As Australians return to work post lockdown, how can companies help their people feel protected yet connected? Is ‘business as usual’ even possible any more, and what role can tech play? Frontier Software’s CEO, Nick Southcombe, shares his thoughts.

As vaccination rates climb and COVID-19 restrictions ease, many Australians will start to trickle back to their places of work. But what will these post-COVID work environments look like? Will they be sombre settings with social distancing cameras at every turn and former work buddies ducking into doorways to avoid one another? Or is there a way to achieve something more collegial while still protecting employee safety and accommodating individual needs and wishes? And if working from home at least some of the time becomes a permanent fixture for many – as is likely – how will employers monitor employee health and safety while giving people the autonomy they crave?

While ‘normality’ – as we once understood it – has gone the way of the telex and typewriter, there is much employers can do to facilitate a transition to a workplace where teams feel protected yet still connected. Technology and messaging will play a big part in this, says Nick Southcombe, CEO of Frontier Software.

“You need clear and transparent communication around how you are using technology to keep employees safe. Also, [you need] to communicate how the tech is configured to ensure security of very sensitive information such as vaccine status and details.

“Many employees are wondering what the company stance is on returning to work, how many days they will be required to be in the office, the policy around unvaccinated workers, etc. Companies need to step up here and effectively communicate what measures they will take – especially where state and federal governments don’t legislate on it.”

Showing extra care

In addition to protecting employees from infection, there is an opportunity for organisations to show goodwill and care by granting special COVID sick leave. “The availability of COVID sick leave is a very positive message to send to your workforce, especially with staff retention and attracting talent such a challenge,” says Southcombe. “Any decent HR and payroll system should be able to set up and manage a separate COVID leave type.” And COVID-related absence is likely to become increasingly relevant, says Southcombe. “As we’ve seen in the US and the UK, even with high vaccination levels people will still contract COVID, even if they are not becoming so seriously ill. So companies are likely to have more sick leave due to COVID in the coming six to 12 months than they have in the last 18. Are employers prepared for an increase in absences?”

This is where technology can be pivotal. Using the prior experience of the rest of the world, we can plan ahead thanks to analytics and workforce management and planning systems.

“Frontier Software is a global organisation that operates in countries that are further ahead in terms of the COVID roadmap,” says Southcombe. “I was able to obtain from our UK office the data on the increase in sick leave after they opened up, compared to lockdown, so I can use that to contingency plan in Australia. If you are a global organisation, what analytics do other countries have that may help you plan ahead?”

The vexed vax question

Except in the case of medical exemption, businesses affected by public health orders must ensure their employees are vaccinated. And while mandatory vaccination will vary between jurisdictions, employers have a duty to keep their workforces safe as far as is reasonably possible. They might, for example, need to consider whether a policy of only allowing vaccinated persons access to the workplace is a reasonably practical measure. Outside of mandated workplaces, employers can require workers to be vaccinated if the direction is lawful and reasonable. What constitutes ‘reasonable’ is outlined in the updated guidelines from the Fair Work Ombudsman.

When it comes to checking vaccination status, employers must get employee consent for data collection and communicate clearly how this highly sensitive data will be collected, stored and used (see ‘Vaccination data and the law’, page 4).

One way to avoid storing the data at all could be to employ the technology recently introduced in NSW and Victoria, where digital vaccination certificates can be added to a person’s State Service app. This allows people entering a venue to show their vaccination status when they check in using the app.

 “If you can work that technology into check-ins, that could take the company out of the loop, avoiding the need to store or save their employee’s COVID vaccination certificate. That is sensitive information and people are understandably anxious about that,” says Southcombe..

Safety at work – and home

Vaccination data can be interfaced with rostering systems, so if an employee needs to visit a site that requires mandatory vaccinations, their status can be checked beforehand. Or if social distancing and density is an issue but keeping teams together is desirable, employers can, using the system, roster an A and B team to work different days or different parts of the day. There is no shortage of technology to monitor employees’ COVID-related safety.

Thermal imaging cameras are already a familiar sight in airports and at doctors’ clinics and can prove useful in workplaces – but only as part of a broader arsenal of safety measures, since COVID-infected employees might be asymptomatic. “There is also technology that has been repurposed using video cameras combined with analytics to calculate the distance between people. And there are wearable devices fitted with wireless technology that measure how close you are standing to others. If you are breaking safe distancing rules, the device buzzes. To an extent, these may be more palatable to workers than the concept of cameras everywhere.”

Of course, ‘at work’ increasingly means ‘at home’ as employees seek to retain the flexibility that remote working has afforded them over the past 18 months.

“Technology needs to continue to be enhanced to support those work-from-home functions,” says Southcombe.

Because health and safety obligations extend to those working from home, there needs to be a way to ensure the safety of remote employees, especially given the increasing number of people living alone. Though again, employers need to be mindful of overstepping the mark.

“How do you know your people are all right during the day? There is check-in technology out there which requires you to say ‘I am OK’ a couple of times a day. Some companies monitor keyboard and computer usage, but most employees would find that distasteful.”

Looking to the future

Southcombe believes that we are seeing, and will continue to see, a convergence in what employees increasingly seek and what businesses require to operate safely post-COVID. Employers’ ability to be agile with rostering, for example, will both help meet their employees’ desire for flexibility and maximise workplace safety.

“That could mean that, when you do need to come to the office, you can book the workstation you want to work at, or the meeting room you prefer. If offices are only going to have people coming in, say, 50% of the time, you only need half the number of desks. When it’s safe to do so, I think we will see the reintroduction of the concept of hot desking.”

Enhancing technology that makes it easier to work from home will not only allow employees to pursue their love affair with remote working but also support businesses’ need to swing into lockdown mode if need be. 

Nobody wants to contemplate this, but a new COVID strain that outpaces Delta or is even resistant to current vaccines isn’t entirely out of the question.

“I’d suggest that, as part of business continuity practice, businesses should be thinking through what happens in such a scenario. Is your tech ready and robust enough to go back into extreme lockdown situations again?” asks Southcombe.

Ultimately, however, keeping both your workforce and employee-employer relations healthy will come down to having a culture of trust and transparency, with clear communication about what is being done and why.

“The technology is just a tool – effectively managing the COVID environment firstly goes to policy, culture and a sense of shared responsibility in these challenging times,” says Southcombe.

Article originally published in HCA Magazine, May 2022.