can monitor an employee’s work while they’re working from home. There’s confidentiality obligations that employers need to address, given that employees working from home will be exposed to confidential information, particularly in professional industries. And then the practical issue of connectivity to others, and how to deal with that. And I can see that new types of managers will be required to deal with those type of issues and ensure that employees that are spread across a wide area have got that ability to connect with one another and feel part of a workplace as opposed to be feeling that they are individuals working in isolated capacities. Next policy that employers need to consider would be in relation to mandatory vaccinations. And that is also a very contentious issue, because as John Boardman indicated previously, employees do you have a right to privacy, but ultimately employers also do have to comply with directions from, for example, the government in form of public health orders, and also comply with their health and safety obligations. So in circumstances where an employer in specific industries is required to ensure that their employees are vaccinated, such as aged care or hospital environments, et cetera, ultimately the needs of the employer, and the nature of the work that the employer performs, I think need to take priority in some circumstances, and where an employee refuses to be vaccinated, they will be obliged to disclose to the employer any medical reasons for their refusal to undertake vaccinations, and then the employer can consider what measures they may take in order to address that, including potentially redeploying employees. So there’s going to be a lot of complicated issues that employers need to consider. Obviously in other workplaces where there’s no specific obligation under public health orders for employees to be vaccinated, there is an overall health and safety obligation that an employer needs to meet. And that is also going to be a challenge. And I think employers will very much need to be guided by experts and particularly medical evidence and advice. But as I think John indicated earlier, information is critical and being able to communicate that to employees is vital. And that’s why having clear policies dealing with those type of issues I think is just a step in the right direction. And then finally, policies in relation to leave, requirement for an employer to direct an employee to be vaccinated, is subject to obviously reasonableness, and if an employee is going to sustain some side effects because of any vaccination, then that’s something that an employer should accommodate from a leave perspective. That’s separate to the existing rights that employees have to take personal leave or sick leave. And also where an employee has an adverse reaction, that is also something that I think needs to be accommodated. So those are the key areas that I think employers need to focus on. And I think the critical aspect of all of this will be working together with employees, and communicating with them so that everyone can have an opportunity to provide input in the formulation of these policies. And everyone can feel that they are part of a team working together and going the head direction, in the same direction, as opposed to being directed to do something.

– What about the worker, Costa, who feels significant anxiety being in the workplace, either because they are assuming that certain fellow workers haven’t been vaccinated? Or there has been a case of a worker, not necessarily Tier 1, could be Tier 2. But ultimately what should employers be… How should employers be responding to fear, and workers don’t want to come to work as a result of assumptions that they might be making, or facts that they do know.

– No look, that’s a good question, Stephen. And I think that’s a situation that I think a lot of employers will be encountering. And ultimately I think it goes back to the importance of communication, an employer being able to address those types of concerns upfront, first of all, by having regular communication with its employees, not only in the four policies, but actually direct communication, whether that’s one-on-one or in group meetings, and assuring employees that look, if they’ve got any concerns about these matters, there are processes that they can follow. And that they should not be directing those type of concerns to any other employee, because that’s likely going to create grievances or friction between workers. So in those situations, they should explain to employees the processes that they can follow in raising concerns, and how those concerns will be dealt with. But yes, that is a scenario that’s likely going to happen. But ultimately, employees’ privacy is something that needs to be respected. And the vaccination status of other employees is something that workers will not be obliged to disclose to others and something that is ultimately a matter between the employer and the employee to address themselves. So yeah, it’s going to be a very challenging time, but I think as long as clear communication exists, that should go a long way towards helping those type of issues being resolved amicably.

– Steven, one other dimension to these when we’re talking about that is a lot of people work in a highly unionized workforce. And the role of the union in those particular organizations will be absolutely critical. A lot of the Work Health and Safety representatives are also union representatives that the union has quite well developed OHNS capacities. They have close working relationships with the inspectors from SafeWork Victoria, for example, have powers to be able to inspect workplaces in regard to their health and safety commitment. And if there’s an adversarial relationship, and that there is differing information put out, then that’s going to lead to not only confusion, but distrust. So it will be really important for those organizations to work through their existing systems for joint communication, and the certain powers under the Act. I noticed just in the last day or two, that there’s been some media publicity around the fact that a gentleman by the name of Marty Blight, was only 46, who died with COVID, that he worked at a Serco call center, and that the ASU have now called in WorkSafe inspectors, and effectively what they’ve said is, well, if they weren’t compliant to their duties under the Act, then they’ll be held fully accountable to the Act. So there’s not gonna be any indemnities because people are finding their way on this. We know that the government said if a medical practitioner is vaccinating somebody and they end up having an adverse reaction to that, that the government would indemnify that medical practitioner. There is no indemnity for employers, it is still their responsibility to provide a safe work environment. And so it’ll need consistency of message and information, and in some industries that will be easier than others. We know that in the nurse union, for example, that the federal secretary has come out quite strongly in favor of the mandatory vaccination, but that won’t necessarily occur across the board.

