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COVID officers and split shifts: what a workplace return might look like

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As hopes rise for the scaling back of coronavirus shutdown measures, Australian businesses, including insurance companies and brokerages, are considering how to implement a return to the office.

Experts believe the return will be gradual, with some major companies expected to continue with a significant level of home working for many months, possibly until a vaccine becomes available.

Those that do return to offices could see staggered starts, increased distance between workstations, enforced hygiene measures and an end to hot-desking.

Willis Towers Watson (WTW) Workplace Risk Solutions Director David Allan says new risks presented by the disease should lead companies to consider appointing dedicated COVID-19 officers.

“We’ve identified that restrictions are starting to ease, in some states more than others,” Mr Allan told today.

“Businesses have an obligation to manage foreseeable risks, and COVID-19 would be considered such a risk – but it’s also something people haven’t dealt with before.”

A “COVID-19 officer” could be appointed internally but many companies lack individuals with the necessary expertise, so WTW is offering it as a service.

The officer’s responsibilities would include developing COVID-19 policies and procedures, conducting training and enforcing distancing and hygiene measures.

Mr Allan says before shifting to home working WTW split its staff into two groups working alternate weeks in offices, and similar “staggered approaches” would be relevant to many workplaces as restrictions are lifted.

He says it’s “definitely a possibility” that some large firms will continue with home working longer than is deemed necessary by authorities.

Suncorp told “the majority” of its 13,000 employees have been working from home since mid-March.

“We have and will continue to follow the advice of the Government and official health organisations and do what is best for our people and customers,” a spokesman said.

QBE says 98% of its workforce is working from home and expects a return to the office environment in “a gradual and measured way”, guided by government and health authority advice.

IAG says more than 97% of its employees across Australia and New Zealand are working from home.

“The safety of our people, customers and the community has guided our decision-making since January when the impacts of COVID-19 escalated, and this will continue,” a spokesman said.

“We will monitor the health and safety advice of the Government and medical authorities when determining the best approach for returning to our various worksites.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday the National Cabinet has been briefed on “the importance of a proactive and consistent approach to supporting businesses and workers to safely return to work”.

The Cabinet agreed Safework Australia will be “the single source of information” and a toolkit is being developed for businesses to help them be work-ready “in a COVID-19 safe environment”.