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How retail employers can prepare their staff for a safe return to work

The National Cabinet has anticipations of reopening Australia in July. This is good news for many, especially retail workers. 

But before the thousands of Australian retail workers who were stood down get back to work, employers need to take critical steps to keep them safe and make them feel comfortable. 

How to prepare for a safe return to work

Understand your obligations as an employer

Before you start making any plans or open any doors for workers to return to work, it’s important to grasp what your responsibilities are as an employer. Work and Health Safety (WHS) laws were established prior to the pandemic and require employers to take care of workers’ health, safety and welfare as they get back to work. 

Safe Work Australia (SWA) has outlined specific COVID-19 safe workplace principles that you should familiarise yourself with before welcome employees back. These include parameters like social distancing, hygiene, sanitation, and emergency response plans. 

If one of your workers does fall ill, each state and territory health authority will have guidelines to follow in terms of addressing it. Additionally, you’ll need to thoroughly clean and disinfect the entire workplace before anyone can return.

Cleaning and sanitation

This is a big one for employers and employees alike. First, let’s consider the difference between cleaning and sanitising. According to SWA, cleaning is when you physically remove germs (bacteria and viruses), dirt and grime from surfaces using a detergent and water solution. Disinfecting is using chemicals to kill those germs. 

So, which do you need? Both. WHS recommends employers clean and then disinfect areas. 

Pay extra attention to surfaces that are frequently touched by workers and/or customers — cash registers, any POS stations, barcode scanners, door handles, changing room locks, hangers, displays, computers, etc. 

SWA has a cleaning guide you can print, share and reference as you go through the workplace. The Department of Health also has a list of recommendations for cleaning and disinfecting. 

Setting up the space

More than likely, your retail business is going to need some changes to the physical space. Specifically, social distancing requires a minimum of 1.5 metres between people. The Department of Health also requires four square metres of space for each individual.

The layout of your store will need to accommodate that space, which may require fewer displays and racks. Put physical markings on the floor — especially in locations where shoppers typically line up, like at the register or entrance. 

Ideally, you’ll be able to operate the business outdoors (e.g. in an open-air market or at a stall). But this isn’t always feasible. You could look to creative fulfillment models like curbside pickup or home delivery. 

Other key considerations for retailers: 

  • POS: Introduce contactless pay to reduce human-to-human and human-to-surface interactions. Many retailers are also installing plexi-glass partitions.
  • Dressing rooms: Apparel retailers will also more than likely need to eliminate changing rooms. On the plus side, you can repurpose this space to make more room for social distancing.
  • Sanitising stations: You’ll need these for staff and customers alike, ideally at the entrance/exit and POS. 
  • Break rooms: Like dressing rooms, many businesses are eliminating staff break rooms. 

Employee training

This is new for everyone, and your staff needs help adjusting to the new requirements for their roles. Provide training, processes and procedures documentation, signage and other information about how to stay safe during COVID-19. 

It’s important to do more than just post signage and offer training — you’ll want to take a personal approach and show support for your team. Mental health is important, and SWA has a full suite of resources to help you navigate. 

Related: Coronavirus: How HR leaders from Apple, Google and Nike are responding >

There are going to be a lot of questions from shoppers when your workers return to work. Anticipate these questions and provide scripts for your staff to use. Do the same for new ones that come in. Provide clear, written protocols on how to handle difficult or uncomfortable situations. 

Appoint a health and safety representative

Your staff can elect one or more health and safety representatives (HSRs) to represent their interests. HSRs can consult employers and then advise workers to cease work if there are unsafe conditions, including anything related to COVID-19. 

Reduce risk for workers

Employers have many responsibilities to do everything they can to keep staff safe on the job. New standards include staggered start teams and employer-provided personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, masks and sanitising products. 

Keep your vulnerable staff in mind too. SWA categorizes the following as vulnerable

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 50 years and older with one or more chronic medical conditions
  • People 65 years and older with one or more chronic medical conditions
  • People 70 years and older
  • People with compromised immune systems

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has special provisions for vulnerable workers. This includes a risk assessment to determine if they need a change in role or absence. 

How to start hiring again

According to data from Candor, B2C companies and apparel and footwear brands have had the most layoffs. As businesses reopen and slowly pick up steam, you’re going to need to replace those furloughed workers, either with former employees or new ones. 

Once you know how many workers you need to run your store, you need to determine who those people are. Vulnerable workers have clearer guidelines in terms of what they can and cannot do, but there’s more to it than that. 

Start out by asking your workforce who wants to come back. Reiterate that any lack of desire to return to the workplace will not be used against them. Again, it’s important to make staff feel supported at this time. From there, you can determine whether you need more (or fewer) workers and how to manage scheduling and hiring. 

If you need to hire new staff, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment has a page where employers can list vacancies and get help finding candidates. 

Automate your new hire onboarding

We all have a lot going on right now, balancing our ever-changing normalcy with such difficult-to-predict circumstances. Even during “normal” times, complex onboarding processes are a major deterrent for new hires. In fact, convoluted onboarding is a key reason why 30% of workers leave an organisation within the first 90 days. 

One way to make the onboarding process less daunting for new hires and HR staff alike is to automate what you can. HR automation tools like Flare can eliminate paperwork, manage employee integration, provide the right training, and make everything go more quickly. Get a free demo of our HR software and onboarding software which is free for a limited time to support businesses who are returning to work.

