By Aaron Goonrey & Luke Scandrett*
COVID-19 has posed a difficult challenge for the traditional workplace. As countries around the globe have struggled with reducing the transmission rates, many businesses have been forced to turn to working remotely, or facing the possibility of closing down. This article discusses how COVID-19 has transformed the workplace into an online environment and considers various government responses to the pandemic around the globe.
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has acted as the catalyst in transforming the workplace environment we once knew. With governments around the world imposing strict lockdown restrictions, many if not most employers have been forced to change and adapt their set workplaces, such as an office environment, to working remotely. This raises many questions, including: what is the workplace going to look like, for example, in a year's time when the restrictions brought on by the pandemic have (hopefully) ended? Has the workplace changed forever, or will it return to 'normal' when the restrictions are lifted?
After the first recorded COVID-19 case in late 2019, there have been, at the time of writing, over two million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 200 countries affected. Following the WHO declaration of COVID-19 being a pandemic on 11 March 2020, the Australian government responded, effectively placing the country into lockdown and restricting the operation of in-person workplaces to those classified as 'essential' only.
'Non-essential' businesses were forced to quickly utilise alternative arrangements to enable their employees to keep working, and their workplaces running. Many businesses with the capability to have their employees work remotely directed their employees to start working from home. For some businesses, this instruction came suddenly and with inadequate technological or business continuity procedures in place to deal with the changing environment.
While the change to working remotely has happened quickly, forecasts are predicting that social distancing restrictions could see employees not returning to 'normal working life' for up to a year.
The effect of working remotely
While some businesses may have previously been reluctant to the idea of working remotely, the pandemic has forced many businesses to adapt to the current circumstances and consider the 'new work environment' as a legitimate option moving forward. Previously, some businesses were reluctant to enable employees to work remotely, in many cases with only a small percentage of employees enjoying the ability and only a limited basis, such as once a week or fortnight. Prior to the pandemic, employers could, within reason, restrict any employee working from home unless necessary, or direct that their work could not be performed from an alternate location.
As many businesses were left with no other option but to adapt to the changing environment, it has facilitated them in building a working culture that allows or encourages flexible work arrangements. The pandemic has also provided companies with the inadvertent opportunity to re-evaluate their previous organisational systems and procedures, removing unnecessary steps and adopting a more efficient technological approach.
Many companies have sought to become overall, more environmentally sustainable and have been embracing technological advancements and contributing to increases in their overall efficiency. This is regularly causing more significant levels of innovation, higher levels of creativity and communication between employer and employees. For example, the lockdown has seen some companies more actively participating in online marketing through email updates and engaging in social media as new avenues of publicity. Internally, businesses have sought to effectively build on their pre-existing infrastructures such as videoconferencing or instant messaging software to facilitate team meetings and external client conferences.
As a positive, the transition to the remote working environment has also resulted in working parents, particularly fathers, being able to spend more time with their children than they previously were able to otherwise. During the time of lockdown, working remotely is enabling fathers to assist in taking over or assisting with the role of the child's primary carer and additional domestic chores such as assisting with homework, feeding and bathing. With the entire household having to adapt to a new routine, the flexibility of the online environment has provided working parents with the opportunity to participate in home-schooling sessions and domestic care. In the traditional work environment, fathers, and working parents, were more constrained by regular working hours, travel time, and the workplace being away from home.
Australia's policy response
For non-essential businesses without the ability to work remotely, or in forced closure due to government restriction, employers have been forced to stand down or terminate the employment of many employees. The unemployment rate is predicted to soar to its highest level in almost three decades, with 1.4 million Australians out of work. In response, the Australian government started introducing stimulus packages to keep Australians in employment, with the goal of building a bridge to recovery.
On 12 March 2020, the Australian government introduced the 'JobSeeker' scheme to provide direct payments to those without work during the COVID-19 outbreak. The JobSeeker allowance is a new, time-limited COVID-19 supplement to be paid at a rate of A$550 per fortnight. It is available to individuals who have been stood down or lost their employment. Payments under the new JobSeeker allowance started from 30 March 2020.