– So Costa talked about reviewing working from home flexible working policy. This has obviously had to change very quickly for many businesses during COVID. I just want to open this up to the group. How do you see this being managed going forward? Perhaps we start with Stephen.

– Well, I think organizations have to be able to, first of all, achieve their goals in the best structure of work possible. So if flexibility helps them to achieve their goals in the best possible way, and the staff are keen to retain some of the habits that have been gained over the last 18 months, 19 months of working at home, and it’s beneficial to them and the business, then it’s time to review your policies, as Costa was saying before. It’s time to review your policies around flexibility. But the most important aspect to all of this is that we’re going to all be learning over the next period of time of what works best for our businesses. And to go in with an open mind will be very, very important.

– And if I might say, even at a lower level, not just policies, as I think Costa may have indicated. Just standard operating procedures. If you’re in a production line, and you’ve got to socially distance, or if there are things, that there’s a whole lot… all of those things, those standard operating procedures are all documented. There are committees that look at their development. So there’s a whole lot of things that would need to be looked at. Some of those would have already been done. And my view is so that it doesn’t overwhelm people, look at what infrastructure and processes you currently have at adapting. So, often there are grievance procedures, there are investigation procedures and protocols in organizations. That might need to be reviewed, but then it’s so, you might be conducting interviews as we’ve had to do in the past, over a virtual platform such as this. And that brings a different dynamic to if you’re dealing with somebody who is fragile, and you’ll have a difficult conversation with them… When you hit that leave button, are they okay? In terms of their mental health? And that’s where I think Steven’s point of view is. It’s really important to try and build on what we have. Now, that’ll be more difficult for smaller organizations that may not have much of that infrastructure in place. And if that’s the case, then my view is a lot of those people will need to buy it in. Because they’ll need it instantly. They can’t wait to build it from the ground up. And now some of it they will have, but there might be other elements that they won’t.

– Right. Thank you, John. So just getting back to the question of some of the key elements to address risk mitigation strategies and tactics that can be utilized, culture plays a very big part, obviously in this. So Stephen Bell, what can you tell us about how culture can be best utilized to address risk.

– Accepting that risk mitigation starts with workplace culture. You can have all the policies in the world, all the processes in the world, but it’s about how people think the way things are done around here. So in all the iHR training that we run, we talk about a culture model, and that culture model talks about culture, as I was suggesting, being the way we do things around here. And that ultimately it’s what leaders say, what they don’t say, what they do, what they don’t do, the drives the type of team culture that we ultimately end up with. And the culture of compliance to COVID regulations, a culture of compliance in a new world that’s gonna be ever-changing is going to first and foremost require leaders to be accessible to their people. and to be somebody that their team can talk to, and talk to about their fears, about their frustrations and about what’s working and not working from a compliance point of view, because I have no doubt that the compliance piece will be a little bit of a changing feast as we go along. And that will require a culture where people can have discussions. And some of those discussions can be had as a group, as Steve Booker was suggesting before. But a lot of those discussions will need to be had one-on-one, because there’ll be ultimately, often very personal views about these matters that people want to discuss, especially about their personal fears. So the culture of an organization and the ability to approach your manager about fears and worries, and concerns and conflicts will be an essential to risk mitigation going forward.

– So, how should employers manage staff perceptions about their own risk? From an organizational perspective, John Boardman, can you share your insights into this?

