Telstra, Westpac tell staff to work from home as employers weigh up Omicron risk

Two of the nation’s biggest employers, big four bank Westpac and telecoms giant Telstra, have relaxed office attendance requirements and are advising staff to work from home as concerns mount over rising COVID-19 case numbers.

After the nation’s top doctor this week urged Australians to get their booster shots if eligible, wear masks and work from home if possible, major employers are weighing up whether to enforce policies designed to get workers back to the office after two years of COVID-19 disruptions.

Westpac moved from “green” to “amber” COVID safety settings for staff this week in the face of rising COVID cases. Credit:The Age

State governments have not moved to reintroduce work-from-home mandates, leaving employers to review risks and make their own decisions.

Westpac, which employs around 40,000 people, uses a ‘green, amber, red’ system to denote different workplace settings according to the COVID risks, and has recently shifted from green to ‘amber’.

“Those employees who can work from home may do so, with no requirement to be in the office,” a Westpac spokesperson said. The company does not enforce a mandatory face mask requirement.

Telstra’s Alex Badenoch said the company was strongly encouraging work-from-home for office employees. Credit:

“We regularly remind our employees to stay home if they feel unwell.”

Telstra, which employs 27,000 people and has enthusiastically embraced hybrid work, is now advising staff to work remotely if possible.

“With the rise in COVID case numbers and changing health advice, we have updated our people on how they can stay COVID-safe. 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,” said the telco’s group executive for transformation, communications and people, Alex Badenoch.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese donned a mask at his press conference on Wednesday, and said he expects federal MPs to wear masks if they cannot socially distance when Parliament sits next week.

But the Prime Minister said it would be up to employers to decide on the appropriateness of masks or working from home during the winter Omicron wave.

Other large employers contacted by this masthead said there have been no changes to their hybrid work policies, though there is a renewed push to wear masks in the office.

On Wednesday, NAB issued an internal memo to its 35,000 employees stating “current hybrid working arrangements [will] continue” and calling for employees feeling unwell to stay home.

“We’re strongly recommending all colleagues wear a face mask indoors,” a NAB spokesperson said.

“We ask that everyone continues to approach this period sensibly … Continue to use your judgement to keep yourselves and loved ones safe.”

Optus people and culture vice president Kate Aitken said the company was still providing masks, hand sanitisers, wipes and regular deep cleaning in all of its stores and offices.

“We encourage our teams to follow recommended precautions, including … wearing a mask indoors when unable to physically distance, and staying at home if unwell,” she said.

On Tuesday, Senior Optus executive and former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian told this masthead all companies were finding it challenging maintaining business continuity during this latest Omicron wave.

“As with most workplaces, we have learned ways of working. At Optus we encourage people to be physically in the office three days a week and work flexibly from home the other two days and most staff really welcome that,” Berejiklian said.

The Commonwealth Bank, which employs more than 43,000 people, also said it was not adjusting its hybrid policy.

“The wellbeing of our people remains paramount, and we will continue to monitor and review our approach as the situation evolves.”

A Medibank spokeswoman said the health insurer’s offices remained open but that staff were being asked to consider their own circumstances and that of their colleagues before scheduling meetings in person.

“Our offices remain open, however large gatherings and events will be rescheduled to later in the year and we’ve asked our people to wear face masks where they can’t social distance and in meeting rooms with other people,” the spokeswoman said.

Executive director of policy and advocacy at Business NSW, David Harding, said the industry group was not changing its own internal hybrid work policy at this point.

“Business NSW continues to encourage employers to talk to their employees about the best way to manage the increased risks of the winter season,” he said.

Harding warned that small businesses “cannot afford for us to revert back to mandatory blanket mask and stay at home orders”, however.

With Zoe Samios.

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