While it’s enormously exciting to be returning to work (and the public will no doubt share your enthusiasm, as they look forward to dining and browsing again), their expectations for these experiences will have changed. Many will now want to be spaced out from other diners or shoppers, and it should come as no surprise that they will expect staff and other patrons to be following COVID-safe protocols.
Unfortunately, this won’t always be the case. It’s likely that, at some point, at least one customer will ignore (or forget about) COVID-safety. This is why it’s important that staff are prepared to deal with sticky situations — such as if someone enters without a mask, or refuses to check in.
In these cases, staff should be directed to respond calmly and politely, and explain why they are requesting a customer to adjust their behaviour or to comply with a protocol: for the health and safety of themselves, other customers and your staff. Staff should also feel empowered to refuse service where necessary. However, they should also be reminded that this shouldn’t be their first response — as the customer may be immunocompromised, or have another such exemption from wearing a mask.
When it comes to explaining why these rules and protocols are in place, it helps to have clear and accessible signage staff can refer to and point customers towards for further clarification, relieving the brunt of the explanation from your employees.
It goes without saying that the pandemic has been difficult. Millions of people have suffered through lockdowns over the last two years, evidenced by the dramatic rise in demand for helplines and mental health support networks. According to the ABS, one in five Australians reported feeling very high levels of psychological stress during the 2021 lockdowns. Any of your staff members could be a part of this statistic, which is why it’s so important to acknowledge the potential fragility of their physical and mental health.
While it can be reassuring to return to relative normalcy, it can also be overwhelming, particularly if you have to deal with people breaking COVID rules and the associated backlash or conflict. For this reason, it’s critical that you continuously check in on your staff. This means contextualising the reopening of your business with all the ways it will be different, as well as engaging in casual conversations as often as possible to gauge their state of mind — emphasising that they should take sick leave if their mental health is suffering.
The pandemic has impacted every industry across Australia, forcing thousands of business owners to downsize in order to make it through or rethink their strategy and structure moving forward. This no doubt means that some procedures and responsibilities will have changed since staff last clocked, to ensure your business is COVID-safe. These should be clearly outlined to employees before their return to work.
For example, cafés, restaurants, and retail businesses will have to alter the way they do business by ensuring they minimise customer contact while still upholding a high-quality service — something that will require a change in operations.
This could involve having less staff on the floor, different work hours, a change in location, or a change in systems. You may, for example, decide to switch to a portable EFTPOS terminal to minimise customer movement in your store or restaurant. However you alter your business operations, you should consider how it will affect your staff and establish a consultation process to communicate these changes clearly to your team.
Finally, you need to inform your staff of their start dates. In the case of both Victoria and New South Wales, the road maps in place give you an indication of when these dates will be — however, the pandemic has already proven that the easing (and imposition) of restrictions can happen with a moment’s notice. It’s important to open the channels of communication as soon as possible.
As soon as you have opening dates and shifts locked in, give your staff reasonable notice that they’ll be expected to clock on. Though many will be excited to get back to work, they’ll need to start considering what their new routine will look like and if they’re ready — emotionally and financially — to return to work in this new way.
These return dates should be outlined in your COVID-safe plan, something every staff member should be provided, together with an acknowledgment that these dates are subject to changing health advice, should unforeseen circumstances occur (such as another outbreak).
It goes without saying that staff returning to work is a largely exciting time; it’s something both you and your employees have been looking forward to for weeks, if not months. However, transitioning your staff smoothly back to the workplace will be critical to a successful reopening.
If you have any concerns or questions about making the return to work as seamless and stress-free as possible, you can always reach out to the relevant body in your state: