As the country stares down the third Omicron wave with daily cases nearing 40,000 across the country, one question remains unanswered: will we return to restrictions like mask mandates and work from home orders?
Sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5 are more infectious than previous COVID-19 strains, and are better able to bypass immunity from vaccines and prior infections, with experts predicting infections will likely continue to rise.
No state or territory has reintroduced pandemic-era restrictions so far, though yesterday Australia recorded its highest daily death toll since February with 76 people reported dead from COVID-19.
But a winter wave could see restrictions return. It’s certainly the hope of health groups like the Australian Medical Association, which is urging mask mandates to help alleviate the pressure in our healthcare and hospital crisis.
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Reintroducing mandates would be a bitter pill for Australian SMEs to swallow, Sabri Suby, founder and head of growth at King Kong in Melbourne says.
“No one bears the brunt of staying at home and working from home orders more than businesses, and the reintroduction of masks could be a fatal blow,” he said.
“Small- to medium-sized businesses are the backbone of this economy, and have been subjected to continuous hits: the rising costs of inflation, a workforce market crippled by travel bans, and a lack of skilled migrants coming into the space just to name a few. Re-introducing these orders would further set back an already set-back sector.”
Suby continues that it’s been “almost three years” of orders and mandates, and more restrictions could mean we “run the risk of never getting out of this cycle”.
“These orders are simply too taxing on businesses who are already trying to navigate everything in play; particularly building and acclimating teams in our current challenging wage market.
“How are businesses expected to recover, grow and build momentum when it is two steps forward, and three steps back?”
But Steve Orenstein, founder and CEO at Zoom2u in Sydney, has a slightly different view.
He says mask mandates could be just the ticket to avoid work from home orders, continuing governments need to be “proactive” instead of being “reactive”.
Take “RAT-gate”, he says, when the at-home COVID-19 tests were in short supply during January’s monumental wave.
A little prior preparation would’ve swerved the country away from a crisis for business, he says, when chunks of the workforce were either symptomatic, testing positive, or a close contact waiting out their isolation.
“Reintroducing masks in public, indoor spaces would be a more realistic step, and one that is more sensitive to the current business crisis here in Australia, than reintroducing [work from home] orders.”
And it’s not only a business’s bottom line that WFH orders can take a toll on. There’s also the personal damage it can do to business owners too, Adam Joy, CEO of Office Brands, points out.
“The impact on the wellbeing and mental health of small business owners can no longer be ignored, not to mention the financial health of their businesses.
“Many small businesses are still recovering from the previous lockdowns and while some people find WFH helpful to their mental health, any suggestion that we return to further mandated WFH needs to be considered very carefully.”
But Angus Stevens, CEO and co-founder of mixed reality studio Start Beyond, says in his experience there is one way to get around the remoteness of remote work and the aloneness of working alone — virtual reality (VR)
“The beauty of these VR meetings is that we can have fluid conversations, make eye contact with the person we’re talking to and avoid the stop-start flatness that video calls produce,” he said.
“We put on the goggles and meet in VR to workshop and brainstorm the projects that we would traditionally do face to face.
“So if the mandates are required we’ll make it work with minimal impact to our productivity, and with a fun VR solution to keep the office connections happening, as we work from home.”
But, he says, his personal preference is being in office. It’s just more enjoyable, he continues, and being together “makes the shared sense of purpose feel immediate and tangible”.
“That said, when we work remotely we’re just as productive, in some ways possibly more, as the development guys don’t have me interrupting their code flow because I’m excited about a new gig!”