COVID working models during and after the pandemic – As we enter level 3 what does the working environment look like from a SHE point of view

COVID working models during and after the pandemic – As we enter level 3 what does the working environment look like from a SHE point of view
Sello Malete, Head of Regulatory Affairs, Quality Assurance, SHE (Safety, Health and the Environment) and Facilities at Roche Diagnostics

Johannesburg, 28 July 2021 – Sello Malete, Head of Regulatory Affairs, Quality Assurance, SHE (Safety, Health and the Environment) and Facilities at Roche Diagnostics, shares insight into new ways of working that have been shaped by the pandemic, and how mindsets continue to shift towards new working models that may well be here to stay. 

Accommodating ‘residents’ and ‘travellers’

“In the new world, which was largely pushed ahead by COVID, we have a combination of two types of workers returning to the office as lockdown measures are eased: ‘residents’ – or people who will need to be in the office for up to four days at a time – and ‘travellers’ – who come in and out of the workspace on a rotational or needs-based system.

“In moving into a semi-rotational system to accommodate both types of workers, it falls to us to plan the new office structure in such a way that safety protocols are strictly adhered to, while we accommodate every type of office worker, and booking systems that allow a certain number of people into the office in safety at a time are becoming commonplace.

“Besides the obvious safety factors, though, security and emergency management, health, environmental protection requirements and travel policies must all be factored in too, in the interest of creating the kind of work environment we and our staff members need – both inside and outside the office premises.

“Planning is a lengthy and detailed process, which requires a lot of consultation and thought. It is not as simple as just ensuring that there are sanitisation stations and adequate spacing between desks. Cleaning strategies need to be changed, seating plans need to be revised and several other methods need to be adopted to stay compliant.

Mental health – no longer a ‘soft issue’

“It doesn’t stop at the office premises. For those who spend a portion or even all their time working remotely, we must remind the workforce and managers about the benefits, pitfalls and legalities of working from home. There are many restrictions and parameters to take into account. At management level, leadership styles have to adapt to working within the hybrid model – and respecting the way it works – and factors like employees’ physical and mental health, mindfulness and resilience cannot be ignored. These are no longer ‘softer’ concerns.

“The employee’s productivity is directly linked to their nutritional requirements, social wellbeing and quality of life. As such, it becomes our responsibility to put measures in place to manage these factors, irrespective of where we are and even though staff are not in the office, where it would have been our responsibility.

“There are many practicalities that need to be put into place. New ways of working can follow global principles in terms of the universal workspace model, which factors in how you – and remote employees – plan the office and how the office is equipped with everything that is needed to ensure that workers are safe throughout the day.

“Introducing a mental health programme for employees who work in isolation is one of the most vital safety and health protocols. In fact, in my experience, when we start considering a hybrid model, it is a must-have. All over the world, employers have found that keeping people motivated when working remotely, where they have the benefit of freedom and flexibility, is not necessarily the challenge.

“In many cases, remote workers are more productive. The mindset has changed for employers, who may have been sceptical before. Since lockdown was announced, accountability is on the rise in employees who don’t work from the office, and many have comfortably acclimatised to the new norm.

Blurring between work and home life

“This in itself, however, has given rise to a whole new challenge for employees. It has now become common for the distinction between home and work life to become blurred. Employees are not getting enough rest and finding the work-life balance they need. And it is so important that that the distinction is made between work time and personal or family time in the interest of personal and mental health.

“Even if work is at home, people need to find ways of staying refreshed, to maintain the individual power they have to muster to control their state of mind. Ergonomics and comfort are paramount. And this is an area in which employers can help, in providing office chairs and/or equipment that make the employee’s job easier.

“Coupled with comfort, taking breaks is imperative. I have often observed that individuals who work at home don’t take regular breaks, and spend longer hours indoors, rarely getting any exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D deficiencies from less exposure to the sun are a real factor when you spend more time indoors. And self-care – whether at the office or at home – is as much a productivity tool as financial remuneration.

“As such, we as employers have the duty to remind staff members to look after themselves. We can remind employees to be accountable for their calendars and be mindful of lunchbreaks, nutrition and rest periods. It is important for us to keep employees resilient and provide education on self-care. As an organisation, I have found that, at Roche, we have many high achievers. And sometimes that is to their own detriment. Balance is key.

Social Interaction at the office 

“Back at the office, the same non-negotiables should apply when designing the hybrid or post-COVID workspace. In the interest of mental health and wellbeing, collaboration is important, even when social distancing is present. Social interaction is a necessary part of working and we need people to have areas they can escape to, in order to focus. Areas that support interaction and rest must also be factored in.

“The change we have seen during COVID is ongoing. And even as vaccinations begin to curb global infection rates, we are far from seeing the end of the transformation. The evolution of the workplace is likely to continue, far beyond COVID, and it is up to us as employers to keep our staff happy, healthy and safe, no matter where they may be working”.