’Slow and steady’: Returning to work responsibly

HRD spoke to the head of HR at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute on their organisational response to COVID-19

’Slow and steady’: Returning to work responsibly

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the challenge of a lifetime for many HR professionals, particularly those with staff who cannot easily work from home.

One such organisation is the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute (VCCRI), whose workforce comprises scientists who typically spend their days in labs.

Founded in the memory of the famous cardiac surgeon, the research hub is home to more than 20 labs and has become a world-class research and training facility.

Maria Voukenas, head of human resources at the VCCRI, told HRD that the scientists who are computational-based were able to transition smoothly to remote working from the onset of the pandemic.

However, the majority of scientists are lab-based and WFH was clearly not an option.

Consequently, in preparation for the lockdown, the VCCRI asked all Laboratory heads to review their research projects.

“Any projects that could be placed on hold without compromising research outcomes were paused. If that wasn’t an option, laboratory heads submitted an application to the executive and essential research was approved,” said Voukenas.

“In addition, we had to closely review the number of scientists working together in a lab and implement a rostering system. Our employees are very passionate about their studies and conducting experiments is core to what they do. To restrict lab time was a significant professional and personal challenge for many but it was incredible to watch just how flexible staff were.”

The VCCRI also commenced studies into COVID-19, some staff pivoting from non-essential research work to form a COVID research taskforce.

“In line with Government restrictions, essential staff were issued with letters, so they could continue to come to the Institute during the lockdown.”

“Increased handwashing stations were installed throughout the laboratories for those that were required to be at work. In the peak of the pandemic cleaning your hands was a sign of respect for one another and the community. At the Institute, it was a symbolic act, a sign staff were looking after one another and protecting our research projects from closure.”

Scientists aside, it was a different story for the corporate services side of VCCRI (such as HR and finance), whose staff were able to switch to remote working without an issue.

 Road map back to work
As restrictions lifted from July, many of the VCCRI staff began returning to work accordingly. However, the Institute still encourages those who can work from home to do so and incorporate some time back in the office with colleagues. This is left to each individual and their manager.

“Every staff member and visitor must be temperature-checked upon arrival at the Institute and declare if they have visited any of the hotspots” said Voukenas.

“The list is updated daily as per the NSW Government notifications. Once entry is approved, visitors and staff are issued with a sticker and it must be worn and visible. Each day the colour of the sticker is different.”

During the day, VCCRI have a cleaner who walks around the building, continuously cleaning all touch points. Hand sanitisers have been placed next to lifts, in meeting rooms, and throughout the Institute. VCCRI also have disinfectant sprays in all meeting rooms, so people can clean the room as they leave.

Read more: COVID-19: Top priorities for HR leaders revealed

Density levels are also managed and maintained, and some meeting rooms have been converted to work stations to allow staff to spread out and maintain social distancing.

Mastering communication
All HR professionals know the vital importance of effective communication to staff, and the Coronavirus has only made it increasingly more so.

With so many changes and announcements, lots of organisations are finding a variety of ways to communicate with employees that’s often in a virtual format.  

From the beginnings of COVID-19 in March, VCCRI formed a COVID taskforce that meets regularly to discuss changes, protocols, government guidelines, etc.

“During the peak lockdown period we would meet daily and once over the weekend,” said Voukenas.

“As things have stabilised, we now meet weekly. We hold these meetings over Zoom to ensure we are not all present in one room.”

VCCRI communicate to employees via a COVID update email from the Executive Director to all staff regularly. During the peak it would be a daily communication - currently it is twice weekly. 

Furthermore, VCCRI have told staff to travel outside peak times and strongly encouraged them to wear masks on public transport.

“We have clear guidelines for our staff if they or anyone in their household is unwell – they must notify the COVID taskforce and they must be COVID tested. They can then only return to the Institute with a negative result and must be  asymptomatic,” added Voukenas.

“In the event of a positive case, we have plans in place on how we will manage and these have been shared with staff. We keep track of all staff and visitors that are in the building on any given day in the event we need to contact trace. Over the weekend, we have a QV reader code that everyone must scan.”

Rethinking the future
Voukenas summarised VCCRI’s approach to COVID-19 so far as “overly cautious with the goal of maintaining vigilance at all times”.

Read more: COVID-19: The future of HR healthcare

“The strategy has been very effective, and we hope it continues to serve us well,” said Voukenas.

“Core to its success has been that staff have been very responsible, driven by their collective passion to ensure research into heart disease continues.

“We understand our approach has slowed down the productivity of the research, however we would prefer a slow and steady approach than shutting the Institute down.”

Voukenas’s outlook for the future of work at VCCRI is a combination of continuing remote work and coming into the office when necessary.

“While it’s not possible for all our staff to work from home we will be more flexible in our approach” added Voukenas.

“We will encourage staff to find the right balance between home and office work and travel outside of peak times.  

“COVID-19 has put the spotlight on science, the community now understands how important research is and its impact on clinical outcomes. We have been very cautious in our approach to ensure our vital work continues safely.”

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