As Australians and New Zealanders return to offices, mass gatherings, daily commutes and open shops, what are the biggest risks facing organisations in the region? 

As most nations ponder whether to ease restrictions or go back into lockdown, Australia and New Zealand relaxed rules on movement and social gatherings several weeks ago. After quelling the first wave of the virus, companies in the countries now have to tackle post-lockdown risks.

As Australians and New Zealanders return to offices, mass gatherings, daily commutes and open shops, what are the biggest risks facing organisations in the region? What challenges do companies face, and is the threat of COVID-19 in the past?

New Zealand is currently at alert level one after gradually easing some of the world’s most stringent lockdown restrictions. After a run of several weeks without new COVID-cases, the nation is managing a strict border as the rest of New Zealand returns to normal life. There are currently few restrictions on what New Zealanders can do and where they can travel domestically.

While New Zealand currently has zero community transmission of COVID-19, risk professionals warn the fight is not won. Cases continue to appear in managed isolation, and risk experts say companies cannot return to the old way of doing things just yet.

Teressa Betty, president of the New Zealand and Pacific Islands chapter of RIMS, says organisations should focus on health and safety and the psychological wellbeing of employees. She says organisations should consider “how to ensure psychological safety of workers at a time of great uncertainty, not just regarding job security, but also the shifting sands around us, due to the fear and uncertainty that the pandemic brings”.

Organisations also need to factor in the impact of remote working, and how the customer experience in their business has changed: “While NZ has escaped relatively unscathed to date, the ongoing implications and outcomes are far from clear,” Betty adds. “From a strategic perspective, it is difficult to get a handle on supply and demand or financial forecasting with any great certainty. Have honest, open, transparent conversations with suppliers, customers, and employees. Understand the downside risks of decision-making. Make informed decisions - avoid knee jerk approaches.”

For Betty, the shift to a more digital environment presents new risks: “Cyber security must be a focus as more people are working or interacting remotely.”

She adds: “The pandemic is driving a greater digital agenda. Organisations may have been reluctant to adopt or invest in new technology, such as digital signatures, as they presented their own unique risks. However with a prolonged business continuity event, this drove a greater need to invest in these tools. This brings positive change and enables an enhanced customer experience. Ensure the risks are understood and appropriately mitigated or accepted.”

New Zealand’s trans-Tasman neighbour Australia has gradually relaxed Covid-19 restrictions after case numbers fell between March and June. In mid-June, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that sports events would return with reduced crowds from July. Australia’s Covid status is more complex than New Zealand’s with different states imposing different rules and restrictions.

Victoria is currently experiencing an outbreak, leading to fears Covid-19 could take hold of the state. While Australia’s Covid case numbers are low by international standards, risk experts in the country are cautious.

Jason Smith, chief executive of the Risk Management Institute of Australasia, says Australia is “in a good place” with ramped-up testing capabilities and contract tracing through the nation’s COVIDSafe App. He says companies need to focus on the health and wellbeing of employees.

“There is the obvious health and safety concern around an increase in the infection rate and workers returning to the workplace being exposed to this. Also, we continue to be very concerned about mental health in the workforce and broader community, given that the economic recovery is multi-speed, and many workers are still facing a bleak immediate future.”

Smith adds: “We all need to continue to maintain good social hygiene measures such as constant hand sanitation through frequent washing and our use of sanitising lotion. Also, and just as importantly, if you don’t feel well, then stay at home. “

He says organisations need to think about “how best to embed the rhythms of flexible and remote working, because the old ways of office life are not going to return for a long time”. He adds: “Importantly within this, is the maintenance of work-life balance. We need a healthy culture and respect around switching off the office at home and being present for our families.”

Martin Baghdadi, an Australian risk consultant for Control Risks, is working with clients to assess the outlook for the nation’s companies, particularly consumer-facing businesses.

“The number one priority is the health, safety and wellbeing of employees,” Baghdadi says. “You have got to put measures in place. When you come out of lockdown, it doesn’t mean everything is back to normal. Companies might be operating in team A and team B shifts, or gently reopening their office. There might be a new wave of infections, so companies have to be versatile and deal with that.”

Baghdadi acknowledges that some employees may not want to return to the office out of fear. “Some companies may not have planned for that. So employers are going to have to have conversations about the way forward. It’s tricky for everyone.”

While health and safety risks are the immediate issue facing Australasian organisations, cyber threats have also risen, as people work from home and use third party software platforms to communicate and pass information.

Baghdadi adds: “Cyber is a massive risk. I have just done an assessment for a schools group and looked at what platforms they should be using. I also asked a pension fund about how they are conducting meetings. At the end of the day, the safest way of communicating is face-to-face. Organisations have to do a proper assessment and educate their employees who are working from home.”

“We have seen a huge uptick in cyber breaches, particularly for multinational companies. It seems to be happening more often because of COVID-19, with more phishing emails, and people clicking on things they shouldn’t have. We have warned organisations of the growing cyber risk,” Baghdadi adds.

In recent months, politicians in Australia and New Zealand have called for a “Trans-Tasman Bubble” for the two countries to travel and trade with one another freely. While the idea gained traction a month ago, recent scares in Victoria have pushed the idea down the agenda. In New Zealand, cases continue to arrive from overseas into managed isolation.

RMIA’s Smith is in favour of a trans-Tasman bubble if both sides can implement it safely. “The obvious rationale behind these travel bubbles is to establish connectivity with those countries with low risks of COVID-19 infections. Australia and New Zealand have mutually demonstrated this.”

“I think all states and communities in Australia and across the Tasman have generally demonstrated socially responsible behaviours as evidenced by how quickly Australia and New Zealand were able to suppress community transmission rates. I’m sure this could be extended into trans-Tasman travel on the basis of the appropriate protocols being in place.”

Smith says Australia’s state-by-state COVID policy could slow down an eventual trans-Tasman bubble.