– Once again, perceptions of built on information that people have, be it good information or not. So education, training and information are going to be critical in those consultative processes. The work health safety legislation provides a framework for most work environments. And as we’ve said there before, There is damage that can happen to people, not only in a physical sense, but also psychological injury. So those perceptions can be as dangerous as some of the other physical aspects of getting ill. And people in the workplace, their mental health is, is really important. And then of course, employers can be liable for psychological injuries. So in terms of managing those perceptions, it’s about not being alarmist, about calming people, about giving them information and reassurance, being consistent in the message. Not running around criticized and political figures, not running around trying to belittle the union, or the union delegates or whatever it is, but sort of working cooperatively together will make a big difference. And of course, the thing that we need to understand is that there will be a lot of non-compliance. So I think a view that everybody… Mandatory means every single person is vaccinated is probably unrealistic. The other thing is, I might say, if you’re in an production environment or something like that, and you would lose 10 or 15% of your staff because they refuse to be vaccinated, and their skilled workers, how do you run the business? How do you stock the supermarket shelves? In New south Wales, I think even at present, they said 20% of healthcare workers are not vaccinated. Now, healthcare workers have been able to get vaccinations since April, and yet there’s still 20%. Now, if some of those doctors and nurses and other medical technicians, you just can’t pull them out of the air. And with the number of people that might be mandatory isolation, how do you take a business going? So we have to learn to live with this perception that people have, that they might be unsafe one way or the other. It’s a tension, it’s a conflict, and some people will be there. It’s about how we deal with that. And my view is having those processes in place where people can talk about their concerns, be counseled, have access to EAP, to be able to work out. And there might be reasonable adjustment. So that person might be moved to a different part of the production line, because they don’t want to be close to a particular group of people or a particular person. Now, they may want to work from home where that’s available. So that once again, as occurs with a lot of other matters, that the employer may be required to demonstrate that they’ve taken reasonable steps to not only protect people, but also to address their concerns.

– Can I just also add, Inga, how important it will be to reinduct staff going forward in relation to practices and expectations in the workplace. And those expectations may even differ going forward than what they were 12 months ago, because the landscape has changed. Since in particular, you will have governments less likely to lock down when there are surges in cases, and therefore self-management and taking responsibility for your team members and your fellow team members and peers will be exceptionally important, and organizations will need to emphasize this in their reinduction of employees.

– Thank you, Stephen. And staying with you, around the question of employers managing staff perceptions about their own risk, from a culture perspective, what can you recommend that managers can do to influence this positively?

– Oh, look, I think it goes back to objectivity and demonstrating responsibility, and what responsibility looks like. And as John Boardman was saying before, being consistent is going to be exceptionally important, but it’s about what are we going to be consistent about going forward? What do we need to say to people about if you’re not feeling well? What do we need to be saying to people about if one of the team members experiences COVID? What do we need to be saying to team members about work flexibility? And what are gonna be the consistencies and inconsistencies around that? So John also made an exceptionally important point, which is that as leaders, we can’t be seen to panic, and we can’t seen to espousing some political view or anti-government view, anti-opposition view, anti-union view, whatever our thoughts are, because workplaces are at a place that people with all beliefs and views should be able to come and feel safe. And if their leader is taking strong positions on particular matters, that’s a very dangerous game to play in the current situation.

– Stephen, if I might just say, that goes to the heart of what organizations put in place to drive their whole organization, and that’s their values. So if you’ve got a respect value where you respect a person, right? Front and center. If for whatever reason they’re fearful, then the way in which we treat them and their feelings with respect will drive all of those other things the policies, the procedures, whether we grant leave or don’t grant leave, whether we let them work from home or don’t let them work from home. And you have a whole range, most organizations have their policies, to test each of these issues against that. What sort of organization do we want to be? How do we want to be placed? Like for example, when you know the practical application, I’ve got two applicants for a job, one’s been vaccinated and the other hasn’t, do I make that a selection criteria? Is that unlawful? Well, at present now it’s not, because it’s not a defined attribute. However, what if the reason they haven’t had that vaccination is because of a religious belief, then it may be. But generally speaking, it’s about how we treat people and how we deal with their concerns. There’s plenty of people that have had concerns in the past that might be imagined. It might be, not necessarily frivolous, it may be that because of the background, that they may have been abused as a child, they may have been through a abusive relationships. They might’ve had all sorts of… They might’ve been a refugee and lived through civil war. All of those sorts of things can impact on us and our perceptions of authority and trust, and all those sorts of things. So we need to be mindful of those things, and even though the reaction might not be the standard or normal response, doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s not some validity to it, and that might not need special attention. I don’t your views on that Steven. And you’re probably way more qualified to speak on that in than me.

