How The Workplace Will Change After Lockdown

We might be gradually getting back to the office, but that doesn’t mean we’re back to business as usual. Since President Ramaphosa announced the easing of lockdown, South Africans have been looking forward to reopening their businesses again – at least, those businesses that fall under lockdown level 3.

As some of us return to our offices, we must consider: what does a post-lockdown workplace look like?

Industry After Lockdown

As if South Africa needed any further incentive to hop on the Industry 4.0 bandwagon. This recent period of strict lockdown has revealed how effectively connectivity and cloud-based data-sharing make the Fourth Industrial Revolution possible. Many employers and entrepreneurs are more than eager to embrace this system.

Once this lockdown comes to a complete end, we may see these big changes to local businesses:

  • Using technological accelerators for things like seminars
  • Spike in entrepreneurs and business innovations
  • Increase in decentralised work environments

Organisations’ approach to this lockdown situation seem to fall into two categories: survival or re-invention. The former is simply trying to put in place whatever measures will keep their company afloat financially. The latter, however, recognises this as an opportunity to automate and streamline processes and optimise their work force. During this lockdown, we have seen increased use of online platforms to conduct meetings, lectures, seminars, and more. And all while saving on the travel costs for such events!

That said, this system is still far from perfect. Businesses that would want to maintain it post-lockdown will have to make practical amendments to employee contracts. These changes would specifically impact disciplinary processes and the definition of misconduct among other aspects. And while technology speeds ahead, you should have your company lawyer catch you up on how to upgrade employees’ contracts.

However, not all jobs can be done from home. So, what’s there to do for more hands-on professions? What about those guys, who cannot avoid operating in close quarters and similar breeding grounds for the virus?

Safety Measures In The New Workplace

Just because we’re slowly coming out of lockdown – one level at a time – doesn’t mean COVID-19 is no longer a threat. With a COVID-19 vaccine still at least a year away, companies must work to provide and promote measures that prevent the spread of this virus among the employees. Employees are expected to wear masks, even as the lockdown levels and restrictions gradually decrease. Companies will also have to make room in their budgets to supply their workspaces with hand sanitiser and soap.

Then we must also contend with the dangerous possibility of discrimination based on diagnosis, while also following through on the incapacity process (when an employee is unable to work due to illness or injury) as stated in South African common law. At the end of the day, a business owner’s main priority is to prevent the further spread of this virus.

COVID-19 Sick Leave

The question of specialised coronavirus sick leave has been raised by many employees. However, it would appear that, for the most part, regular sick leave conditions apply.

However, employers and management-level employees must consider the following before approving an employee’s sick leave or insisting the employee be tested for the virus:

  • displays symptoms (e.g. dry cough, headaches, fever, etc.)
  • has recently been exposed to an infected person
  • lives in or frequents high-risk areas

Of course, the employee in question must still be seen and tested by a licensed medical practitioner. However, what changes is that the employee must be quarantined for 14 days. When applying for COVID-19 sick leave, employees can reach an agreement with their employer in place of a sick note. However, if the employee must be quarantined for longer than 14 days, they must produce a medical certificate of incapacity.

For the safety of other employees, the infected co-worker may not return to the workplace until the quarantine duration has passed. As such, an employer cannot force a sick employee to return to work, if said employee has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Say It, Don’t Spray It: Communication Remains A Priority

The only thing that should spread in an office environment is iron-clad, reliable, internal information from management to staff. You might be forced to reduce salaries, force leave, or in the worst case, retrench some of your staff. However, any decision you make must first be communicated clearly with every employee.

According to the Labour Relations Act, the employer’s responsibility doesn’t simply end with the communication of potential changes to the company. Every person, who is affected by these changes, must have an opportunity to have their say.

Even if management makes these decisions doing lockdown, they must communicate them with every person on the payroll. The consultation process (receiving and negotiating feedback from employees, and potentially, a lawyer) must be followed before anything is implemented. Unless consultation happens during lockdown, you may not apply any of your changes on your first day back at work.

If you choose to go through with the termination of an employee’s contract without undertaking this consultation process, said employee would be well within their rights to take you to court. This is one of the many occasions when having a lawyer on your company’s side is worth the affordable monthly premium. Get a quote today!

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