Australian businesses are going through one of if not the toughest time ever in history. However, there are some positives. The curve hasn’t just been flattening, it’s been on a downward slope. The number of new cases of coronavirus in Australia has been on a steady and sure decline from early April. But it is not yet time to lower our guards. There have been talks of resurgence and a potential ‘second-wave’.
Although the Australian Government has pulled back on some of the restrictions, the consensus among credible sources seems to be that many of the most limiting social distancing measures will not be lifted until a vaccine is released; the status of which seems yet uncertain. A prolonged shutdown seems inevitable.
Another year from now doesn’t seem inconceivable. What does seem inconceivable is the impact this has had and continues to have on our broader economy. The Government has introduced with unprecedent urgency new and changed laws and codes relating to residential and commercial leases, bankruptcy laws, and more recently, employment relations with the JobKeeper scheme (we have covered most, if not all of these in our blog here). These new laws are, unsurprisingly, centred on keeping people afloat (in other words, on survival). They have helped us immensely to manage our immediate situations and avoid further disaster.
But they are, of course, not without their flaws.
We all know that the best decisions are usually not made when made in a rush. The coronavirus does indeed pose very unique challenges, which makes it very difficult to respond accordingly.
At Corney and Lind, we have been getting countless enquiries regarding the new laws and schemes the Government have been introducing. Every day we have stayed on our toes and kept up to date, re-honing our statutory interpretation skills and dedicating whole teams to respond and provide clarity in these times of uncertainty.
Based on what we’ve been observing, there are many steps businesses can take to manage their situation better beyond just survival (see relevant article here). We’ve boiled down 3 further practical issues businesses should consider to last through a prolonged COVID-19 period.
Issue 1: Governmental Aid and New Legislation
This first and foremost issue to consider may be an obvious one if you’re already a frugal businessperson, but not one we would want to overlook. Whether you are:
- A retail business on a lease, the mandatory code for commercial tenants and landlords (see here);
- A business in financial distress, cash flow boost (see here) and changes to bankruptcy laws (see here);
- An employer or sole director or trader, the JobKeeper scheme (see here).
Research and read into each scheme and understand your entitlements for each of them. It can make a world of difference to your business’ livelihood. Take advantage of all the free material out there and gather all the information you can. From a lawyer’s perspective, we see how conscientious action makes a world of difference for businesses, now more than ever.
But it is important to get it right. Whether you’re negotiating your lease conditions, understanding your terms with the banks or your eligibility for JobKeeper, make sure you consult an expert to be have proper documentation and be in the right bargaining position. This is particularly important since these are new laws, and there are uncertainties around how they will be interpreted in hindsight.
Issue 2: Manage Work Arrangements for the Long Term
Most of you will already have made work-from-home arrangements or for staff to work at alternate locations. Many of you will have already felt the practical consequences of this rearrangement. We have been reading many articles about how this has impacted people in terms of their change in work hours, duties and pay.
Although such alternate work arrangements may feel temporary, it has brought to light issues such as:
- How to monitor the employee’s work
- If the employee is using their personal computer, whether it is secure and complies with the employer’s ICT policy
- Communication issues pertaining to telephoning and work meeting arrangements
- Management of confidential information while the employee works from home
It has become apparent that such issues can become more and more pronounced with time. It is therefore important to consider your business situation and think about how it will better adapt to these issues in the longer term. A complete reformation of the company’s policies surrounding performance, hiring, staffing, and work protocols may be called for.
Good governance and documentation will pay off in spades. Ensure you consult experts about what you should factor in to manage any risks for your business.
Issue 3: Manage Your Employees
Working remotely is not necessarily a new phenomenon. However, working remotely being the new norm is. This has also brought to light significant issues such as:
- How to stay on track of and improve employees’ performance
- How to innovate workflow so as to increase productivity
- In an era of social distancing, how to keep up a collaborative spirit within teams
- How to communicate so as to lead, inspire and motivate overall
These issues can be particularly stark if you’ve recently had to stand down or make redundant multiple employees. Employers can implement new strategies and make use of technology to deal with such issues. However, still, there may be limits to how much you can manage effectively.
It is important to bear in mind that notwithstanding the JobKeeper scheme, existing employment contracts still operate under the Fair Work Act 2009. The scheme is a wage subsidy program so as to enable Australians to keep their jobs. The legislation relating to the scheme (Coronavirus Economic Response Package (Payments and Benefits) Rules 2020) does not necessarily override the entirety of an existing employment contract.
It is important to understand how such laws overlap and interact. How you manage your employees in current times can be critical in the long-term survival and success of your business. As such, it is vitally important to consult a lawyer to understand the terms of your employment agreement as well as the intricacies of the JobKeeper scheme.
How We Can Help
The economic fallout from the coronavirus has impacted all of us. Our goal is to help minimise that impact by assisting employers and employees to help deal with the abovementioned issues.
The needs and risks to each business will be different, and one continuity or response plan will not be a one-size-fits all. If you require assistance in preparing a continuity or response plan, we are here to help, please contact us if you would like assistance in developing your action plan.
Written by Hongi Han