– Steven Booker, around addressing those staff concerns around risk, what can you tell us about that?

– Well, I think John’s really hit the nail right on the head. And as it’s already been said, perceptions of safety are just as important as the actual level of safety provided. And John and Costa, and Steve have already emphasized the importance of good communication and consultation around what our safety and compliance procedures are. In terms of managing staff concerns, I think one important point is don’t assume that everybody has the same concerns. Don’t assume that everybody is going to react to the same way. It’s also really important that leaders don’t try to dismiss or make light of the concerns. We should try to do the opposite, which is we should normalize the concerns. We should recognize that there are risks. We should be honest about the level of those risks, and clear about what we’re doing to mitigate them. In terms of the cultural points that Steve Bell’s made, again, great points. And one of the things we talk about in our How to Respond to Mental Ill health training at iHR is that effective leaders acknowledge the stress and anxiety that both employees may be feeling or some may be feeling, but also that they as a leader may be feeling. Good emotional intelligence is not about being a robot with no emotions and no concerns, and no stress. It’s about recognizing that at times we do have stress, but reassuring and affirming to our team, both through what we say, but through our actions that we can get through this. This is not our first stressful situation. We’ve handled challenging things before, we have come through them and we can do it again. So effective leaders acknowledge the stress, but they have confidence in their teams. Previous psychological research on how people experience return to work following major traumatic events shows firstly, as you would expect that people suffer a dip in often performance, engagement, communication, and morale. But secondly, that dip can be most effectively minimized where people are given the opportunity to mentally prepare for the return to work and what it’s gonna be like before they actually get back. Now, Steve Bell made the critical point about the importance of creating some reinduction processes. I just want to expand on that, because it’s absolutely critical. So let’s talk about what would that look like. Previously it’s been shown to be effective if you give employees a mental vision of what it’s gonna be like when they come back to work. So if you have the resources to do it, not every organization will, but it would be great to do maybe some video tours of walking around the office and showing employees, this is what any physical infrastructure changes we have in the office might look like. Are we putting screens in place, are we separating desks? Are we separating production lines? Or maybe before people actually start full or part-time back at work, we might bring them in for induction visits where they actually get to have a look at any compliance changes or physical infrastructure changes, or even team changes that we’re doing. So having some sort of formalized reintroduction to the workplace process I think is really important. It’s also really important to not expect people to just snap back to pre-COVID normal in terms of working. I think leaders need to huddle with their teams and acknowledge, spend some time acknowledging what a crazy difficult period has been, and that we’ve been through. Focus on helping the team talk about what our successes and challenges have been in the remote environment or partially remote environment, and what learnings we’ve had and how we can apply those to help this transition go as smoothly as possible going forward. The other thing I think that’s really important is whenever people encounter anxiety or uncertainty, one thing that really helps them cope with that is stable, consistent routines. And so from a work point of view, it means that particularly when people first come back, I want to make sure everybody has a really clear idea of what their job is, what their objectives are, who their stakeholders are, how the work that they do contributes to their team’s success, that their functional area or department’s success, and the whole company’s success. It’s easy to assume everybody knows that, but it’s always a good idea to recommunicate it and confirm it. Finally, I just wanted to talk about what a good leadership mindset is for helping people cope with perceptions of risk. We’ve talked already that it really needs to be one about empathy, compassion, and caring for people. It needs to be one of regular checking in, both at a team and an individual level. And it needs to be one where we give people permission to speak up about concerns, making sure that we’re not bottling things up, making sure that we’re talking. We may have concerns and anxieties, but we have those together as a group.

– Fantastic. Thank you so much, Steven. So the reality is the COVID-19 is not going away. So let’s talk about what can we expect when an employee gets a case of COVID. Let’s start by having a look at the legal obligations from Costa.

– Sure, thank you, Inga. When it comes to the legal aspects, I think employers need to understand the significant risks that they face should they not properly manage these types of matters. And I think the primary ones relate to naturally discrimination, because if you discriminate against anyone who’s got an illness, irrespective of whether or not it’s COVID-related, et cetera, and you don’t deal with that properly, that employee can pursue a discrimination claim, not only against the employer, but against any individual in their personal capacity who has discriminated against them. And related to that are other actions called adverse actions or general protections applications that employees can bring, very similar in nature to a discrimination claim in that the employee can pursue not only the employer, but any individual who has a potentially taken adverse action, that’s treated them negatively because of the fact that they’ve got COVID. And in addition, they can pursue penalties and seek penalties and a wide range of other orders. So those are, I think, are the primary risks that employers need to be aware of. And the best way that they can address that is by ensuring that they, first of all, understand what their obligations are. And secondly, ensure that they have provided adequate education and training to their staff about how to deal with these type of matters and understanding what discrimination is, and adverse action. And particularly training managers to ensure that managers have properly dealt with these type of matters. Secondly, again, health and safety obligations of an employee, has got COVID, and your priority is to maintain the health and safety of not only that employee, but all other employees and other individuals who enter your workplace. And that needs to be addressed, failing which, an employer can expose themselves to breaching health and safety laws and penalties because of that. But importantly, I think employers should rely on expert advice and assistance, and particularly medical guidance. I think Steve Booker made the point earlier about employers not assuming things, and the same comes to making assumptions about whether or not an employee is fit to perform the inherent requirements of the job without having proper medical guidance and assistance. And also again, complying with obligations to look at potentially redeploying an employee on a temporary basis in order that they can accommodate them until they are actually fit to resume their proper job. So those are the main issues that I think employers need to consider from a legal perspective.

– Thanks Costa. So Stephen Bell, was there anything more that you would like to add around the cultural implications?

– I think that we’ve covered the cultural side pretty well. I just want to reinforce to our leaders about objectivity and calmness being attributes that will be highly valued during this time. And I think that as Steven Booker said before, that it won’t be unusual for leaders not to feel calm, and that leaders themselves at different times will need advice and support to be able to get through what will be a new challenge in new phase in order to keep their culture stable, because there will be a lot going on in each workplace culture. And some of the words that come to me, you’ll have people in your team who returned to work, for example, even two or three days a week that will be grieving the old way of doing things, grieving the lifestyle that they developed at home. Being able to go and have a coffee with their best friend during the middle of the day in the park, most likely. Being able to greet their children when they come home from school, being able to do cleaning chores in the middle of the day to break up the day of work. So you’ll have people who are grieving the old way. You’ll have people who are fearful and uncertain, and then you’ll have people who are relieved, confident, with a certain level of bravado that might actually be a little offensive to those who are feeling fearful. So you need to keep your doors open, consistent decision-making, and ultimately objective and calm in the way we lead through this period.

– Great. Thank you, Stephen. So Steven Booker, can you provide some practical suggestions around communicating and providing supports to staff?

– Yeah, absolutely. Particularly when we begin to see cases of COVID emerging in the workplace or colleagues catch it outside of the workplace and there’s questions about return to work, it’s really normal that we’re gonna see anxieties, and fears and exacerbate, particularly with some employees. As we’ve already said, not everyone’s gonna react the same way. So some of the principles that we already have for what we call in psychology, critical incident debriefing are absolutely applicable here. One key point is that you don’t want to let people suffer alone. You want to bring the colleagues and the team members, and the stakeholders who interact with someone who has COVID and maybe is away from the workplace, or is… Particularly if they’re seriously ill, you really want to be able to bring those people together within COVID-safe guidelines, to be able to talk about how they’re feeling and what’s happened, and to discuss what if anything they can do for the person. The worst thing you can do is let people bottle it up in isolation, and then the rumor mill begins to spin out of control. And as we know, from other critical incidents, pre COVID-safety, breaches, injuries, major accidents at workplaces, that rumor mill spinning out of control without opportunities for people to debrief and almost grieve was the right word that Steve used. And it’s similar to a grieving process, even when someone hasn’t passed away. When that opportunity is not provided, you really see a big dip in engagement and often in performance. So a lot of those critical incident debriefing processes are still really important. Normalizing reactions and concerns is really important. Like we said before, not trying to sweep it under the carpet, but recognizing that fear, that anger, that concern, that sadness, normal human reactions for many people to these kinds of situations. I guess it’s also important to look for any signs of mental ill health. And again, in our iHR training on responding to mental ill health, we talk about at a high level, we’re not here as managers and leaders to play psychologist. We’re not here to try to diagnose whether somebody has a mental ill health condition or not. There’s obviously a lot of legal and cultural risks for overstepping the boundary from employer, from leader into mental health professional. What we’re really on the lookout for is changes in an individual’s normal pattern of communication or performance, or just the way that they’re typically like. For example, we may have a really extroverted, friendly salesperson who always participates in team meetings and shares their view, who now is becoming very isolated, very withdrawn. Or we may have the opposite. There may be someone is usually a bit more reserved and controlled and keeps their guard up a bit more naturally, and all of a sudden they’re becoming very, very flamboyant and impulsive. Those behavioral changes don’t of themself necessarily mean somebody has a mental ill health condition. They could just be having a bad day. And again, it’s not our job to know the difference, but really when we’re seeing those changes, it’s just about having that “Are you okay?” Conversation. Which in our training, we talk a lot about practical skills for managers, how to do that. And we actually have some great professional actors who role play various scenarios and allow our participants to actually practice the skills and develop them. And I guess the final thing I’d like to say is that as with any crisis or uncertainty, it’s important to understand that one of the things that can help people the most is rhythm and structure, and routine. So when I’m a manager trying to support staff where perhaps one person in the team has COVID, and is away from work, and we’re worried about them, I want to double down on providing structure. That meetings run on time, that we’re following our normal processes. That we’re trying to just focus on simple, achievable goals each day, because having routine and structure is one of the best things we can do to help us feel in control when crises happen and things feel like they’re out of our control.

– Helpful tips. Thanks so much, Steven. So Stephen Bell, what do you see as the major challenge for employers as their team members move from a locking down mentality to a staying open mentality?

– The diversity of responses will be the most significant challenge. That not everybody will be feeling the same way about returning to work or returning to their normal routine, or their past routine. And perhaps in some cases, people won’t return to their past routine at all. It will just never be the same. So we come back to the whole idea of culture, and I’d like to suggest that going back to our ongoing routine, may be not our normal routine. I think it is very important for leaders in an organization to develop a list of four or five key behaviors that they think will be essential for them as leaders to demonstrate, but also for team members to aspire to. So they could behaviors such as sharing information and ideas, which may not have been a behavior that in the previous 18 months may have actually been overly plausible or easily practiced by team members. So I would like there to be four or five aspirational behaviors that become a feature of our culture, and that we can openly talk about with team members. And I think that piece of work is not just about senior people. It’s also about frontline leaders being very clear on what we want to see happening, and being very clear in the way they talk about that to their team members. This is a time for re-engagement, or engagement in a different way. And this is a time, that while we may have seen similar scenarios, we’ve never seen this exact scenario before.

– Great, thank you. And Steven Booker, from a psychological perspective, what do you see is the major challenges for employers as their team members move from that locking down to staying open mentality?

– I think we’ve done a great job already of covering probably the main one, which is managing people’s expectations and perceptions and desires for the flexible working arrangements, and safety in the workplace. So I’ll just call out one other one, which to be honest is something that’s mainly been ringing out quite loudly to me, like a bell through today’s conversation. And that is that we’ve, we’ve gone through such a long period, almost two years now, of global uncertainty, not just around COVID and health, but around a whole lot of geopolitical issues. And yet when it comes to many of those things, but particularly concerns around COVID, particularly concerns around whether there’ll be mandatory vaccines, particularly concerns around, should we open up? When are we going to open up? In many industries, apart from a few, the government seems to be devolving those decisions or responsibilities about whether to mandate vaccines to employers. And I suspect what will happen is that once we get back into the workplace, part-time, or full-time after lockdowns, we’re gonna find that people have a lot of concerns, anxieties, angers, issues that they want to talk about and express, but so far their ability to talk about and express it has kind of been constrained maybe to their social network, their family, their social media, and they haven’t really had the chance face to face to talk two or three figures about what they feel and what they think. And my concern is that the employer is gonna be one of the first people that they’re actually talking to face-to-face about these things, and that they’re going to use that opportunity. Well, not maybe not even on purpose, but there’s going to be a lot of pent-up frustration, concern and anxiety and anger that’s gonna out in those discussions. I actually think that’s gonna be one of the major challenges in addition to the ones that we’ve all talked about today. It’s actually kind of hard to know what the solution to that is, although I suspect it’s probably a lot about listening. I suspect it’s probably a lot about empathizing. I suspect it’s probably a lot about knowing which of those issues the employer really is or needs to be responsible for. And as has been said already by Steve, not wading in to the political or the scientific debates that are kind of beyond our obligation as employers to be in, because as has already been said, the workplace needs to be a respectful place for everybody, and there will be really different views. So I don’t really have a great answer to that, but I do think it’s one of the major challenges.

