For business owners lucky enough to survive the recent months, life seems to be getting more normal with each passing day. A gradual relaxation of restrictions means that, soon, we will have to leave our bedrooms, put on proper pants, and venture out to the physical workplace.

But these are also confusing times, with many business owners confused about how to go back to work in the wake of a global pandemic. 

This article will answer some common questions we’ve been hearing from businesses navigating the end of government-mandated restrictions.

What Happens If There Is A COVID-19 Outbreak In My Workplace Once Everyone Has Started Going Back To Work?

As an employer, you have an active duty to keep your workplace safe. Recently, the Government introduced National COVID-19 Safe workplace principles.

Broadly speaking, these principles state that businesses and workers must consistently apply health advice from health authorities, be ready in the event of an outbreak, undertake regular risk assessments for COVID-19, and consult with workers and their representatives to control risk.

In other words, you should have a safety plan specific to COVID-19. Practically speaking, this plan should include:

  • Undertaking regular risk assessments (including specific assessments for vulnerable staff members)
  • Keeping abreast of the Government’s health advice and communicating this to your team
  • Preparing work spaces so that each staff member has 4 square metres between them
  • Introducing staff back slowly and at staggered start and finish times, so that staff members can travel safely to and from work while avoiding congested public transport and traffic
  • Continuing to avoid non essential travel and in-person meetings
  • Developing policies for working from home and ensuring unwell staff do not attend the workplace

For more information on what a ‘COVID-safe’ workplace looks like, check out our article here. You can also find helpful guidelines on making a safety plan – including how to run a risk assessment – in the government’s health factsheet

Obviously, if there is an outbreak at your workplace, this could mean working from home again (or, at the very least and depending on the proximity of the outbreak, allowing staff back in a limited capacity). In these situations, it’s important to remain flexible in your decisions and to support your staff to work from home if they can.

An example of how COVID-19 has led to flexible workplace policies can be found at Twitter, where it was recently announced that staff can now permanently work from home as part of their new workplace policies. 

Some Of My Employees Are Enjoying Working From Home. What Legals Do I Need For Setting Up Permanent WFH Arrangements? 

It’s common to touch on working from home procedures in your staff policy documents. These policies can come in the form of Staff Manuals, Staff Handbooks, Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, or Individual Flexibility Arrangements (to name a few).

If your staff are keen to continue working from home in a more permanent capacity, consider updating your working from home policy to reflect any details specific to this arrangement. If you don’t yet have a working from home policy, now is a good time to prepare these policies and procedures. 

We’d also encourage you to update your general staff policies to include specific details relating to COVID-19. The updates could address how you’ll deal with COVID-19 related concerns in a confidential manner, and when tests will need to be undertaken. These policies can also be updated to ensure staff work from home if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. 

Can I Deny An Employee’s Request To Work From Home? 

Even if the staff member is willing and able to do their work from home, is productive, and doesn’t require supervision or training, generally an employer is able to direct a staff member to come to work. Where an employee refuses to do this, the employer may have a right to take disciplinary action.

However, this isn’t black and white. If your employee requests to work from home due to safety concerns or caring responsibilities, for example, denying these requests could be seen as discrimination. In fact, certain staff are allowed to request Flexible Working Arrangements

Now that many workplaces have been forced to try out working from home for a few months, this might be a good time to consider whether you’re able to provide more flexible options to staff permanently. You might find that your staff are generally happier and more productive if you give them some autonomy.

How Do I Get Back Staff That I May Have Stood Down Or Fired? 

The good news is that JobKeeper payments can apply to staff you have stood down or made redundant, as long as they were employed with you on 1 March 2020. You can read more about the JobKeeper payment here

It’s important to keep communication lines open, so that your staff know if rehiring them is an option and, if so, what hours you are able to keep them on.

What Happens If I Haven’t Been Able To Pay My Rent?

The government recently introduced the ‘Mandatory Code of Conduct’: a set of principles to cover scenarios where businesses affected by COVID-19 are not able to afford rent. This is good news for affected businesses, as the new code means landlords are not allowed to terminate the tenant’s lease if they’ve been affected by COVID-19. 

We’ve written all about the Mandatory Code of Conduct in this article

I’m Still Having Issues With My Supply Chain. What Should I Do?

If you’re having issues with your supply chain, it’s important to examine your contract with your supplier to see what options you have. 

When negotiating with your supplier, you should take a flexible approach, especially if your relationship with your supplier is a long-term one you want to protect. You may be able to use alternative suppliers, get credit or suspend some parts of your business. 

Need more information about dealing with issues in your supply chain? Get the details here.

Need Help?

If you need help understanding any of the above, or if you have any other questions you’d like answered, feel free to get in touch for a free, no obligations chat. Our friendly team can be reached at team@sprintlaw.com.au or 1800 730 617. 

About Sprintlaw

Sprintlaw is a new type of law firm that operates completely online and on a fixed-fee basis. We’re on a mission to make quality legal services faster, simpler and more affordable for small business owners and entrepreneurs.

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