In the event of a pandemic like the coronavirus, there’s a lot of uncertainty—especially in the workplace. You might not know how to keep your employees and customers safe and your business afloat yet. All you know is that toilet paper is hard to come by and the Prime Minister is telling everyone to stay at home.
First, don’t panic. Panic creates fear, and fear results in rash decisions. Keep a close eye on the department of health and Australian government websites for real-time updates, developments, and recommendations. Visit the Safe Work Australia website to learn more about COVID-19 in the workplace.
Then develop a task force—one person or a team of employees dedicated to tracking the progression of the disease and keeping workers safe. The task force should monitor the situation closely, communicate updates to employees regularly, and answer any questions workers might have.
This task force should also be responsible for creating an epidemic health policy. The policy should detail when you expect employees to stay home, any travel precautions they must take, and who to talk to if they have questions or concerns.
Of course, these policies vary and ultimately need to work for your business and your employees. When in doubt, start with the government recommendations. You’ll need to respond to state and territory coronavirus policies and procedures according to your location or multiple business locations.
- Information for Western Australia
- Information for New South Wales
- Information for Northern Territory
- Information for Victoria
- Information for ACT
- Information for Tasmania
- Information for Queensland
- Information for South Australia
Once you’ve taken a few deep breaths and organised your task force, turn your focus to prevention.
5 steps for basic prevention
1. Wash your hands
The coronavirus travels on droplets of mucus or saliva, most likely from a cough or a sneeze, and enters through your eyes, nose, or mouth. The health department recommends washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds at regular intervals throughout the day, especially after you’ve been in public. In addition to that:
- Avoid touching your face, even with clean hands.
- Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, and wash your hands immediately.
- If soap and water aren’t available, use a hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Post hand-washing reminders and instructions throughout your workplace as a reminder for employees.
2. Disinfect surfaces often
Viruses can live on metal, glass, or plastic surfaces for up to nine days. A person who touches that surface could become infected or carry the virus to another surface. Safe Work Australia recommend disinfecting your working and living spaces daily. Common surfaces include tables, desks, doorknobs, light switches, phones, and keyboards.
Consider providing the necessary supplies, like hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes, for your employees. Not only are workers more likely to use the supplies on hand, but you can also ensure they’re using the right products.
3. Keep a safe distance
Current social distancing measures require us all to maintain a 1.5 metre distance between yourself and others in public at all times. Definitely no physical greetings such as handshakes.
In the workplace, Australians should work from home if they can. If your employees must work on premises, try to maintain the 1.5 metre distance. Cancel all non- essential meetings or move them online if possible.
Read more about social distancing on the Department of Health website.
4. Send sick employees home right away
It’s always better to be safe than sorry. If an employee is feeling unwell (especially if they are coughing or sneezing), it’s wise to send them home.
In fact, now is a good time to review your sick leave policies with your employees. Ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance. If employees get sick, they need to know they can stay home without fear of retaliation. Consult the Fair Work Ombudsman for guidance.
On April 1, the fair work commission issued a statement regarding updating 103 awards during the pandemic. You can read more about award flexibility during coronavirus on their website.
5. Get a good night’s sleep
It’s possible that the threat of the coronavirus is keeping you up at night. But getting a good night’s sleep is vital for your mental and physical health. It’s also essential for keeping your immune system strong to fight against viruses.
Working from home
The government have already enforced clearly defined restrictions both Australia wide and state wide such as closure of borders, restrictions on public gatherings, forced quarantine for returning travellers and travel bans which have no doubt already affected your business operation. For a full overview of current measures, consult the Australian government Covid19 website.
But what else can you do?
You would have already considered work from home capabilities for your employees and if not, should certainly be doing so. Safe Work Australia provides some guidelines to consider if you are transitioning workers to work from home.
Make sure employees have the right tools and equipment to work effectively. This includes access to instant messaging apps, video conferencing tools, and reliable internet access. For many workers, equipment needed includes a laptop, computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
Make sure your employees have plenty of guidance when it comes to setting up their home office. Create a checklist that details what they’ll need, how they’ll get it, and who they can call if they need technical support.
If your team isn’t familiar with remote work, make sure you have taken the right precautions to keep your business data safe. Precautions include:
- Avoiding public networks.
- Working in a private space and being mindful about confidential information.
- Using a privacy screen for your laptop.
- Working from home, not a co-working space or coffee shop.
Finally, set clear expectations for all employees when working from home. Remind them that they still need to be available during regular business hours and participate in meetings.
When you can’t do remote
If working from home isn’t an option, consider added precautions to safeguard your staff such as establishing flexible hours to decrease the amount of workers at any one time for better social distancing. Some workplaces are adopting one day in office, one day at home, working structures in order to better space out workers.
