What COVIDSafe return-to-work regulations could mean for business
Following an incredibly challenging period for businesses Australia-wide, we’re starting to see COVID-19 lockdown restrictions ease and a wide-spread reopening begin.
This new phase will set small businesses across the nation on a journey of recovery. It is, however, being approached with necessary caution – complete with a detailed set of regulations to adhere to.
The Australian Government’s framework to create a COVIDSafe society details our new ways of living and working. Designed to keep people safe while returning to greater social freedoms, restrictions are intended to be pared back in three steps (with all steps anticipated to be completed by July 2020).
While the federal government has proposed the plan, the timing of each step is up to each individual state and territory. You can find out what this looks like for you:
Do I need to have an official plan in place before I open my store to customers?
To reopen and operate your business, you’ll need to have a workplace health and safety (WHS) plan in place. This WHS plan, or a summary of it, should be displayed in your store to show that you’re operating safely. Some higher risk industries, such as retail, also require that businesses complete and display a dedicated COVIDSafe plan to help prepare for the different stages of the pandemic (although it’s recommended that all businesses follow suit). You should revise your plan regularly, especially as restrictions and conditions change.
What physical distancing regulations does my business need to follow?
Throughout all three steps of the government’s COVIDSafe framework, all businesses need to ensure that there is four square metres of space per person with a physical distance of at least 1.5 metres from others where possible.
How do I figure out how many people are allowed inside my store?
Firstly, if you’re unsure how big your retail space is, take a look at your lease. To achieve the four square metre rule, Safe Work Australia advises calculating the area of the room (e.g length of room in metres x width of room in metres = area of room in square metres), and dividing it by four. For example, if you have a room that is 160 square metres in size, you should only allow up to 40 people in the room.
How do I make sure there is 1.5 metres space between people?
In order to enable workers and customers to keep at least 1.5 metres apart, you’ll likely need to make adjustments to the layout of your space and workflows. This can be achieved by rearranging furniture, making high traffic areas wider and considering floor and/or wall markings and signage to identify distancing requirements. You can find more information here.
What can I do to make customers feel more comfortable during this period?
Returning to retail stores may feel like a big adjustment for some shoppers, and there’s plenty that you can do to make the experience more enjoyable. Beyond in-store distancing and hygiene practices, considerations such as clearly displaying current policies and ensuring that hand sanitiser is easily accessible will go a long way towards putting people at ease.
This is also the perfect opportunity to refresh your window display and make your store as inviting as possible. For further advice, check out this Australian Retail Association guide.
Is it still worth maintaining an online presence now that my store can open?
Online shopping is now an integral part of the retail landscape, and your customers will continue to expect a range of options – especially during this transitional period. As well as increased convenience, having an online presence will enable you to keep shoppers informed of revised opening hours and changes to operations. It can also help ease in-store congestion and open your business up to a whole new audience (with apps like Stripe on hand for international payments).
Hospitality – cafes, restaurants and food courts
Do I need to have a plan in place before I open my cafe or restaurant to dine-in customers?
Just like in the retail sector, to reopen and operate your business safely, you must have a workplace health and safety (WHS) plan in place and display it on the premises. You can find more information here.
How many people are allowed to dine in my cafe or restaurant?
The number of people that can dine in at your venue will increase with each step of the government’s COVIDSafe framework. To find out which restrictions apply, look to your local state or territory government for guidance (see links above).
- Step one: cafes and restaurants can seat up to ten patrons at a time adhering to physical distancing regulations. Food courts are to remain closed to seated patrons
- Step two: cafes and restaurants can seat up to 20 patrons at a time adhering to physical distancing regulations. Food courts are to remain closed to seated patrons
- Step three: cafes, restaurants and food courts can seat up to 100 patrons at a time adhering to physical distancing regulations.
What if my employees can’t maintain a physical distance of 1.5 metres when working?
