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How companies and workers can fight the spread of coronavirus at work

Working from home, regularly cleaning shared office space and providing hand sanitiser where there is no soap and water are some of the steps that can limit the spread of coronavirus. Stock photo.
Working from home, regularly cleaning shared office space and providing hand sanitiser where there is no soap and water are some of the steps that can limit the spread of coronavirus. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF / Diego_cervo

Encourage staff to work from home if possible, give sick employees time off, limit travel and create a safe working environment. 

These are some of the suggestions people are talking about after the arrival of the coronavirus in South Africa.

Linda Trim, director at workplace design specialists Giant Leap, said even before the outbreak there had been a "cultural paradigm shift" and growing acceptance of "working from anywhere", even by established companies such as Amazon and Apple. 

“The coronavirus has accelerated this trend,” said Trim. “It’s giving us a glimpse into the future, when even more people are expected to work from home.

“It will likely prove a real-time litmus test not only to see if businesses can carry on functioning effectively during an emergency event, but also if companies could give their employees more freedom from the office in the future.” 

She said workers could check in and communicate with each other using tools such as e-mail, WhatsApp, Skype and Zoom. 

“Other tools include Google Drive, which is a cloud storage platform that keeps files in one secure and centralised location. Remote workers can store and share documents, spreadsheets and slide presentations,” said Trim.

“For large files that are too big for regular e-mail, Dropbox offers features for managing remote employees who can sync, share and collaborate on documents.”

John Botha, COO of Global Business Solutions, said it was important for employers to maintain a safe working environment.

He gave the following labour advice on how companies should navigate the situation should a member of staff be diagnosed with the virus.

  • Extend sick leave by paying 25% less and extending the time off by 25%.
  • Consider a leave progression for extended periods of absence such as first exhausting sick leave, then annual leave (by agreement) and then unpaid leave with UIF claims
  • If needed, outsourced workers (who have been appropriately screened) could be arranged to cover the jobs of absent employees while they recuperate.

Botha stressed, however, that it was important for companies to ensure employees did not take advantage of the leave system during this period.

“Specific protocols need to be put in place to ensure events such as absenteeism are in fact associated with the coronavirus, and that there is regular interaction between the parties to monitor recuperation as well as when the employees are fit to return to work. Any abuse of the situation needs to be identified and dealt with in terms of usual labour relations practices,” Botha said.

He also mentioned sick employees staying home and possibly working remotely.

“Be flexible if employees need to care for family members in this context, and extend family responsibility leave and other forms of leave should the situation call for it,” he said.

Law firm ENS said considering the manner in which the virus was transmitted, and how easily and quickly it spread across the world, it was understandable that employers were concerned about it spreading among the workforce.

The company’s Lauren Salt said employers should be pulling out all the stops to ensure their workforce avoided the outbreak.

Ensuring shared work spaces were cleaned regularly and placing hand sanitisers in shared places that did not have soap and water were among the measures that should be taken. 

ENS said employees should be encouraged to disclose if they have had any symptoms similar to that of the coronavirus.

Workers were advised to minimise travel, especially to areas with confirmed cases of coronavirus.

“Ultimately, to manage the coronavirus epidemic effectively in the workplace, it is vital that employers confront it head-on in a proactive, context-responsive and precautionary manner, while making an effort to contain panic as much as they do the virus,” said Salt.

"If there are reported cases of the coronavirus in the workplace, immediately contact the department of health or a known medical official to inform them that the workplace has been compromised so it can be reported to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases," she said.

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