On 30 March 2020, in a bid to keep more Australians in jobs and to help businesses significantly affected by the pandemic, the Australian government introduced a $130 billion 'JobKeeper' scheme. By 8 April, the Australian Parliament had passed the legislation to enable JobKeeper payments to begin to flow to employers from the start of May.
Under the JobKeeper scheme, eligible employers will be able to claim a fortnightly wage subsidy from the Australian Government of $1,500 per eligible employee from 30 March 2020 for six months. Employers will be eligible for the subsidy if their business has a turnover of:
- less than $1 billion and their turnover will be reduced by more than 30% relative to a comparable period of at least one month a year earlier;
- $1 billion or more and their turnover will be reduced by more than 50% to a comparable period of at least one month a year earlier; or
- for not-for-profits, their turnover will be reduced by more than 15% to a comparable period of at least one month a year earlier.
The Australian government also recently launched a COVID-19 tracing application, called "COVIDSafe". Within 12 hours of the launch, more than 1.2 million Australian had downloaded the app. The app allows health officials to quickly contact people who may have been exposed to COVID-19. It aims to speed up the current, manual, process of locating people who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive to COVID-19, with the goal of reducing community transmission. The ability to efficiently inform the individual of the likelihood of their exposure to COVID-19 means the individual can isolate and get tested without exposing it to their friends and family. The app is entirely voluntary to download and activate. Indeed, there is a determination under the Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cth), the Biosecurity (Human Biosecurity Emergency) (Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) (Emergency Requirements - Public Health Contact Information) Determination 2020, reinforcing the voluntary nature of the app.
Approaches from around the globe
As the pandemic has spread across the globe, different countries and governments have implemented varying approaches to tackling COVID-19.
The United States
Similarly, to Australia, over 46 states across the United States, and Washington DC, have enacted policies to close businesses classified as non-essential. While what is deemed non-essential varies, most businesses such as cinemas, gyms, day-cares, shopping centres and personal care retailers have been forced to close. The federal government has further instructed non-essential companies to encourage flexible working arrangements, allowing employees to work from home and to ensure that sick policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance.
While the United States has not stated when or how the restrictions will be lifted, the U.S. government has produced a three phase 'Opening Up America Again' guideline. Under phase 1 and 2 of the initiative, employers will still be encouraged to utilise telework wherever possible and feasible with business operations. It also promotes the return to workplaces in phases when possible and the closure of common areas where employees previously congregated and interacted. Finally, the social distancing protocols of keeping two metres apart should continue to be enforced. It is not until the third and final phase of the guidelines that employers are encouraged to resume unrestricted staffing of worksites.
It is predicted that, as previously reluctant industries have now been forced to invest in more remote working technology, it could result in a permanent shift towards working from home. Prior to the pandemic, it was suggested that only 2-3% of American employees regularly worked from home. As a result of the lockdown measures, it is now estimated that over half of the employed American adults are currently working remotely. It seems inevitable that the longer the American workforce is required to work from home, the higher the likelihood that a higher proportion of employees will simply continue to work remotely following the pandemic, as they may question whether they need to return to the office workplace at all.
However, this is not to say that there are no benefits of working in an office environment, or that no-one will wish to return. We envisage that many workers will opt to return to the office environment, as the office work environment generally enables the increased development of social bonds necessary for effective teamwork and eliminates distractions faced in the home environment. As a result, the permanent increase in working remotely may be modest, with workplaces instead focusing on modifications to floor plans and office arrangements to reduce the likelihood of transmission of future diseases.
The U.S. government has also foreshadowed in the 'Opening Up America Again' guidelines that, during the eventual return to the traditional office, there will also be changes to the work, health and safety guidelines. Businesses will be required to develop and implement appropriate policies, following Federal, State and local regulations, regarding the enforcement of social distancing and protective equipment, temperature checks, sanitation, disinfecting common and high-traffic areas, and minimising business travel.
The U.S. government has acknowledged that restrictive measures are forcing the closure of businesses across the country and consequently causing unemployment rates to rise.
