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How to manage the new remote workplace

The COVID-19 global pandemic has had a significant impact on businesses within Australia. Laws and restrictions implemented by the federal and state governments have created a necessary change to the way in which we work, resulting in a substantial increase in the number of employees working remotely. Generally lauded to offer flexibility and productivity, working remotely can actually have an adverse effect on a business and workers if not managed well. This unprecedented shift towards remote working has occurred rather abruptly out of necessity, and the haste in which employers have needed to implement new processes and considerations is at risk of causing a number of larger issues within organisations. 

Organisational psychologist Dr. Sarah Cotton has worked with a number of businesses as they manage the transition of their workforces. She recommends that employers carefully evaluate existing and new working arrangements, and provide support to their people as the company business model shifts to offer remote working for their staff. 

Retail employees in particular, will generally require regular contact with colleagues, customers and suppliers as part of their role, and employers need to consider how best to continue to manage and nurture these relationships using a changed approach.

“It is important that we recognise that workers will not only adjust to remote working in different ways, but are also likely to be managing varying personal non-work-related responsibilities during this time,” Dr. Cotton suggests.

Managing the new juggle

The same laws and restrictions that have moved people from their usual work environment to the home study or the family dining room table, have an impact on their families and broader responsibilities, such as caring for older family members or school aged children.    

Younger children and availability of childcare may also be a new factor if people choose to continue sending them in, with many centres closing or offering modified hours. Workers who have worked remotely previously will also be exposed to this same range of challenges due to the impact that COVID-19 has on their family structure and support networks.

Employers will usually offer practical support such as internet access or other tools, but must also consider the transition for their worker from an emotional health perspective. An employer continues to be responsible for the health and safety of their workers, regardless of any change to their working location and any changes to their role or responsibilities as a result of this move.

WorkSafe Victoria reminds employers that they have a responsibility to identify and control risks that may arise when an employee moves to a working-from-home arrangement, including the suitability of the tasks that the employee is required to complete, the environment in which they are working, and their emotional welfare. 

It is important that managers remember that workers are managing multiple responsibilities, and many will have had a large number of life changes occur within a short period of time. People may not only be adjusting to working remotely, a significant transition in itself, but may also have had other changes occurring within their household (such as a spouse or children with changed work and schooling arrangements), and it may take some time for them to adjust to this ‘new normal’ at home. 

Ask your staff what will work for them, such as managing either a morning or afternoon workload. What day might work best to facilitate the regular team meeting?  Consider that many people may also be juggling single parenting with shared custody arrangements for children, all of which can impact a someone’s availability and productivity at certain times.

In this ever-changing environment, businesses need to evolve and adapt to adequately support workers as they fulfil their job responsibilities and meet personal and family needs. UNICEF recommends applying good practices (creating and implementing policies that provide sufficient support), and focusing on providing guidance and training to workers around maintaining optimal physical and mental health. Their recent report concentrates on the importance of ensuring that workers have the opportunity to support their families at this time. 

Employers can provide access to employee assistance programs, while also linking staff to relevant services that may be able to deliver other forms of support, such as financial counselling.

Consider introducing additional flexible work arrangements; these could include paid sick leave, reduced hours, and/or shared roles. If you choose to consider these, it is important to provide training and support that may be needed to facilitate these changes. Keep in mind that your workers may need to develop existing skills or learn entirely new ones. They may also require support to use online communication tools and training to learn how to access online courses including online databases or the company intranet.

Stay in touch

Social isolation can cause feelings of anxiety and loneliness, and it is vital that employers recognise this. An enormous range of online products are available to help workers stay connected, however these are unlikely to ever replicate the levels of engagement of face-to-face contact. Encourage staff to check in regularly, and remind them of the importance of setting boundaries and staying connected during the adjustment period. Advocating self-care and educating workers to recognise signs of poor mental health may help to minimise the risk of developing mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression, poor sleep quality and irritability. An inability to cope with everyday tasks can indicate a decline in quality of mental health. 

The Perinatal Workplace Wellbeing Program (PWWP), funded by WorkSafe’s WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund, is a useful resource for employers and workers who are making the shift to working remotely, while also juggling other demands. WorkSafe Victoria and the Australian Government also offer updates for businesses and individuals on managing changes within the workforce at this time. 

In this constantly changing environment, be clear as you manage worker expectations and communicate changes. Keeping employees updated can help workers to feel valued at a time when there is constant change, and may help them develop a sense of control at a time when many workers have been pushed into a remote working setup involuntarily.

As part of creating a healthy and supportive environment, businesses need to assess existing workplace policies and determine their current relevance, making changes so that these documents can provide a sufficient base to the organisation as they move forward. Changes to existing practices will almost certainly need to be made within many businesses at this time, to ensure their continued viability and relevance in the market landscape.

Rachell Bugeja is project administrator at Transitioning Well, which helps shape and support parental leave, work-life and mature-age transitions and provides services to fit the needs of organisations and employees. Visit:

This story is from the May 2020 issue of Inside Retail magazine. Subscribe here

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