Podcast

Brave new world

New expectations of business in a COVID-Safe environment

The impacts of COVID-19 will continue to be massive on businesses and individuals alike.

If what is happening in Melbourne is any indicator, then we can’t wait for COVID to pass – we have to learn to live with it. We ask Dr Ian Norton, Founder and Managing Director of Respond Global to apply his experience as a former World Health Organisation emergency physician to the current COVID pandemic, while our CEO, Greg Keith tackles how businesses – us included – have approached the new normal. So what does COVID Safe really look like? How do you know if you’re responding appropriately? And which of the COVID safe changes are temporary, and what will remain?

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Velvet-Belle Templeman

Welcome to Grant Thornton's, Navigating the New Normal podcast series.  My name is Velvet-Belle Templeman.  And I'm here talking to Greg Keith, CEO of Grant Thornton Australia and Dr Ian Norton, Founder and Managing Director of Respond Global.  Dr Norton is a specialist emergency physician and a global infectious disease expert and is now at the forefront of helping both the Australian governments and businesses response to COVID-19.  Thanks so much for joining us, Ian and Greg.

Greg Keith

Thanks Velvet-Belle.

Ian Norton

Yeah, good to be here.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Now Ian, you've worked at the World Health Organisation and you've spearheaded the response to international outbreaks, such as Ebola and diphtheria.  What have you learned about these outbreaks that can be applied here?

Ian Norton

Well, very similar lessons I suppose, when it comes to outbreaks.  It's all about bringing people along, empowering them with knowledge about what's happening and how they can keep themselves safe.  And trying to get them to be part of the solution, really.  We certainly found that for Ebola and diphtheria, making things relevant in their own language, in their own way of understanding.  And making sure there was both pictures and video and voice and other messages, messages coming in from trusted leaders.  All lessons we could learn here in COVID as well.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Now, we're about five months into COVID-19 with no idea how long this will continue.  From an individual and a business perspective, the impact has been massive.  Is it possible to maintain a sense of normality when the fear of contagion is still so very real?

Ian Norton

I certainly think we have to maintain some form of normality.  We know that this will go on for many more months to come.  My estimation now is at least 18 to 24 months, I would say we have to live with this new COVID normal.  And so we really need to learn how to live with COVID rather than wait for it to all be over and get back to normal and that certainly transfers into business as well.  I really think businesses need to learn how to adapt and know how to manage when there's a large wave washing over them in their local state or territory.  And then how to act differently when there's less risk and they can get back to something closer to normal.  But the risk is never completely gone as we're seeing now in Europe and other parts of the world.

Greg Keith

Yeah.  Look, I think, Velvet-Belle, from my side, there's things as a business leader, we can control.  Such as, our environment in our office and the precautions that we take and there’s things that we can't control such as the community transmission.  So really understanding that difference, and doing what we can to focus on those aspects that we as leaders can change to improve the safety of our people.  And also, to ensure that our clients and customers are protected as much as possible, I think is the critical situation.  Because business can't wait for 18 months or 2 years, as Ian has said.  We need to be able to treat this as an opportunity to be successful.  We need to have the right mindset, to take our people on their journey and also to ensure that we get through this, in a strong position, both physically and mentally at the end.

Ian Norton

Yeah, I'd really agree and maybe add something else on that, Greg.  Because we can manage our risk, I think inside our business, in our manufacturing or an office setting.  But it's also about making sure staff know how they can keep themselves safe home with their families and at the weekends, because that risk is transferred back into our business if they don't.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

And Ian, you're at the forefront talking to policy makers and business leaders.  You would have seen in the news, some say, we're not taking this seriously enough and others say that we're being overly cautious.  Is there a right or a wrong way to respond at a time like this?

Ian Norton

Yeah, no, I think it's correct.  There are sort of two huge arcs of perceived risk.  Some people are denying that that it's real and others are almost overly cautious.  I'm a bit disappointed in a way that we haven't taken more of an overall country approach.  There's certainly a lot of, I suppose, separation of their various state levels.  It's the same risk across all of those, the risk effectively of the disease is similar.  And I am seeing a bit of a drift away from the public health sort of rules, into more of a political overlay and that is disappointing.  When it comes to business leaders though, every board sort of has a range of perceptions.  Some completely worried about it and think very little of little else and others who are sort of saying we should just get on with it.

I think the true answer is in the middle and it's a bit of both and the risk changes over time in different states.  And the risk right now, is obviously bad in Victoria and not so bad in West Australia.  Nothing to say that COVID won't sneak in and then all of those, in a way West Australia could be at risk.  Because people have sort of forgotten how to act and they have become used to that new COVID normal, where they get to do pretty much everything they want to and they're really at risk now.  Because if the disease does sneak back in, then they're not well prepared to know what to do and do the right thing.

