The New Normal: Observances of Working Arrangements and Safety During the COVID-19 Crisis | Business Franchise Newzealand

The New Normal: Observances of Working Arrangements and Safety During the COVID-19 Crisis

Chris Beasley | Safety Navigator

Let's be straight; because of COVID-19, the number of workers in Australia and New Zealand laid off or on reduced hours and wages is going to be significant. 

It is something we are all either directly or indirectly affected by, so our hearts must go out to those who are facing significant financial strain.

As early as 2016, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that one third (or 3.5 million people) of the entire Australian workforce regularly worked from home in their main job or business. 

And now, during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, the assumption is this number will invariably grow to at least double. 

But in the case of franchise businesses, many of whom are on the frontline providing services such as food, clothing, bedding, cleaning, and medicine,  it's not always as easy as saying 'let's send the staff to work from home'.

The 'new normal', at least for the time being, appears to be that many franchise businesses have either closed their doors or have had to stand down staff. Those remaining, are being split in many cases between working from home and working on the frontline, facing the public.


Working on the frontline

A list of those stores and services still open to the public can be found on the Australian Federal Government website, but in most cases, there are additional state-based rules on what can and cannot remain open during this crisis.

Links to each states' government website with that information can also be found on the homepage of the Australian Government website.

At Safety Navigator, a provider of health and safety platforms and support to Australian and New Zealand businesses, with about 90 to 95 per cent of those in the franchise/multi-site sector, we're seeing vastly different approaches taken by our customers in how they handle and implement new working arrangements.

Particularly for those with doors still open, and working on the frontline. 

The question many of those businesses will be asking themselves is – ‘What should we be doing to help stop the spread of COVID-19 if we stay open?’

Gavin Culmsee, General Manager at Bedshed, said "We've not experienced and will probably never experience anything like this again. It's tough out there generally across the board in retail. But where our stores are open to deliver vital goods and services to the public, we also need to balance that need with considerations relating to the health of our workers and the general public".

Below are some general guidelines our franchise business customers who currently have open locations have shared with us:

- Don't forget the basics: Keep your general WHS ongoing - just because COVID-19 is the predominant issue now in our daily lives, does not mean we should expose ourselves to other WHS risks. Now, as much as ever, we need to keep our regular compliance actions going like workplace inspections, safety meetings, incident reporting, equipment checks.

- Review your procedures: Are there further considerations to be made to working procedures as they relate to helping combat the spread of COVID-19 in your workplace? It might be time to run a review of all operational processes.

- Use personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitiser: If you've identified instances where gloves and masks need to be worn, source them, and at the same time, sit the team down to run through basic hygiene (such as handwashing procedures) at regular intervals, and encourage hand sanitiser use after touching.

- Have a COVID-19 Declaration Form/Checklist for all staff to complete before every shift or working day. Getting staff to commit to not coming in to work if they have symptoms will help limit exposure to combat the virus.

- COVID-19 Doesn't care about the competition: Good ideas are good ideas. So just because one of your competitors has come up with a novel solution to preventing the spread of the virus, it does not mean you should not implement the same solution in your own business. A security guard friend of ours told us last week: "I'm working long shifts at <name of large grocery chain here> to ensure public order, and I noticed customers in the line to the checkout weren't socially distancing. I told the Store Manager and offered that we might like to put line markings on the floor to indicate where people should stand to keep a good distance from each other, and she said "<Competitor name here> does that. We don't copy them". That kind of attitude, of course, isn't doing anything to improve the situation we are now in.

- Social distancing also applies to co-workers: It's essential to stick to the social distancing guidelines the Federal and State governments issue (and no, not those you or your friend saw on social media). And this applies to co-workers.

- Keep up morale: It's often said that an engaged workforce is a productive workforce. It's a lot easier to keep up levels of engagement and improve morale when society is not in the grips of a pandemic. In some respects, keeping morale up at a time like this is also about trying to eliminate the dissemination of any false or harmful information in the workplace. It may be an idea to discourage staff sharing information they've found on Facebook or other social media and instead, encourage staff to go to either the Australian Government or Department of Health websites for up to date and factual information.

Another morale-boosting idea that came from one of our customers was to ask team members to bring in a good news story each day to share with other team members.

If you're stuck for stories, Youtube has some pretty good news stories relating to the COVID-19 crisis. 


Working from home arrangements

In many franchise businesses, working from home is simply not an option. But particularly for multi-site owners and franchisors with head and regional offices, there is now no other choice than to send staff to work from home.

"If you're an employee and you're working for someone, they have a duty of care for your health and safety," says Robin Price, Employment Relations Lecturer at Central Queensland University. And these duty of care obligations an employer has to an employee also apply in the working from home environment. 

So how does an employer demonstrate a duty of care for their employees who are now working from home? Again, we asked our customers to share some of their ideas, including:

- General Hazards Checklist: Have you given staff a checklist to use to identify any hazards within their working environment (the home) and have you requested a completed copy?

- Ergonomics: Have you provided staff (if office-style work) with a checklist for Ergonomics and have you requested a completed copy?

- Guidelines: Do you have a list of general health and safety-specific working from home guidelines and have you issued these to all staff working from home?

- Regular check-ins: Do you have a plan in place to ensure someone from management checks in with the staff member regularly? And at the risk of being the 15th person you've heard the name ZOOM from today, it may also be an idea to check in 'face to face' as it were.

And as is the case with franchise businesses who have locations open with workers on the front line, there is no definitive set of guidelines to follow here. Instead, we need to continue to adapt, to listen to what others are doing, but most importantly, source our information from credible sources like the Australian Government and the Department of Health.


The takeaways... Literally

Like many a restaurant or QSRs who have pivoted the business model to takeaway or delivery only in response to government restrictions, we all must adapt.

The length and breadth of our current crisis are unknown at this point.

The balance between providing goods and services, employment, and maybe even a little bit of joy to people with the ever-present threat of the spread of the virus is a difficult undertaking.

For those businesses with frontline staff, using the basic principles identified here will go a long way in helping limit the spread of COVID-19, but by no means are the ideas here the definite list of guidelines to be adopted.

As we continue to evolve through the crisis, encouraging two-way communication and idea-sharing with our customers and staff may offer some new ideas worth implementing.

Because without them, there would not be a business to start with, and when this is all over, we're going to need both of them more than ever.


Chris Beasley is Managing Director of Safety Navigator, a cloud-based WHS system with over 10,000 Australian and New Zealand business customers, many of whom are Franchise Organisations.