Rethinking the Workplace
Australia is undergoing a social and economic experiment that will rival the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. After more than 18 months of measures designed to curb and crush the virus, some states have conceded it is nigh on impossible to suppress the virulent Delta strain — and that ‘living with the virus’ is the path forward.
For WA, watching this unfold east of the rabbit-proof fence, with no restrictions or masks, and little fear, there are lessons to be learned: not only about what could happen if the virus re-enters the State, but about how businesses, government and institutions should prepare for when it does.
Rethinking the workplace
In mid-September, Perth was already back to the same level of activity in workplaces as seen in February 2020 according to Google’s excellent COVID community activity tracker. In contrast, Melbourne and Sydney remain about 25% below that target.
Keeping your people safe at work when COVID is in the community will require more than just masks. It will become important to think about how we de-risk the workplace as much as possible, using everything we have learned about the virus and how it spreads.
Now that the aerosol spread of COVID is understood, the challenge of limiting that spread in traditional workplaces has become clear.
American data shows the food and agricultural sectors to be among the most deadly for at least the first variants of the virus, with cooks more likely to die than any other occupation.
Packing and filling machine workers are next, then agricultural workers, even — it seems — those working outside.
Recent studies of the outbreaks in NSW and Victoria point to the staff tea room as a hotspot for worker spread, including among essential workers at hospitals, on construction sites or at railway workers.
There are different reasons why the virus might spread more easily in different workplaces, ranging from temperatures that might allow the virus to live longer on surfaces, to the relative proximity of workers, to the likelihood people are having to shout to communicate over the sound of machinery.
Some of those factors can be mitigated, by increasing the amount of space between workers, for example, or by reducing the need to yell to be heard.
Another critical factor that has become part of the discussion for safer workplaces is ventilation.
Since March, the World Health Organisation has been pushing for non-residential settings to have a minimum ventilation rate of 10 litres per second per person — and up to 15l/s in some spaces. That’s roughly in line with Australian Building Codes, but researchers suggest the standard is not always met.
Another proxy for good ventilation is the amount of CO2 in the room.
“If it starts exceeding 550 to 600ppm I’d say there’s becoming a problem because there’s a combination of CO2 and potentially a virus. If I see 800ppm I would already be worried about infection transmission,” Professor Lidia Morawska, quoted in The New Daily.
Outdoor levels of CO2 should be about 400 to 415 parts per million. Indoors, the goal is to be as close to 600ppm as possible, according to Australian researcher Lidia Morawska, a distinguished professor in the University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
What should businesses do to rethink the physical environment?
As with other workplace changes, it helps to start by consulting with your people about what they want and what you need. Keeping people across the steps you are taking to ensure their safety can help reduce anxiety, and also builds trust — which will be critical in the months and years to come.
Considering low-cost measures, like HEPA filter air purifiers or CO2 monitors as a proxy for ventilation are a sensible option to investigate, but so is creating a culture in which people feel they can hold walking meetings or work outside if they are uncomfortable in close quarters.
For businesses looking to rethink the workplace altogether — by moving to a hybrid or remote work model, by splitting teams or some other change to reduce risk — embedding ways to ensure people can continue to communicate with each other and with their leaders is key to reducing internal friction and keeping engagement high.
Life After 80: A Cannings Purple White Paper
Life After 80 is a white paper with a difference. It is our chance to look at life after the 80% double-vaccinated threshold is reached, the minimum level before WA is likely to lower its hard borders.
Read it below or download it here.