Greg Keith

It's a frightening concept.  Look, Ian has been able to work with Grant Thornton, to help us to pull together a red, amber and a green scenario.  So we have a set of policies and practises in the event, like Western Australia is at the moment.  In that example where there's very little community transmission and as community transmission increases.  And frankly, over the last little while we've been watching New South Wales very closely, we consider whether we increase to amber.  Which for us means, wearing masks at reception and in communal areas and those sorts of things.  Or red, where Melbourne obviously is at the moment.  Where at the moment we're actually closed, but prior to that with red, you would need to wear a mask fully in the offices and following other policies that are in place.  So I think we also can adapt to the different circumstances in different offices and still continue doing business.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Business leaders, they have a responsibility to their people, to their clients, their customers, potentially their shareholders.  What can they do now that they might not already be doing?

Greg Keith

So I think that the first challenge that a lot of business leaders had, was back in March this year.  Where we needed to put the safety of our people ahead of profit or a dollar.  And Grant Thornton along with many, many other businesses chose to act precipitously, to have our people work from home, to make sure we could protect them.  And I think that's about really focusing on what's important.  And people's health is more important than profits.  So whilst we do need to find a path that does allow our businesses to be successful moving forward.  I think making sure that you get your priorities straight, is absolutely critical for business leaders, probably more so than ever before.

Ian Norton

And I'd really agree, Greg.  And that's why I was so happy to work with Grant Thornton on this.  Because you could tell that, that was the attitude from the senior most leaders.  It's also, I suppose, looking for leadership in all sorts of ways.  Where you demonstrate to colleagues, junior colleagues, that it's okay to call in sick if you have even the lightest symptom.  And that's the right thing to do, that you're willing to, or work from home.  There's no pressure on people to change that behaviour and I think that's the new style of leadership we need to see more of, across Australia.

Greg Keith

So, what we learn about the disease is changing and how to respond is changing.  So I also feel as business leaders, we've got a responsibility to continue to learn and to be aware and change our policies and adapt that information, knowledge into them.  So rather than thinking, "Well, we've got a COVID safe plan, tick, move on." I think there's an opportunity to ask others, have conversations with other leaders, frankly borrow some great ideas and put them into your own systems as well.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Now here's a tricky one for you.  You and your business may have a strategy in place to create the right COVID safe conditions, but it only takes one person to do the wrong thing to create a new outbreak.  And it might not just be one person if you count how many fines have been given for people breaking COVID safe requirements, like mask wearing or curfews.  So is it even possible to be truly COVID safe?

Ian Norton

Well, yeah, it is a tricky one though.  It is about behaviour change and cultural change.  I suppose, that's the reason why we're seeing fresh outbreaks occur around the world.  It's where people start to forget the rules.  Perhaps they didn't buy into them, they might not have believed them fully.  There are those amongst us, perhaps a younger generation who feel that they're a bit invincible in all things, but particularly around COVID.  They see it as a disease that's only scary for older people.  So all of those factors come into play and so, you can manage your own risk personally, but it's also about the risks that others are taking and not giving you, your personal space, coming into your 1.5 metre sort of distance.

And it's also, I suppose, how can you drive change as an individual?  One of the ways that I could suggest it is, if you have a choice to go down the street, and eat at various restaurants, if you can in your city at the time.  Then choose to go in and spend your money in a place that's doing the right thing and you'll see that change over a period of time.  They'll see that, business goes with those who are doing the right thing, and people avoid the places that are doing the wrong thing.  Then hopefully we'll see some change because of that as well.

Greg Keith

And I think there's an element of the culture of the organisation that'll drive those behaviours.  So, if the culture of the organisation is one where people have the opportunity to call out behaviours, regardless of right or rank in an organisation.  Where people are supportive of one another, where people lead from the front, then you can really create an environment where people want to protect each other.  Cultural change is always complex and difficult, but I do believe that if you focus on the culture of the organisation, then you can improve the chances of having a situation where the business is COVID safe.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

And Greg, Grant Thornton has recently implemented a raft of changes to ensure that it is COVID safe for staff to return.  What were the steps that you took and how has this been received by your people?

Greg Keith

Yeah, look Velvet-Belle, it's been a journey, I've got to say, over the last few months.  Because it's truly a new experience and there's no sort of playbook to refer to.  So what we did to start off was we surveyed our people.  We were really worried about their mental health, but also to understand what it was that worried them and to make sure their voice was heard.  And their concerns were addressed in anything we did moving forward.  Because we wanted to not only create a safe environment for our people to return to, but we wanted them to have confidence that it was safe.  So we started off with that survey and from that, we found out there was a number of areas that they had some fear and trepidation, particularly around things like public transport, travelling to work.  So for us, that was a bigger issue in the larger cities, where people weren't driving to the office.  So, Melbourne, Sydney, in particular and then there was issues around whether or not the organisation was COVID safe and whether their colleagues will be as compliant as them.

