After a recent spike in infections, the Victorian government is conducting an enforcement blitz on workplaces.
On Sunday, Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) released a statement announcing an “inspection and enforcement blitz” that will be carried out in workplaces across the state. Conducted by WorkSafe, Emergency Management Victoria and the state police, the blitz will focus on workplaces deemed at high risk of infections, including distribution centres and meat processing centres.
The announcement comes in the wake of the state’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases and the reintroduction of stay-at-home orders and a more strict lockdown.
“Anyone who can work from home should work from home,” reiterated Victorian premier Daniel Andrews in a press conference on Sunday.
He went on to answer a question regarding news reports about the Melbourne office of legal firm HWL Ebsworth. The firm received media attention back in March for its decision to keep staff in the office when almost all companies around Australia that could were sending staff home. Its 1,250 employees could only work remotely upon request and this was determined on a case-by-case basis, the AFR reported. Within a week of the report the firm changed the policy.
It’s in the news again because the firm was connected to six new, confirmed COVID-19 cases, although it says the infections were contracted at a private function away from its office.
There are two lessons workplaces of all kinds can take from this evolving situation. The first has to do with safety standards, and the second is tied to a key HR responsibility – culture.
1. Taking safety to the next level
In the press conference, Andrews insisted he didn’t feel that at-risk industries, such as aged care and meat processing, had been lax.
“There’s been a significant effort in a number of those workplaces – in fact, in all of them across the board in those high-risk sectors – but the risk is much more acute now.
“It’s not about doing something now that wasn’t done previously, it’s about taking those efforts to another level, and making sure that we’ve got the best system in place.”
This line of thinking is worth keeping in mind. Compared to many other countries, Australia has had a very low infection rate. According to one data collector, even with the recent spike it has the 128th lowest rate in the world at 473 cases for every one million people (0.047 per cent of the population).
Given there are so few infections, a lot of Australians do not know anyone who has had COVID-19 and their experience of the actual effects of the virus has come solely from news reports (the most alarming of which are usually about other countries). Engaging in social distancing and other precautionary health habits has often felt abstracted from consequences. Minor lapses in handwashing, or accidental handshakes or hugs have not caused much harm.
So while we should be reassured that organisations have done as well as they have to ensure workplaces are safe, we should also be aware that our sense of “good enough” has developed in a low risk environment that is vulnerable to change.
Consequently, all workplaces, but particularly those nearer to hot spots, should consider reassessing their COVID-safe policies. An HRM article recommends an individualised approach to workplace safety that emphasises psychological safety.
Mask wearing should be considered where appropriate. It is no coincidence that the announcement of the blitz occurred in the same statement announcing the requirement that people living in metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire are now required to wear a face mask in public (with certain limited exceptions – see the DHHS website).
As HRM has written previously, there is a growing global consensus that masks are effective at limiting the spread of the virus – including in the workplace.
It’s not just that wearing a mask can physically prevent the spread of the virus from the mask-wearer to others, it turns out mask wearing has the effect of making sure people remember to engage in social distancing. The research shows that rather than making people feel invulnerable, it makes them more cautious.
2. Culture as a workplace risk
Every HR professional knows policy cannot paper over culture. An organisation with guidelines that perfectly follows government advice will find those guidelines undercut if the behaviours leaders promote are unsafe. It will be interesting to find out if this is what happened in the case of HWL Ebsworth.
On the one hand, it is quite possible the legal firm is the victim of misreporting. Media organisations were quick to link early reports of its decision to prevent remote work with its recent outbreak of infections, but the two aren’t necessarily related. Not only does the firm claim the infections happened away from its office, but a representative from the firm was able share an email with 7News.com.au where the DHHS praised its health guidelines in the aftermath of an employee testing positive earlier this year.
On the other hand, the same 7News.com.au report spoke to employees who apparently learned of the six recent infections only after they were announced by Victoria’s health chief. One, who worked on the floor with someone tested positive, heard about it through colleagues and not management. Employees also told the news organisation that requests to work from home were “not always granted”.
Then there are the details that have been reported about HWL Elsworth’s culture. From the AFR: “Some insiders at the fast-growing firm found the insistence on their physical presence unsurprising. It’s a tightly run ship.” Examples of this listed by the AFR include the fact that colour printing required partner approval and that it monitored how much “work time was used for non-work matters”.
Combine this with the firm’s initial messaging around COVID-19 – where it told staff it would not be “blindly following the lead of others like a lemming” and that in the interests of clients and staff mental health it would not be instituting a work from home policy – and you are left with the impression that it has a top-down, one-size-fits-all culture.
Regardless of whether this impression of the firm is accurate, the lesson it provides remains true. Any organisation with a culture like this is at higher risk during this pandemic.
Focusing on remote work policy: in some cases requiring approval is appropriate, but organisations should be careful. They might not just be erecting a bureaucratic barrier that will make people more reluctant to work from home, without proper messaging they can send the signal that working from home is frowned upon.
This has unintended consequences. To get ahead in their careers, or just to stay in the good graces of management during a time of job insecurity, employees will not only refrain from requesting remote work, they could very well adjust their own sense of “symptomatic”. A slight dry cough, or a very mild fever on the weekend, could be dismissed as insufficient cause to stay at home.
Derisively referring to widespread caution as the behaviour of a “lemming” can also send the wrong signal. Say you were in such an office and a manager extended their hand in greeting, or sat right next to you to have a chat, would you feel empowered to tell them it went against health recommendations?
We should all remember that culture is powerful, and that a proper review of COVID-safe policies should look at culture and manage its unintended consequences. Risk management can no longer just focus on policies, numbers and compliance – it has to also focus on people and behaviours.