How will work change after COVID 19? We asked NZ's top lawyers

The country's top employment law experts are helping organisations map a way forward

How will work change after COVID 19? We asked NZ's top lawyers

How has COVID-19 affected your organisation?

From tightening health and safety measures to redefining the terms of flexible/remote work, employers in New Zealand have had to implement changes in response to COVID-19 fast – even before they could fully understand the magnitude of the crisis.

But, as the smoke clears, more businesses appear better able to assess the damage. Many are now planning their next steps as they resume operations gradually.   

READ MORE: Take the HRD Global COVID-19 survey

HRD spoke with seven of New Zealand’s top employment lawyers who have been working closely with organisations throughout the crisis and mapping a way forward:

Temporary changes will provide breathing room
– Liz Coats, Partner, Bell Gully

Health and safety are now – more than ever – a critical consideration for employers. No one can be complacent about their COVID-19 response and the measures in place to prevent outbreaks within the workplace, and we are seeing most employers taking this very seriously.

Employers are seeking increased flexibility from their employees, in terms of hours and pay, with a view to putting off having to implement wider-scale (and permanent) redundancies. We have seen it used successfully in allowing employers to put in place temporary changes that provide some “breathing room” to then see how business conditions change.

Employers are also increasingly exploring the use of fixed-term employees or contractors, rather than permanent employees, given the uncertainty in the market at present. These options are not without legal risk, but can be useful where there is a genuine fixed-term need for labour, such as for a specific project or to cover for long-term absence.

Greater focus on good recruitment practices
– Steph Dyhrberg, Partner, Dyhrberg Drayton

Those that survive the crisis will be rebuilding and improving their contingency planning.

Some will be thriving and growing, perhaps in an unplanned way – they should be focusing on good recruitment practices. We have learned some hard lessons about the importance of good consultation and mutual trust, and we should capitalise on that.

Increased use of technology (remember when we first asked ‘what’s Zoom?’) and working from home are the cats that have been let out of the bag! The work/life balance conversation just got a lot more interesting. Managers should trust employees to self-manage and be productive at home, provided they are properly supervised and have the resources they need.

Resorting to software to ‘monitor’ what employees are doing when working remotely is no substitute for engaging with employees and making them feel valued.

Expect fewer in person meetings – why walk across the CBD or fly around the country when you can use Teams, Skype or Zoom?

READ MORE: A leader's most crucial role in a crisis

Better workplace conditions for contractors
– John Farrow, Partner, Anderson Lloyd

Fixed-term and casual employment arrangements may become more prevalent. Genuine contractor arrangements can provide a labour resource for business without attracting various employee entitlements. However, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is in the process of reviewing workplace conditions for contractors.

There is concern that some contractors, particularly dependent contractors, are vulnerable in the workplace. A number of countries are taking steps to ensure the benefits of innovation and growth do not come at the expense of workers’ pay and conditions. The government has voiced a similar commitment.

Secondment and labour-hire arrangements may also become more prevalent. However, the Employment Relations (Triangular Employment) Amendment Act is likely to ensure that controlling businesses, along with the employer, will also have responsibility for the welfare of workers under their control.

Video conferencing will drive shorter but more frequent meetings
– Hamish Kynaston, Partner, Buddle Findlay

Video conferencing has also become a staple, and may well be here to stay. While it is not the same as meeting in person, it has proven to be more effective than many of us anticipated, and is certainly a cost-effective way of bringing people together from around the country. 

The [approach] also tends to drive shorter, but more frequent, meetings than would otherwise be the case. And there have to be some plusses in bargaining in track-pants!

Better monitoring of workplace health and safety
– John Rooney, Partner, Simpson Grierson

Employers can learn from how work was carried out during lockdown to put in place new policies for staying home when infectious. Instead of being concerned about staff coming into work when they may be infectious, employers can encourage their staff to work from home in such situations.  This should hopefully increase workplace health, by ensuring staff do not feel pressurised to come to work when they may be at risk of spreading germs.

Employers may also continue to have greater attention to hygiene and cleanliness in the workplace.  Any changes in cleaning facilities or services may be carried forward past the COVID-19 crisis to ensure other illnesses (such as flu) are not easily transmitted at work.

Employers can take this opportunity to assess the health and safety policies that they currently have in place, and whether those allow them to efficiently deal with a crisis like this in the future. Issues such as keeping staff safe when working from home, or when they are at risk of exposure to an illness, should be considered by all employers when reviewing their health and safety policies.

Finally, employers across the country have had to find new ways of communicating with staff, not just to get work done, but to ensure they are staying healthy and safe. Engagement with staff, including communicating frequently and inviting feedback, is an essential element of an effective health and safety management system. Employers should look at how communication has worked throughout the pandemic, and aim to continue active engagement with workers about their health.

Paper-lite and paperless filing as the new norm
– Andrew Shaw, Partner, Lane Neave

There is currently less domestic and international travel being undertaken by businesses. However, the saying ‘there is nothing like being there’ may result in these changes being reversed over time, although not completely. Paper-lite and Paperless filing will, however, remain the new norm.

Employers also need to consider their ability to accommodate flexible working arrangements; consider updating their remote working policies; and ensure Health and Safety obligations are being met, whatever location the employee is undertaking work.

Many businesses will need a smaller office footprint
– Scott Wilson, Partner, Duncan Cotterill

COVID-19 has shown workplaces, and their employees, that they can function from home. While many employees were keen to get back into the office and resume “normal” life again, a number enjoyed the WFH experience.

Many businesses are likely to move towards increased flexibility, where an employee can regularly work remotely, which may result in many businesses needing a smaller office footprint. Although, COVID-19 has highlighted issues with the agile work model. The four-day week is likely to become a reality for many businesses.

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