Consider how you might support workers that need to take public transport to the workplace or what hygiene requirements you have for workers arriving at the workplace. Many workplaces are providing masks and scarves for their workers, or taking extra precautions for workers who have high contact with the public such as mounting perspex screens at cashier counters. Consider reworking rosters or work tasks to limit workers exposure to the virus. For example, one designated worker dealing with customers rather than a team swapping between tasks including customer interaction.
Perhaps you can lockdown part of your office to reduce exposure, requiring clients to make appointments rather than having an open door.
The Safe Work Australia website has specific guidelines for various industries including retail, delivery drivers, agriculture, offices, building and construction, taxis and rideshare, as well as a fact sheet for small businesses.
4 ways to minimise financial hardship
A few weeks into this crisis, and unfortunately, many small businesses have already gone under. These are tough times but there are some measures you can take today to keep your business going.
1. Government assistance
Currently, the Federal government has announced a number of measures to counter financial hardship. These include a job hub, early childhood education and care relief package, a potential 50% wage subsidy for small businesses, the job keeper subsidy payment, temporary cash flow support for small businesses, as well as a business investment concession.
A Coronavirus liason unit has been established and you can consult business.gov.au for the latest on financial assistance schemes and eligibility.
In addition, consult your local state or territory government website for information on any local financial assistance packages. For example, the WA government have announced a small business relief package.
2. Have a backup plan for operations
Regardless of whether you will be eligible for government assistance, The Small Business Development Corporation has some advice on equipping your business for the bumpy ride ahead.
- Build a business continuity plan
Develop a plan for how your business will weather the pandemic and any operational disruptions you might encounter.
- Prepare for operational disruptions
If you or your employees get sick and need to self-isolate for at least two weeks, you need to have a business strategy. Create a chain of command among team members to keep business moving forward without you or integral members of your staff.
- Build a supply continuity plan
Plan for delays on distribution and look into whether you can source products or materials elsewhere. If that’s not an option, find creative ways to mitigate the damage.
Further, you’ll need to get a comprehensive picture of your financial position and talk to banks, insurers, and the ATO about possible concessions such as loan and tax deferrals which could keep you afloat. Chase up payments and communicate with all your stakeholders about what changes you are making during this pandemic. You may need to significantly adapt your business, for example, running it from home. Whatever you do, check you have the relevant licencing permissions to do so and understand your options in relation to employees.
And if you really need a cash injection, consider drawing down on your super.
Consult the checklist for more detail on all these options.
3. Embrace e-commerce
There’s no time like the present to embrace e-commerce. If you sell products, now is the time to ramp up your online presence. Consider running special online-only offers to drive more customers to your virtual storefront. If you’re a service-based business, offering e-gift cards is a great way to keep revenue flowing in and customers on call.
If your business hasn’t yet tapped the online market, look into online marketplaces like Etsy, Amazon, or eBay to quickly and easily launch and sell your products. Tap into local markets using Facebook Marketplace, or Gumtree. Above all, choose the online marketplace that makes the most sense for your products and services, will give you the best return on your dollar, and draw the largest crowd.
If you’re already online or ready to launch your e-commerce website, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- Think about how your customers will find you on search engines. If you’re rusty on best SEO practices, now is a good time to brush up. Use keyword tools to help you optimise your page, and focus on providing valuable content.
- Set up and use Google Analytics to see who’s viewing your website, which pages they’re spending the most time on, and how long they’re staying on your site. Use that info to better understand your customers and the products they’re most interested in.
- Leverage social media and digital marketing to drive traffic and create buzz around your brand. Focus on the social media platforms your customers use the most. Use social tools like Buffer or HootSuite to manage your accounts and automate your social marketing.
- Use online advertising to target new customers who are most likely to purchase your products or services. Google Ads and paid social media ads drive new leads to your site while allowing you to set your own budget.
4. Communicate with your customers
It’s critical to communicate openly with your customers during this time. Keep them in the loop on the status of your operations. Then share with them the preventative measures you’ve implemented and how they’ll be protected when they visit your business or purchase your products. Assure your customers that you’ve done all you can to keep business moving forward, but alert them to any potential complications or delays early on.
- Work with your team to develop consistent messaging and assign official spokespeople.
- Stay in touch with your customers regularly and give them an easy way to ask questions or voice concerns.
- Don’t answer questions you don’t have answers for, and consult a legal team when necessary.
- Use the right tools to communicate with your audience. Some options include calling, texting, email, direct mail, website updates, and social media. Choose the communication system that makes sense for your customers.
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