Getting safely back to work

Reopening brings hope for retail businesses country-wide, and with it comes many concerns and responsibilities for employers and workers alike. As employers, it’s important to make the transition as smoothly as possible for staff, while offering them mental support along the way. 

For more advice on HR during COVID-19, we’ve listed a guide to the best free resources.

How to build an effective employee wellness program

It’s no surprise to see that employee wellness programs are on the rise. With absenteeism costing the Australian economy over $32.5 billion each year, companies are looking for ways to minimise the costs and better support the well-being of their employees. The disruptive effects of COVID-19 have made the need for these programs even clearer. 

However, as you’ll learn in this blog post, there’s more to an employee wellness program than subsidised gym memberships and free health screenings. We’ll explain how to build one that your employees actually utilise and has the flexibility to accommodate diverse work situations – including the one we face today with the pandemic. 

Why invest in wellness programs?

Up until the late 20th century, work was about bringing home a paycheck. Employees clocked in at 9 a.m., clocked out at 5 p.m., and went home to their families. The line between work and home was clear. Today, our approach to work looks drastically different. 

Now the majority of employees will spend one-third of their adult lives at work. Technology allows us to take our work anywhere and blurs the line between the office and the home. We also rely on work as a source of identity, socialisation, and personal development. Employers are recognising this shift and acknowledge that they need to take responsibility for the well-being of their workforce. 

However, there’s one problem. Many studies point to the fact that wellness programs don’t actually work. But the problem lies – not with wellness programs themselves – but as a result of companies not taking a holistic approach to them. This is a problem that can be addressed by being more strategic when building employee wellness programs. 

Guidelines to build an effective employee wellness program

To build an effective wellness program, companies need to focus on four pillars: financial, emotional, physical, and social. Having initiatives that map to each of these pillars will help you build a more holistic program and more easily measure the outcome of each one. Let’s explore the pillars in depth below.

Financial

Financial health is a core component of wellness but, unfortunately, one that’s frequently overlooked. To understand why financial wellness needs to serve as the foundation for every wellness program, consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For those who aren’t familiar, the hierarchy is typically represented as a pyramid with five levels of needs: physiological, safety, love/belonging, self esteem, and self actualisation. The theory is that people need to fulfill their basic needs (physiological) before moving on to their higher, more advanced needs (self actualisation).

Having enough money to meet basic needs, such as buying groceries and paying rent, falls under the category of physiological needs. This means financial wellness is necessary to achieve before addressing the other pillars. Given that 1 in 5 Australians have less than $1,000 in savings, it’s clear that the financial health of employees needs to be a priority when building an employee wellness program. 

There are many initiatives you can introduce to help your employees prioritise their financial health, such as:  

  • Educational programs on topics like saving for key milestones and developing healthy financial habits
  • Encourage additional superannuation contributions
  • Financial planning services and tools to help employees map out their goals 
  • Real-time payments to make money management easier

Emotional

Untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion per year. But it goes beyond just costs. Employees struggling with mental health issues face many other consequences: they may have trouble performing at work, experience isolation, and find their personal and professional relationships negatively impacted. 

All of these side effects lead to unhappy, unproductive workers. As Josh Bersin describes: “if you want to make your employees “well” and “happy” you have to make it easy for them to do quality work.” One way to do this is to provide employees with the tools and resources they need to not only manage their existing mental health problems, but also proactively address them before they become more serious.

Here are a few mental health initiatives to consider offering: 

  • Counselling or coaching services (virtual and in-person)
  • Mental health resources on how to build resilience, unplug from work, and manage stress
  • Meditation or mindfulness apps 
  • A flexible leave policy that allows for mental health days

Physical

Most companies are already aware of the importance of physical health. But there are an overwhelming number of initiatives to choose from. The best way to choose? Ask your employees. Each workforce is different – for example, some may have more deskless workers or remote workers than others – and your wellness program should be customised to what your employees actually need. 

But if you need some ideas to help you get started, here are a few physical health initiatives to consider: 

  • Subsidised gym memberships or fitness classes
  • Flexible wellness budget that can cover everything from physical therapy sessions to running shoes
  • Preventive health offerings, such as health screenings and vaccinations
  • Private health insurance
  • Onsite activities and programs that get employees moving

Social

Finally, it’s critical for companies to recognise that their employees have a life outside the office. People need to connect with their loved ones and engage in non-work related hobbies to feel fulfilled. But employees may not feel like they have the time or space to do so, which is why companies need to create those opportunities for them. Not only does this lead to happier, more balanced individuals, but it also allows employees to be more present when they’re at work.

To give employees the time and space to cultivate their lives outside of the office, there are a few offerings you can introduce: 

  • Remote work or flexible schedules
  • Subsidised child care or pet care services
  • Experiential rewards that allow employees to participate in an activity of their choice
  • Unlimited leave policy 

If your company has been on the fence about introducing an employee wellness program, there has never been a better time to take action. Even after COVID-19 passes, the needs of employees will still remain the same. We believe all employers have a responsibility to support their workforce with a holistic approach to wellness – which means recognising all areas of worker’s health including the four pillars of wellness we reviewed in this article.

If you or your employees are in need of support during this time, be sure to check out The Flare Wellness Network, a free wellness hub designed to support Australian workers by giving them access to free benefits and offers, while encouraging businesses to partner together in an effort to support the wellbeing of the Australian workforce.