Yes office-based outbreaks can occur. If staff can work from home, why aren't they?

Yes office-based outbreaks can occur. If staff can work from home, why aren’t they?

Six cases of COVID-19 have now been linked to Melbourne-based law firm HWL Ebsworth, according to Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.

The cluster has seen Sutton offer a reminder to workplaces: that office-based outbreaks can occur and you don’t need to be “in close contact” to be in a high risk setting.

“Everyone should reflect on whether they have to be on site for work or whether they can work from home,” he said.

And frankly, this law firm needs to especially reflect on their work from home practices. Since March, it’s issued a preference to have staff working from the office, with Myriam Robin at the AFR reporting that work from home requests were being considered “on a case by case basis”. The firm had determined that it is not “in the interests of our people or our clients” to have an overall work from home model, and that it would not be “blindly following” others on their policy.

This particular firm is not an isolated case — it’s the one that will serve as the cautionary tale given its work from home policy has been put on the public record and it’s now at the centre of a cluster outbreak. We’ve been contacted by a number of readers who’ve said they’ve been unnecessarily required to work from an office over the past few months, one even had a request to work from home denied on the basis that her place in the office is deemed “essential” (she works at a computer 90 per cent of her day and answers a phone that can easily be redirected to her mobile).

HWL is not operating a supermarket, a hospital, a transport service or a warehouse. It specialises in knowledge work — work that can easily be done from home and is already successfully being done from home by most other major law firms across the country.

To declare a “case by case” basis for working from home invites stigma to be attached to those who have no other choice to do so. It’s also problematic for those who may have less power in the organisation, particularly junior staff and those working in support roles. For a law firm and other forms of professional services, the default for approval should go the other way: staff should be working from home, with requests to work from the office made on a “case by case” basis.

HWL has argued that it has dedicated workspaces and private offices, rather than the hot desking and shared spaces that have become common in other firms, but clearly staff don’t work and operate in a bubble — they still need to travel to the CBD. They presumably need to use the bathroom, kitchen, get lunch and have some form of interaction with other staff, given it’s in the “interests” of clients to have gone to the office in the first place.

Three cases were identified at the firm last week, but management still said they had expected staff to return to the office within a few days, following deep cleaning. With the cluster now at six cases, all staff have been urged by the Department of Health and Human Services to undergo testing.

On Thursday, “professional staff” that can work from home have been told they now have the option of doing so. As for team members who cannot work from home, they’ve been told “tailored arrangements” will be in places to enable them to safely attend the office.

There have been other COVID-19 cases now linked to Melbourne CBD offices, as well as to a couple of retail outlets in the area.

The HWL situation should serve as a wake-up call to all offices to prioritise working from home, particularly those based in Melbourne CBD, and as the World Health Organisation last week issued a warning about the risk of indoor areas.

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