In response, on 27 March 2020, the U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a major U.S. stimulus package was signed. The Act included USD 2.2 trillion in supplemental appropriations to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. It includes measures that:
- provide small businesses and non-profits with 500 or fewer employees with almost USD 350 billion in partially forgivable loans as part of a new Paycheck Protection;
- expand the U.S. emergency disaster loan programme by funding USD 10 billion in advances on loan applications to help small businesses cover expenses including sick leave, payroll and rent; and
- provide for tax credits for USD 5,000 for wages paid to each employee for businesses adversely affected by the coronavirus.
The CARES Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act also included several measures aimed specifically at supporting workers and businesses, including providing tax-free payments - treated as a refundable tax credit - to individuals. Additionally, couples earning up to USD 150,000 will receive USD 2,400, plus an additional USD 500 for each child. Payments will phase out for those earning higher incomes.
On 3 February, in line with other government responses, the country was placed into lockdown, and non-essential Chinese businesses swiftly instructed their employees to work remotely. For much of the Chinese workforce, this was the first time they had worked remotely outside of the office environment. While Chinese employers had previously had flexible work arrangements, the focus of the flexibility was usually on the ability for employees to control their hours and their workload, as opposed to working remotely.
At the time of writing, the Chinese government had begun to relax some of the lockdown measures, with regions lowering their emergency response level. The re-opening of the workplace in certain industries has seen the implementation of infrared and security cameras checking the temperature of workers on their arrival. The new workplace has also significantly transformed the way in which the workplace is run, with employees forced to remain two metres apart, wear face masks at all times, and controlling the number of employees in an elevator. Face-to-face meetings have been reduced significantly, only being conducted if necessary and if remote communication methods are not available.
For the companies still working remotely, it is unknown whether the transition to working remotely in China will remain in place for the long term, or whether, once the restrictions have eased, workers will simply return to the office. For most of the companies, it is presumed that China will maintain their conservative approach and adhere to their previous approach in limiting the flexibility of workers to work remotely. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the availability of flexible arrangements, including working from home, will continue to depend on the type of work the employee is engaged in.
Additionally, on 8 April 2020, at the same time as certain lockdown measures were being lifted, the Chinese government also implemented a coronavirus tracing application for smartphones. The application is being utilised as a method of isolating those who are at risk of infection. Checkpoints have been created around cities with police and security guards, requesting individuals to present their phone and QR code on the application to be scanned. Once scanned, a colour code will appear to determine the individual's risk level. The different colours have different restrictive measures. Green means the individual has unrestricted movement, yellow requires the individual to be in quarantine for seven days, and red means 14 days of quarantine is required. The colour codes also dictate where the users can go and what services they can use.
The UK government has forced the closure of certain businesses such as hotels, cinemas, shops selling non-essential goods, and hotels. While the U.S. and Australia have relied on verbal instruction and co-operation of the larger community, the UK introduced the Healthcare Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (English) Regulations 2020, which specifically outlined which businesses are classified as 'non-essential'. While the government has not expressly required the closure of workplaces, other than the ones listed above, it has stated that all individuals should work from home unless it is deemed absolutely necessary for them to be in the workplace. Employers also have the right to require employees to take paid holiday leave, assuming they continue to comply with the relevant notice requirements.
Employers in the UK are now considering how to change their workplaces for the possibility of returning to be a viable option. The UK is predicted to transition to an increased online work environment and working remotely. The return to work may include modifying the layouts of offices and work-stations, transforming existing desk positions to abide by the current social distancing regulations. Alternatively, the workplace may be reconfigured to a closed-plan, introducing more private office spaces for individuals, which overall would require a larger floor space or a rebuild. Finally, there is likely to be an implementation of hand sanitiser stations around offices and increased cleaning services.
Additionally, the UK has sought to provide economic assistance to businesses which do not have the ability to operate remotely or were forced to close under the new Act. In the UK, if a worker and employer both agree, the employer may be able to keep the worker on the payroll if they are unable to operate or have no work for the employee to do because of COVID-19, known as 'furlough'. A worker may get paid 80% of their wages, up to a monthly cap of £2,500.
