Working from home: major Australian employers respond to latest Covid health advice

by Josh Butler
Telstra and Westpac advise staff to work from home if possible while government departments are yet to shift work settings

Telstra and Westpac have advised staff to work from home if they can following national health advice recommending that employers make changes to limit the spread of Covid during the winter wave of infections.

On Tuesday, the chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) – comprised of all state and territory chief health officers – had reiterated its advice which “called on employers to allow work from home if feasible”.

But after the advice from the commonwealth’s top medical adviser a number of government departments have not yet shifted their work settings, and the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, stopped short of asking bosses to let more staff work from home instead of the office.

Alex Badenoch, a Telstra group executive, said the company updated its guidance on Wednesday in response to Kelly’s advice.

“With the rise in Covid case numbers and changing health advice, we have updated our people on how they can stay Covid-safe,” she said. “We are strongly encouraging our people to work from home if they can, wear a mask when they can’t socially distance, and get their booster shot if they’re eligible.”

For the thousands of Telstra employees who couldn’t work from home, including retail members and field technicians, Badenoch said the company was supplying face masks and rapid tests.

Westpac said it updated its employee guidelines to allow greater access to work from home options earlier this week, before Kelly updated his advice. It has allowed employees to work from home if they wished, “with no requirement to be in the office,” under a hybrid workplace model introduced in the last year.

“For employees who are required to attend a workplace, such as our branches, we have a range of health and safety measures in place to keep our people safe,” a Westpac spokesperson said.

Albanese was asked about the AHPPC’s advice on Wednesday and did not explicitly back a return to working from home, saying: “I don’t think there’s a prescriptive position that can be put forward.”

“Businesses will continue to make those decisions,” he said. “They need to make them on the basis of safety, but also for some people we need to recognise that they can’t work from home.

“It’s a matter of getting the balance right. I’m confident that with a bit of common sense applied we can do that.”

Albanese, who wore a face mask to his Melbourne press conference, called on colleagues to follow the health advice when federal parliament resumes next week.

“If you can’t socially distance, if you’re around the corridors of Parliament House, then you should follow the advice which is to wear a mask,” he said.

Guardian Australia asked the departments of prime minister and cabinet, Treasury, defence, education, finance, foreign affairs and trade, health, home affairs, industry, infrastructure, social services and agriculture if any had updated their workplace settings or were expanding work from home capacity after the recommendation from the chief medical officer.

A health department spokesperson said the department “strongly supports” flexible working, and reviewed its workplace settings after Kelly’s advice.

“The department reviewed its risks and arrangements in response to the AHPPC statement and has asked senior managers to consider how to reduce risks, including encouraging staff to use masks when in meetings and replacing face-to-face gatherings with virtual alternatives,” they said.

The social services department will move to a “tailored work setting” from 25 July, in response to the health advice, which will allow more flexibility to work from home.

A spokesperson for the infrastructure department said it was “responding and adapting to changes in public health advice”, but that its existing flexible working arrangements were on a “case-by-case basis”.

The departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, industry, defence and home affairs said they were monitoring health advice and allowed staff to apply to work from home, but also indicated no changes at this stage off the back of Kelly’s advice.

Departments said they regularly gave health and workplace to staff, including after Tuesday’s health advice.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Sally McManus, said employers had a legal obligation to keep workers safe. The union peak body is calling for expanded work from home arrangements, N95 masks to be provided to those working inside, and ventilation and air purification in workplaces.

“We have made this decision based on occupancy levels, case numbers and guidance from our Covid response team,” they said.

“We encourage team members to continue to work with their line managers to determine working arrangements that suit them and their team.”

The Coles spokesperson said all employees who were unwell are asked to work remotely, while social distancing, hygiene and mask-wearing was encouraged in the workplace.

Commonwealth Bank said it was monitoring the situation and would review its approach as needed.

“Since our formal return to the workplace in March, many of our people have returned to the office in a hybrid capacity which provides for a mix of flexible office-based and remote working arrangements,” a spokesperson said.

The opposition health spokesperson, Liberal senator Anne Ruston, criticised Albanese for “confusing” messages on working from home.

“The statement from the chief medical officer yesterday clearly advised employers to consider the feasibility of employees working from home due to the intensity of the current Covid wave,” she said in a statement.

“In interviews and his press conference today, Mr Albanese had a confusing message for Australians in response to questions regarding whether employers should direct employees to work from home. Obviously, this may not be feasible for all employers, but Mr Albanese’s comments have just created further confusion in the community.

“These confusing, conflicting messages from the prime minister and the health minister must stop. Australians need certainty and clarity, not chaos and confusion.”