So, we ended up breaking it into six areas that we focused on.  The first was for us to bring in a whole new raft of policies on things that reinforced the essentials, like social distancing and when people should be coming in and out of the office, when they should be wearing masks.  The processes when you come into an office around, washing your hands, cleaning your desk, eating meals, et cetera.  Then we needed to look at some infrastructure.  So for us, we chose we wanted to temperature check, not only our people, but also any guests or clients into the office.  So we invested in some of the technology where you can just walk up and it detects within .2 of a second.  But it avoids having to have something pointed at your head and have a member of your team be within 1.5 metres.  Then we looked at some new technology.  So we had to develop an app that was specific to our business that allowed us to ascertain how many people in each team could be in, to ensure social distancing and so, people literally book a desk to come in.

We developed training courses with the help of Ian and that was to really provide people with information around COVID, as to why.  But also, around our policies and also around the green, amber, red.  And so it gave people the opportunity to really improve their knowledge and understanding of how we were tackling it, and getting confidence.  We had to tailor our approach because we were absolutely cognisant of what was happening in each state was different.  So we needed to ensure that we connected at each one of those.  And in so doing, we had to bring in a communications plan.  So we looked at each of those six areas and worked our way through that.

Frankly, we used Dr Norton on the call here today to help us.  Because we weren't really sure what we were doing was right and we felt that consulting with an expert would give us more confidence that we were right.  But it would also give our people confidence of what we were doing was right and that was a critical component.  It wasn't just, being COVID safe.  It was actually giving people confidence.  That's been our journey and to date, that transparency has been well received.  Our people appreciate that we are putting them first and their safety first and that we do we care about our people and our clients.  And I think that the feedback has been really strong in that regard.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

That's great news.  Now, Grant Thornton is in an office and your people can work from home and alternate more easily.  Is the strategy different, if you operate in assembly line or you're in construction, or you provide a hands-on service like physio or hairdressing?  The arts for instance, has been hugely impacted because they need crowds to create the experience.  Can all industries be COVID safe?

Greg Keith

Yeah.  So I can give you a couple of examples, but I certainly think, I mean, he's actually consulted by all sorts of industries and specialists, surely he'll have something to say as well.  But I can just give you the examples from my own family.  I've got three children.  One of which is an interior designer, who's working on some overseas projects and working from home to do that and she's able to do that in that environment.  Whereas my son's a podiatrist and as such, he's working within 1.5 metres of people to apply his trade.  So, clearly making sure he has appropriate PPE and training is absolutely critical.  And then my third daughter is a speech pathologist working in the hospital system.  She's consulting with a number of patients now through telehealth.  So she's certainly been able to reduce that risk by using technology, and yet she's also on the wards.  And so in that case, she's once again relying very much on PPE and training.

So for them, I think there's been a balance of, and in different industries, I think it's around education, equipment, discipline, collaboration, and probably a good dose of good luck, as well.  But Ian, I'm not sure if you have some comments.  I know you've been heavily involved in a range of industries.

Ian Norton

Yeah, certainly there are there other industries that really, it is hands on when it comes to manufacturing.  The meat industry is a good example or fish and chicken and sorting houses.  These kinds of places, that you do need people physically moving through and working in fairly close proximity.  Certainly, everyone can have some sort of COVID safe plan in place, and they can adapt their work to continue.  I think definitely cohorting of teams to team A, B and C or whatever, is relevant for your own particular business.  And making sure that if there is unluckily, an infection in one, it doesn't put all people out of work at the same time.  You won't lose your entire staff workforce for 14 days for home isolation, which could effectively cripple or even end a business.  And there are ways that you can have them work normally, wearing the right PPE.  But then clean and have a changeover of staff for the next shift and the next shift, is possible.

So also understanding, I think the science and the emerging science around the virus.  So there are things we do know about and we can use what we know about it to our advantage in business.  I think sometimes it doesn't just jump off the pages of the public health websites.  But I think, once you understand that public health background and then apply it to a business setting, we absolutely can get more COVID safe.  Can we be 100% COVID safe in every industry?  Perhaps not, but certainly we should be able to put in place mitigation strategies, so if it does affect you, it doesn't end your business.

Greg Keith

I think also we need to understand that if leaders choose to ignore their responsibilities and something does happen, there's some likelihood you'll actually have the authorities come in, and they may well ask to see you're COVID safe plan.  They may well choose to see how that's been enacted and how it's been enforced.  So I don't think this is just a nice to have, I think it's a legal requirement that we have to also step up too.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

And Greg, from implementing a strategy yourself, what advice would you give to anybody currently trying to make their business COVID safe?