– Definitely food for thought. So before we finish up, I just like to do a quick whip around the room to get final thoughts from the group. So let’s start with you, Costa, do you have any final comments?

– Look, yes Inga. I think a lot of employers are keen to get back to work, and for them to obviously make up for lost profits, and go to business as usual approach. And I think if employers adopt that approach, they going to be faced with difficulties, because they wouldn’t have then focused on the key asset, and that is the workers and their workforce. And not taking those initial measures to communicate with employees and establish trust with their workers that they are going to do everything that can to reasonably accommodate workers in this new world that we find ourselves in, could I think backfire on employers, that just want to go back and conduct businesses as usual, or adopt that type of approach. So I think that’s a key message that I would convey to employers. And ultimately, if there’s employers that don’t really have the resources to do that, to engage support, whether that’s experts in HR, medicine, legal areas, to assist them with those issues. Because if they don’t address those issues at the ground level, they’re likely to become worse in the long run.

– Thanks, Costa. Let’s go to John Boardman now and get any final comments.

– Yes look, I often say that if people don’t trust the internal systems, they’ll take it externally. And if employers aren’t prepared, then things can turn pear-shaped very quickly. So what will happen in any work, of course, there’ll be those people that are opinionated, those people that might be difficult to manage. People that quite openly express their opinion on anything and everything. And what tends to happen, if there is no strong management or direction, then it tends to find its own level. So the leader, there was always leaders. It’s just that they might be the person that you don’t want to be in control of the workforce. When I worked many years ago, back in the maritime stevedoring industry, there was an old expression that, left to their own device, some people catch and kill their own. And what happens is that if there’s no leadership from management, and there’s conflict in the workplace, then employees will we’ll deal with that themselves by trying to ostracize and to make people feel uncomfortable, to either try and make them compliant or otherwise get them to leave. And that will lead to massive workplace conflict. And once again, if you’re reactive, you’ll just spend a lot of time dealing with a lot of disputes and a lot of investigations rather than having a more strategic approach where that conflict is addressed before it’s allowed to bubble over and present as a major case of workplace victimization or harassment.

– Thanks so much there, John. Steven Booker.

– When you look historically at pandemics, they have a trend whereby they tend to shine the light on and exacerbate existing inequities or problems in societies. And I suspect this pandemic is not gonna be any different. In fact, it’s already been proven to not be any different. And I suspect the relevance of that to the workplace is that it’s really going to shine the light on whether, particularly what we might call some of those old-fashioned workplace cultures that are around positional authority. You do what I tell you to do because I’m the leader. I suspect those cultures are particularly going to be very brittle and not resilient to the new way of working in the post-COVID environment. So in a course that we’ve recently introduced in iHR Australia called resilient leadership in the post-COVID world, we really talk about what is this new leadership style that leaders need to adopt to best manage people, both working remotely, but also returning to work following lockdowns and that kind of thing. And as we’ve basically been saying today, that is around empathy, it’s around communication, it’s around care and support. I think that’s the bottom line for me.

– Great. Thanks so much. And let’s finish off with Stephen Bell.

– Well, let me talk at the business owner level for a moment. It is time to review and refocus the mission and objectives of your business in the context of the world that we live in today. And I think that everybody here today would agree that we need to keep it realistic. As an entrepreneur, I would be the first person to be guilty of not always being realistic about what’s possible in the circumstances. ‘Cause I’m always searching for the best, the highest, the most original opportunity. This may not be the time for that right now, for everybody. There’ll be some businesses or organizations where doing something totally original, amazing will be, this is your time. But for a lot of organizations out there right now, this is about recalibrating your organization, and remembering that if you set too far ahead, objectives that are too far ahead, you’re gonna find yourself disappointed, because we just don’t know what we’re in store for for the next 18 months. So reacquaint yourself with your mission and your key business objectives.

– Thank you, Stephen. And thank you everybody for today. It was certainly an extremely robust and fascinating conversation. And thank you for joining us today. If you have any questions about any of the topics we’ve covered, please send the iHR Australia team an email@infoatihraustralia.com. Now, if you would like to watch today’s webinar again or share it with your colleagues who weren’t able to attend, we will send you the link to the recording later this week. And we will also upload it onto our YouTube page. Thank you again for joining us.

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