The UK government also introduced a Coronavirus Retention scheme. This covered:
- deferring VAT and Self-assessment payments;
- a self-employment income support scheme;
- a statutory sick pay relief package for small and medium-sized businesses;
- a 12-month business rates holiday for all retail, hospitality, leisure and nursery businesses in England;
- small business grant funding of £10,000 for all business in receipt of small business rate relief or rural rate relief; and
- a Coronavirus business interruption Loan Scheme, offering loans up to £5 million for SMEs through the British Business Bank.
Work, Health and Safety in the Future
The enormity of the effect of COVID-19 on the workplace has demonstrated that work, health and safety measures in place prior to the pandemic were in many cases inadequate in terms of preparing for an infectious disease outbreak. As a result, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is aiming to recommend changes to WH&S measures moving forward.
Using COVID-19 as an example, the ILO has devised short, medium and long-term measures to help workplaces recover from the pandemic, and to be prepared in the future if another infectious disease was to break out in the future. Companies are encouraged to have a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan in the workplace which specifically deals with large scale health crises and pandemics. The plan should stimulate quick, coordinated and effective response measures which can be adapted swiftly in the workplace in the face of an emergency. The ILO includes example measures to be implemented such as training and information, protective clothing and equipment.
Additionally, the ILO calls for businesses to consider formulating a 'business continuity plan' with the assistance of their workers. This plan will help to identify any specific risks to individual businesses in the time of a crisis, and to construct strategies to help reduce their impact. The plan may recommend social distancing, implementing shift work for employees, and integrating remote communication technologies more frequently. Businesses should also have a plan for employee wellness / mental health and social consequences that may affect employees during a pandemic.
On the return to the workplace, businesses should also create an action list for the prevention and mitigation of COVID-19 at work. This includes physical distancing, increased provision of hygiene products, cleaning of desks and common areas, and training on the new measures.
The Future of the Traditional Workplace
COVID-19 is likely to have long-lasting, if not permanent ramifications for the traditional workplace and working environment, with businesses having been forced to adapt to working remotely. Once government restrictions have been lifted, employers may query whether they will return to their previous and traditional work environments or embrace working remotely as a mainstream alternative.
While it is likely that the workplace for many organisations will eventually return to the conventional office environment, the return may bring employers and employees a new and greater appreciation of the office environment and the benefits of face-to-face interactions.
Businesses will also likely have the freedom of increasing the availability of flexible working arrangements and remote working opportunities, resulting in new industries, jobs and job opportunities and career development. COVID-19 forced many businesses to invest in enhanced technology and hardware to enable working remotely. Moving forward, employers now have the capability of enabling their employees the opportunity to work from home more regularly and frequently. The flow on effect of working remotely / working from home is likely to generate greater flexibility for employees, working parents sharing more of the home and family responsibilities, and less congestion on roads and of public transport networks.
Keeping in mind the possibility of future infectious disease outbreaks, employers may also choose to continue to enforce social distancing regulations, positioning workstations at, for example in Australia, 1.5 metres apart and erecting partitions to separate desks within the office environment.
Face-to-face meetings may be reduced to those only considered necessary, utilising video/teleconferences for meetings involving large group of people. Overall, businesses may reduce the number of employees in the office and their office footprint generally. Businesses may also consider developing a roster system controlling the number of employees coming into work on specific days to prevent future issues arising.
Importantly, the availability of flexible work arrangements, including an increase in remote working, will rely on businesses remedying any technical difficulties they encountered while working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses who had not previously engaged in remote working practices are likely to have identified areas of improvement or weaknesses. While the pandemic may have shown that working remotely is a possibility, it is likely that further advancement in remote working is still required before it is considered a viable and permanent option for companies.
As has consistently been the case with COVID-19, the situation has been developing rapidly and no-one can say with certainty what the future may hold, including that of the traditional workplace. We, along with the rest of the world, will continue to monitor these developments, but are optimistic that there will be a return to 'normalcy' soon, with also some unexpected and additional benefits brought about by the lessons learned and opportunities presented during these times.
* Aaron Goonrey is a partner and Luke Scandrett is a senior associate in the Workplace Relations & Safety Practice Group in the Sydney office of Lander & Rogers. Mr Goonrey can be contacted at [email protected]