Recalibrate your business to the ‘new normal’ of work

Tuesday May 19 2020

A man checks a woman’s temperature. Before

A man checks a woman’s temperature. Before anyone steps foot in the office, they should have their temperature checked. PHOTO BY Abubaker Lubowa 

By Dorothy Nakaweesi

We have been under lockdown for seven weeks now. When will it be safe to end the lockdown?
It will never be safe for as long as the virus is still with us. But we cannot live under lockdown for ever. We must open and learn to live with the virus. The lockdown was not meant to cure or eradicate Covid-19. It was meant to slow down it’s spread so as not to overwhelm our health system. This was the case with all the other lockdowns everywhere in the world. For example, in the UK, the government’s message was very direct. Stay Safe, Protect the National Health System (NHS), Save Lives. The UK government was telling its citizens that by staying home, you protect the health system from being overwhelmed.
We have stayed home for now close to seven weeks. As a result, we have been very successful in slowing down the spread of the virus in our country. People are now fully sensitised about the dangers of this virus and what they need to do to stay safe. We have also used the lockdown period to equip our health system and prepare it for the fight against the virus. Now is the time to lift the lockdown fully, open the economy so that we can get on with our new lives of living with this virus.

Recently, we saw the gradual lifting of the lockdown on some sectors of the economy. When do you expect the whole economy be opened?
I predict that most of the economy will be reopened when the current 14-day extension of the lockdown ends. However, I expect some sectors such as schools, universities, hospitality and entertainment businesses to stay closed for some time as government works with stakeholders to agree on new protocols that will ensure social distancing in those sectors. Even though offices, shops, transport sector are reopened, we should remember that the virus is still with us. So, we cannot go back to the old ways of doing things.
As such, we must do things differently, especially in the offices where many of us work. All businesses will need to implement new safeguards in their workplace to ensure the safety of their staff, customers and clients.

What is your advice to businesses as they prepare reopen their workplaces?
Health and safety must be the top priority for any business leader who is preparing to bring people back to the workplace. You will need to put new safety measures in place, and this may require reconfiguring the workspace. Gone are the days of cramming as many workstations into a room as possible. To reduce the risk of infection, we must continue social distancing for the foreseeable future. This means workstations should be at least two meters apart.
Everyone in the workplace will be expected to wear a face mask. We will need to post signs everywhere in the workplace reminding staff, visitors, clients, and customers to wash their hands frequently with soap and water and provide numerous hand sanitiser stations in the workplace.
Cleaning the workplace will become everybody’s responsibility. We all know now that keeping surfaces and spaces clean and sanitised goes a long way in keeping us safe from the virus. Therefore, everyone at the workplace, from the CEO down to the most junior employee will be expected to pitch in. You will need to keep sanitisers and alcohol wipes around the office and keep reminding people to clean their work surfaces at least once an hour. Social distancing is key to weathering the Covid-19 storm. Businesses should limit the number of people in the workplace at any one time. Before anyone steps foot in the office, they should have their temperature checked.

Will remote working going be part of the ‘new normal’?
Yes, it will. Remote working is going to be very important as we aim to limit the number of people in the workplace at any one time. Businesses will need to identify which employees need to come to work, after the lockdown is lifted. They will also have to think of how the people will be able to commute to the office without exposing themselves and their colleagues at work to danger. For office-based workers, this may mean people coming to the office in staggered shifts. It will be important to ensure these shifts do not mix or overlap, to avoid cross infections between shifts.
All people who can work remotely should continue to do so. Some people have also realised that they get more done in the peace and comfort of their homes than in the office. Therefore, if employees want to work from home, facilitate them to work effectively from home.

Yes, government needs to lift the lockdown and open the economy, but how best can this be done?
We cannot just open and return to our old way of doing things. In the last two weeks, the government has been testing an average of about 2,000 people every day of which nearly 80 per cent are foreign truck drivers. All the others are imported cases of truck drivers from Kenya and Tanzania.
The next phase is be build capacity within our health system to detect, test, isolate and treat every Covid-19 case that may come up in the future, and contact tracing.
The authorities must be able to trace contacts of any known infection wherever they maybe. Should there be a local outbreak in anywhere in the country, the front-line medical staff and security agencies should be able to respond very quickly and if necessary, lockdown those local hotspots within the country without the need to lockdown the whole country again. There must be continuous sensitisation of the public about the dangers of this virus and communities must remain vigilant under this ‘new normal.’

The lockdown must be affecting people in many ways. What should employers expect from their employees when they return to the workplace? 
There is a lot of research done so far that confirms that the lockdown is affecting the mental wellbeing of some people. There are employees who have struggled to cope, and are feeling lonely, anxious, insecure and depressed. Others who have managed to continue working remotely from home are also struggling with balancing family life at home with home schooling while doing their work. This has left them very stressed and exhausted. There will also be anxiety about the continued health crisis and fear of infection when people return to work.
Some employees may also be afraid to return to work, especially those that commute to work by the very busy and congested public transport system. Employers must put in place a robust staff welfare and support system to deal with all these staff issues. For example, companies should consider providing staff with access to professional counsellors. Employees should be encouraged to set up informal discussion sessions for them to share experiences and support one another.
Employers must communicate to staff the steps the organisation is taking to reduce the risk of the virus infection and transmission in the workplace. Returning staff may need re-orientation and re-induction, about the ‘new normal’, where focus is on health, safety and wellbeing of everyone in the workplace.

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What is your advice to fellow business leaders in this ‘new normal’?
The ‘new normal’ is going to require a new type of leadership. People are going to come back very different and will be expected to be handled and treated very differently. I don’t think life will ever be the same again. Employees will expect their employers and companies to be more compassionate and humane. Business leaders will have to show more empathy, be open and transparent, and more trusting of their employees.
Weeks spent at home have forced people to become more reflective. People are now talking about their purpose. They will expect their employers to have a purpose as well, and that purpose cannot be just to make more money. Work is no longer a place where people go every morning. It is what people do. Therefore, do not expect people to come to work in order to work. People will work wherever they are. What is important is what they are doing and what is the result and output .
Employees who have been able to work effectively from home may not be keen on giving up that flexibility and their newfound freedom. This means we should expect an increase in requests for flexible working arrangements. After the successful experience, we have all had in the last seven weeks, managers may find it harder than ever to justify rejecting such requests. I believe that an increase in remote working, agility and flexibility will be one long-lasting benefits to come from this Covid-19 pandemic.
In conclusion, while we are all counting down the days until the lockdown is lifted and we go back to work, we should remember that the transition for employees back to work could be as difficult as the shift to working from home was. My advice to business leaders is, start thinking now about how you can adjust your old ways of working to make the working environment safer and more fit for purpose for your staff, visitors and customers in this ‘new normal’.

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