Developing a return to the workplace approach

As COVID-19 restrictions are easing across Australia, how do organisations take a considered and strategic approach to bringing staff back to the workplace?

Establishing a new normal that is strategic, inclusive and responsive is critical for any plans to recommence operations.

For some, continuing business without employees physically on the premises is difficult, if not impossible. Restaurants, pubs and retail outlets who survived the COVID restrictions in Victoria were able to breathe a sigh of relief recently when permitted to reopen, albeit in a limited capacity.

“We have been closed since the middle of March so we are excited to be reopening, but the 20 [person limit] is deceptive as it is two spaces of 10 people, maximum, per space”, said one Hawthorn Café Owner.

The limits wouldn’t be financially viable on a wet day when outdoor seating wasn’t possible.

"But at this stage, we are pretty happy to take anything in hospitality."

A return to the workplace may not be so clear cut for everyone, however. COVID-19 rapidly transformed the way we work, forcing organisations and employees to switch to flexible and remote working arrangements overnight.

In a recent survey by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, 81% of the 10,000 employees surveyed would like to work from home in some capacity as long as they are supported and 47% say they are more productive at home.

While some aren’t ready to ditch working in their pyjamas, corporate Australia has fallen out of love with working from home with its "back-to-back Zoom calls and poor remote management".

Respondents of a survey by office portal company Equiem showed that while 48 per cent of Australian office workers in April and May said they love working from home, that proportion had dropped to just 33 per cent by September.

Given there is no one-size-fits-all for Australian organisations, first, consider your organisation's position on a strategic return to the workplace ensuring it isn’t simply reverting everyone to the workplace full-time.

Your strategy should account for lessons learned during COVID and legal implications.

Consider an incremental and graduated return to the workplace approach.

Developing a Health and Safety Plan that is responsive to the ever-evolving public health orders and restrictions is crucial. Depending on current circumstances, employers will be required to ensure proper systems are in place for maintaining safe and hygienic workspaces.

Organisations should also recognise that workers with high vulnerabilities may be exempt from a return to the workplace.

Monitoring the productivity and wellbeing of all staff returning to the workplace should be built into any strategy and clear guidance given to managers and leaders on the return to the workplace approach.

Members can access suggestions for a 'return to the workplace' approach below.

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