With South Africa preparing for COVID-19 Level 3 lockdown commencing 1 June 2020, millions of workers are returning to work. Employers have been preparing for their return to the workplace for quite some time now, and many of the workplace preparedness measures are already in place.
Despite the focus on technical and operational preparations, the large-scale return to the workplace will still bring uncertainty and discomfort for many South Africans. In restarting your operations across any sector, employee wellness and engagement should not be neglected.
How can you help your employees during this time?
Let’s assume your operational and regulatory requirements are in place. Masks are acquired and will be issued to employees, sanitizer and soap were bought in bulk, and the premises’ ventilation has been adjusted and approved. The next step any employer must take is engaging with their employees and stakeholder groups on their safety and their concerns. It is then important to plainly communicate to them the measures that have been taken to ensure their safety.
The following 5 steps can go a long way for your successful return to full operations:
Sharing the results of your workplace and employee risk assessment. It is of vital importance for employees to know where the risks in their daily lives will be, and how they can take preventative measures themselves to minimise transmissions or exposure. It will also help employees to understand the effort that has gone into creating a safe space for them and why certain measures are implemented across different sites or departments.
Discussing the COVID-19 Policy with employees. Discussing policies would typically take the form of Induction Training for all employees. Having a comprehensive and relevant COVID-19 Policy in place, and communicating that policy clearly to each employee, will help employees to better adhere to measures as they understand how it applies to their direct situations. Having a registered Health and Safety Practitioner to present Induction Training sessions can lend great credibility to your employee communication, but a personalised approach by a familiar designated staff member can also help your message come across clearly. One of the important things to bear in mind in undertaking this exercise is to avoid overwhelming employees with too much information. It would be more beneficial to implement 1 comprehensive COVID-19 Policy with 2 or 3 smaller specific supporting policies, than it would be to have endless specific policies which employees must keep track of and adhere to.
Act against violations. Consistent implementation and adherence to the relevant COVID-19 measures implemented in your workplace is a crucial component of its success. Allowing some employees (worse, management or seemingly favoured employees) to transgress the COVID-19 Workplace measures would be entirely detrimental to the successful implementation of all your hard work for COVID-19 preparedness. Furthermore, neglecting to follow the correct regulatory procedures could damage your business reputation if internal or external stakeholders publicize transgressions on social media. To ensure fairness and success, implement your policies with no exceptions (unless justified as per the risk assessment) and act against violations to ensure the integrity of your commitment.
Put a workable response plan in place. As with the COVID-19 Policy and Risk Assessment, your response plan will only have maximum impact if every employee is informed about it. Your response plan will govern your actions if a COVID-19 case is suspected, or if transmission happens, and all the different measures you are implementing in response to the various risks in your workplace. This will take the strain off your core team should an incident occur, and it should form part of the Safety Plan for any business.
Remember that it’s not business as usual, it’s business as humans. You, and nearly every other employer out there, are eager for things to return back to normal. Your employees are most likely too, but it must be kept in mind that each employee is currently living with his or her own fears, doubts, and personal risks. Where possible, accommodate at-risk employees such as elderly or pregnant individuals to continue working from home, help employees to avoid peak commuting times by discussing staggered work hours in consultation with affected employees, and allow for leniency where it is fair and possible. This can only be attained through constant dialogue with employees and stakeholders and an open and transparent management approach has never been as important as it is now.
Engaging employees is the key to a successful, sustainable return to work and employers. Once all the technical requirements for resuming operations are fulfilled, we as a collective South African workforce must remember to also take care of communication and administration that will help ensure that physical and psychological safety of our workforce.