Lander & Rogers' Workplace Relations & Safety partner, Aaron Goonrey and senior associate Luke Scandrett consider three key issues influencing the future of the workplace.
The COVID-19 pandemic has unexpectedly transformed the workplace environment we once knew. As governments around the world imposed strict lockdown restrictions, many if not most employers were forced to adapt from traditional workplaces, such as an office environment, to working remotely. This raises many questions about the future of work. What will the workplace look like, for example, in a year's time when restrictions have (hopefully) ended? Has the workplace changed forever, or will it return to "normal" when restrictions are lifted?
After the first recorded COVID-19 case in late 2019, there have been, as of end of June 2020, over 10 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and more than 210 countries affected. Following the WHO declaration of COVID-19 being a pandemic on 11 March 2020, the Australian government responded by 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 equipped for remote work 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 indicate that social distancing restrictions could see employees not returning to "normal working life" for up to one year. In this Part I, Aaron looks at the effect of working remotely.
The future of the workplace Part I: The effect of working remotely
The pandemic has forced many businesses to adapt to current circumstances and consider the "new work environment" as a legitimate option moving forward. Previously, some Australian businesses were reluctant to enable employees to work remotely; in many cases only a small percentage of employees enjoyed the ability and on 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.
With no other option but to adapt to the changing environment, many businesses have had to adopt a working culture that allows or encourages flexible work arrangements. The pandemic has also allowed companies 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 spurring innovation, higher levels of creativity and communication between employers 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.
The transition to a remote working environment has had the positive impact of working parents, particularly fathers, being able to spend more time with their children. During lockdown, working remotely has enabled fathers to assist in taking over or assisting with the role of the child's primary carer and additional domestic chores such as homework, feeding and bathing. As the entire household has adapted to a new routine, the flexibility of the online environment has enabled working parents to participate in home-schooling sessions and domestic care. In the traditional work environment, 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 restrictions, 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 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 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 launched a voluntary to download COVID-19 tracing application, COVIDSafe. Within 12 hours of its launch, more than 1.2 million Australians 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 individuals of their likelihood of exposure to COVID-19 means they can isolate and get tested without placing their friends and family at risk. 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.
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