Greg Keith

From our experience in engaging with the clients.  The first thing we suggest is that you think yourself about what's unique about your business or your industry.  Because you actually know your industry better than anyone else and so really understanding what's peculiar to your businesses is absolutely critical.  I think there are often people in your industry that you don't directly compete with and what we've seen with COVID is a very strong willingness for people to cooperate and collaborate and to share.  And so by reaching out to them, there's every chance that you'll find someone who's prepared to have that conversation and share what they're doing and what you're doing to assist.

I think then, when you're looking at your COVID safe plan, making sure that you've got the right people who actually have resources and authority to create change and influence others and have that tone from the top.  So that you don't just have a great plan, but you actually have a plan that people are bringing into place, is important.  As mentioned before, I just sort of recap on the importance of listening to your people and understanding what barriers they may see in bringing it to life because they're critical in this process.  And then there's just those six headings I mentioned before being policies, infrastructure, technology, training, tailoring for the different locations or circumstances and the communications plan.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

And finally, I have to ask, COVID safe, temporary measure or permanent shift in how we work?

Greg Keith

Well, this will be my thoughts.  I really hope that masks, temperature checking, and enforced restrictions, of office attendance is soon a thing of the past.  Be that, 18 months or so away, I'd be happy to see the back of that.  I see elements of social distancing and sanitisation and cleanliness being extended.  I think it's becoming more entrenched, but regrettably I suspect it might drop back a bit over time.  I see working flexibly as permanent.  Just over 80% of our people telling us in surveys, that they now want to work two to three days a week.  I don't see that ever going back.  I suspect that flying interstate or overseas for a meeting will decrease in future and that the willingness to have meetings virtually is significantly increased.  I see us using national resources better as a permanent change.  As we've now got more confidence in working with people remotely, rather than relying on the people who you can physically see or have in the room.

I think there is going to be a shift in how we use offices and also, I suspect there's going to be a permanent shift in dress code, with people much more relaxed.  And the time of even wearing a suit and tie may be challenged by this process.  And the last one is, I honestly hope that Zoom drinks on a Friday night are never superseded with having a laugh and a catch up with friends face to face.  As I sit here in isolation, I longingly look forward to being able to catch up with some of my friends.

Ian Norton

Yeah, I'd certainly agree with there are some temporary measures that we would be glad to see the back of.  I do think we've got to be cautious of COVID fatigue, creeping in too soon because we're not there yet.  As soon as we see some of that fatigue coming in, it drops our guard and the public health measures drop away, then it will exploit that gap, until it's over with, as I say in 12 months or more from now.

But certainly, I hope that there's some other legacy that lives on.  I mean, washing hands, we know from African context, in Ebola for example, there was only one third of the number of deaths in the years of Ebola from other diarrheal disease in kids.  So the fact that everybody was washing their hands because their fear of Ebola saved a whole lot of lives of kids who could have died from other forms of disease.  And in general, if we all wash our hands more often, it's such a simple and cheap way to keep healthier.  So I hope that that stays around long afterwards.

I fully agree with Greg on the working from home, more of a work life balance, I hope.  Certainly from a health side, telehealth, telemarketing, and those other things are going to be the norm.  Not flying interstate for a one hour meeting and those kind of things.  I hope some of the nationalism dies away.  There's a good part about it, which is buying local and supporting people in your community and then there's the bad part, which is sort of trying to gain all the personal protective equipment just to your state or to your country and not worrying about anybody else.  I hope that that fades away as we get beyond this.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Ian and Greg, thank you for your time.

Greg Keith

Thanks Velvet-Belle.

Ian Norton

Thanks.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

You can find further information on how COVID-19 might affect your business, and assistance is available to you on the Grant Thornton COVID-19 hub at www.grantthornton.com.au/covid19.  If you liked this podcast and you'd like to hear more, you can find and subscribe to Grant Thornton Australia on iTunes, Spotify, or SoundCloud.  I'm Velvet-Belle Templeman, and you're listening to Boardroom.Media. 

Dr Ian Norton

Dr Ian Norton, founder and Managing Director of Respond Global, is a specialist emergency physician and a global infectious disease expert with post-graduate qualifications in Surgery, International Health and Tropical Medicine. Ian was head of the WHO’s Emergency Medical Team (EMT) Initiative in Geneva from 2014-20. During this time, he led responses to Ebola, Diphtheria and Measles outbreaks as well as to earthquakes, cyclones, and war zones. Ian is the lead author of the current WHO Global Classification and Standards for medical teams deploying to disasters. Ian established Respond Global as a social enterprise in early 2020 with the aim of empowering others to be able to plan, prepare and respond to health emergencies in their own countries.

  • Emergency Response Expert

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