Preparing for the return to the office (and bidding a fond farewell to our track pants…)

Posted by on Jun 2, 2020

Approximately 10 weeks ago Justitia, along with many employers around the world, swiftly moved to an entirely remote workplace. For many organisations in Australia, the move to remote working has been fraught with challenges, however on the whole we must marvel at what was achieved in such a short period of time.

Having navigated the myriad of technical glitches, adjusted to our colleagues’ unique taste in interior design and learnt to take a 4 year old Zoom bomb without blinking an eye, we are now considering the next phase of change – going “back to the office”.

Many employers may not yet have had an opportunity to start planning their return. Many might be hoping that it is as simple as unlocking the doors, switching on the fridge and telling people to come back to work. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that we can’t just flick a switch and ‘go back to normal’. Normal has changed. And although we are in the fortunate position in Australia where restrictions have begun to ease, it may be many months or even years before we return to any semblance of our BC (Before COVID) life. So we must start contemplating how to take these tentative next steps into yet more uncharted waters.

Who should return and when?

It is clear that even if restrictions ease, social distancing requirements will involve significant change to how we interact in the office. Employers will need to consider which roles/teams/departments it should feasibly return to the physical workplace first. Can the workplace be modified to ensure they can physically work at the required distance? How can common areas and meeting facilities be managed to ensure they can be used safely? What cleaning arrangements do you have in place? Do you have sanitiser/disinfectant at every workstation? Although hot desking has become the norm, is it safe in a pandemic? How can this concern be balanced against a decreased and fluctuating demand for physical workstations? Many employees will still be working from home for at least some portion of their working week – what are the overheads in keeping allocated workstations available for each employee?

It is also likely that employers will be requested to stagger start and finish times to avoid overcrowding on public transport and in their office foyer and entry point. Similarly, how do we avoid overcrowding in lifts as people move in and out of buildings at similar times? 

What our clients told us

We have spoken with a number of clients about their plans for the return of their workforce. On the whole they indicated there was no hurry to return. Most had transitioned very successfully to remote working and preferred to ‘wait and see’ before taking any steps, conscious not to add to overcrowding on public transport when it wasn’t necessary.

Those who maintained a presence in the workplace throughout the pandemic implemented strategies for ensuring workplace safety such as requesting employees “self-declare” before every shift via an online form in which they indicate that they are well and free of symptoms.

Thermometers are also provided in the workplace for self-monitoring and some employers have even introduced thermal imaging as part of a security screening process, to ensure employees have normal temperatures as they enter their workplace.

Organisations also have plans in place to deal with any positive COVID diagnoses, either from employees or their immediate close contacts. These plans address an array of questions such as: can employers disclose the identify of someone with a positive diagnosis? If employees who have had contact with the positive case must self-isolate, what are their leave entitlements? In what circumstances can employees be required to submit to temperature checks?

We encourage employers to consider these questions and have an agreed and documented plan in order to pre-empt staff concerns.

What if employees do not want to return?

Although the extroverts or lonely amongst us may be eagerly awaiting the return to the office, many are enjoying the benefits of flexible and remote working (some for the first time) and will not be so amenable to giving it up. Thorough consultation is therefore important to understand what employee preferences are. Some may still have carer responsibilities that mean they are unable to return immediately. They may not want to travel on public transport. Others may quite simply prefer working remotely and want to continue, in some form, indefinitely. And of course, there may be health conditions to be considered.

Under the Fair Work Act 2009, certain employees have a right to request to work flexibly, including from home, and that request cannot be unreasonably refused. Many employers also have policies that extend this right to all employees. BC, many employers relied on excuses such as ‘your job cannot be carried out from home’, ‘your role is client facing, we need you physically in the office’ or ‘you work in a managerial role’. However, in circumstances where employees have been working effectively from home throughout this period, it becomes increasingly difficult to rely on these excuses.

One of the benefits of the pandemic is that we have seen the edifice of traditional, more rigid workplace structures start to crumble. Many employees have had an opportunity to determine how they work best. Early risers can bound of bed and get started on the day while the night owls continue to sleep off their midnight finish. Insomniacs can finish their report at 5am and take a siesta in the afternoon. And family responsibilities can be weaved in more naturally, rather than as frenzied bookends to an already manic work day.

What is supporting the success of a more flexible model in the current climate is trust that employees will get the job done. They have been empowered to figure out what works for them. As we know, trust and empowerment have a direct impact on employee engagement, satisfaction and loyalty.

Yet whilst the preferences of staff are important, these must be balanced against the needs of the business and the specific circumstances. Although we may now know it is possible for some roles to be worked remotely, it may nonetheless be preferable to have them be performed onsite. Managing staff performance is undoubtedly more challenging remotely. Similarly, junior employees, or those new to an organisation, benefit a great deal from face to face contact with more learned colleagues. A positive workplace culture and morale can also be more easily fostered when people are physically together; the benefits of incidental ‘corridor chat’ cannot be underestimated. All are important considerations that must be factored in when an employer considers the reasonableness of a request to work flexibly on a more permanent basis.

What is important, however, is that we do not just seek to ‘undo’ what has been done. The global pandemic is not going anywhere and will continue to impact us all. We have seen positives arise from the crisis, including the goodwill of staff who have adapted without question to working conditions that were unimaginable mere months ago. Employers must continue to foster this goodwill if they want to survive and thrive in the post-COVID world.

Our team at Justitia are helping many clients grapple with these questions and develop a strategy for the return to the office. If you require support, please contact us on (03) 8621 4500 or Melissa.scadden@justitia.com.au.