Like all businesses, cafes and restaurants need to ensure that there is 4 square metres of space per person with a physical distance of at least 1.5 metres from others, where possible.
Of course, it won’t always be achievable for workers to keep 1.5 metres apart. For example, those who work in a small kitchen will find that certain tasks require close proximity to be carried out safely. In instances where close contact is unavoidable, you’ll need to implement other control measures such as staggering start, finish and break times where appropriate. You can find out more here.
How can I make my customers feel at ease during this period?
Many people have pared back their use of cash when making payment in person because of hygiene concerns. By providing contactless payment options, you’ll be able to offer customers both increased convenience and peace of mind. In turn, as well as reducing the amount of furniture within your venue, consider how you can arrange your space to allow diners (and staff) as much room as possible.
Is it still worth maintaining an online presence now that my venue can open?
It may take people some time to return to dining out regularly, which means that staying online has never been more important. Maintaining services such as takeaway, contactless pickups and food delivery boxes will allow diners the space they need to adjust. In turn, your website and social media are the perfect place to communicate your current state of operations.
When should I tell my staff to return to the workplace?
Steps one and two of the COVIDSafe framework recommend that people work from home if it suits both their needs and that of their employer (with step three allowing for a widespread return to the workplace). It’s important to consider your staff throughout this process, with many businesses conducting surveys to find out when their workers would like to go back and what measures would make them feel safest. When/if you decide on a return to the office, your workplace will need to have a COVIDSafe plan in place and observe physical distancing.
What responsibilities do I have while my staff are working from home?
It’s important to note that the model WHS laws still apply if your employees work somewhere other than their usual workplace. This means that you have duties to ensure their health and safety if they’re working from home. You can find out more here.
What will physical distancing look like in offices?
So you can enable employees to keep at least 1.5 metres apart, you may need to redesign the layout of your office space and alter workflows accordingly. This means saying goodbye to crowded floor plans and closely quartered hot desking setups. You can find out more here.
How can I make my staff feel as comfortable as possible about returning to the workplace?
Returning to the office will be a big transition for your team. There are a number of considerations you can implement to not only comply with government regulations, but also ensure that your workers feel safe and well looked after. These include:
- Hold gatherings, training or larger meetings online for the immediate future.
- With the virus known to cling to surfaces, declutter the office and keep desks clear.
- Ensure that hand sanitiser and wipes are easily accessible.
- Regular deep cleans as per the government guidelines.
- Reduce the number of workers using common areas by staggering lunch breaks.
- Help staff avoid public transport at peak times by staggering arrival and departure times.
- Consider floor markings and signage to identify distancing requirements.
- Establish regular check ins to see how your staff are faring with the transition.
Should I consider continuing with flexible working arrangements?
Many businesses have discovered that virtual collaboration and connection can arguably be as effective as in real life. As a result, some are planning on allowing any staff who feel uncomfortable returning to the office (and can productively work from home) to stay put. Other possibilities include having employees split their time evenly between the office and home, or staggering the return by team. One thing remains clear: flexible working is now the way of the future.
How can I make my clients feel as comfortable as possible?
If you run a service-based business such as accounting or bookkeeping, it’s integral to consider your clients’ needs during this adjustment period. Beyond ensuring that waiting rooms and consultation areas conform to physical distancing regulations, steps such as decluttering (this means removing things likely to be handled, like pillows and loose files) and prominently displaying hand sanitiser and signage on the precautionary steps that your business is taking will help to calm nerves.
Many people may still feel uncomfortable visiting your workplace despite restrictions easing. In this case, offering (or continuing to offer) online consultations will provide your customers with the freedom to do what feels right for them.
Across all industries, what can we learn from this period?
COVID-19 has transformed the way businesses across Australia operate. And while the recovery period will likely prove to be both long and difficult, there is much to be learned from the way that entire industries have adapted. Powerful legacies, such as making the move online and embracing flexible working, promise to prove beneficial long after the crisis ceases.