How to prepare your workforce to return to the office

01 March 2022

Among the many profound impacts COVID-19 has had on our workplaces, the toll the pandemic has taken on the wellbeing of employees is something we are only beginning to grasp as more of us return to the workplace.

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With many businesses and employees taking tentative steps back to the office, the excitement of reuniting with colleagues may be offset by apprehension about lost work-life flexibility gained from working at home, infection risk, new COVID-19 variants and a possible re-emergence of the flu season as we approach winter.

Here are five tips to help make the transition back to the office, including hybrid arrangements, as seamless as possible to maintain your employees’ trust and confidence.

#1: Start the conversation now

Over the course of the pandemic we pivoted from working in an office to home. We went back to the office for a few days, then we had to go home again. The story continued.

Some people love working from home. Some hate it. Most would be happy with a mix of office and home. It’s important for you to understand how your workforce feels about the return to office work.

Not everybody will get what they want, but it’s worth starting the conversation as soon as possible. What does a return look like for your business? What are your expectations? What can you do to put concerned employees at ease? Have you considered the mental health impact of a return to the office?

We are creatures of habit. We don’t like sudden change, so let’s start sowing the seeds now and talking with our staff about gradual change.

Consider running a return to the office survey to gauge how your people are feeling and what might be worrying them. You might be surprised about what you find out.

#2: Communicate requirements around vaccination

We should all be familiar with vaccination requirements by now, but planning to return to the office is a good time to take stock of where your business and workforce is at in terms of complying with vaccination requirements.

It’s a useful opportunity to make sure you’re fully compliant and up-to-date with the latest orders, especially if you work in an industry that needs to collect booster vaccination information from staff.

It’s also worthwhile thinking about whether you have any obligations to visitors at your premises or obligations to staff who visit sites outside of your workplace as part of their duties.

If we are upfront about return to work requirements, we can solve issues sooner rather than later. Input from your staff might help you spot issues you hadn’t considered yet.

#3: Have an open mind

Some workers may want to continue working from home. Assess each worker on a case-by-case basis.

If a worker is choosing not to be vaccinated or not provide evidence to comply with a health order, a flexibility arrangement does not need to be applied. A disciplinary process for that person can be considered.

There may be some workers who have enjoyed having more time at home and want to explore a hybrid model of working.

If workers have worked from home for a long time, they may ultimately reflect on what is important to them. Long-standing employees may have decided that they don’t want to endure long commutes. Some have decided to retire. Others have requested reduced hours to spend more time with family.

Losing good workers is always hard and finding a replacement can be just as challenging. Address this on a case-by-case basis and don’t have a closed mind to flexible options that might just keep that star performer on your books. Having a closed mind to flexible working may mean you lose good people.

Don’t forget that you also have legal obligations to some workers to consider their request for a flexible work arrangement. In some cases, you can only refuse these requests if you have reasonable business grounds to do so. Get advice about this if you’re unsure.

#4: Support your employees

We have all been through a lot.

As employers, we need to act with empathy and show that we support and value our people.

Make time to talk to your team. Understand their concerns. Understand what they are looking forward to. Acknowledge it’s okay to be unsure. Acknowledge that change is tough.

Make sure your business has the right support systems in place to help with the transition back to the office and set your employees up for long-term success in the ‘new normal’ we have all heard so much about.

  1. Related Victorian Chamber training course: Mental Health First Aid

#5 Don’t forget the basics

If a condition of entry for staff or customers is vaccination (or exemption), call out for that information in advance.

Make sure you understand the hygiene and distancing requirements that apply to your workplace.

Think about the practical aspects of a return to working together in the office. Do you have hand sanitiser available and placed appropriately? Do you want to have spare masks for those that want to wear a mask but may have forgot or simply would appreciate the benefit of having a fresh mask throughout the day?

Plan in advance. Talk your team through what will happen when they come back to the office. What will they see that’s different? Explain all the safety procedures in place. Give staff time to digest and refresh before they return.

Having this conversation will also give your people confidence that you’re taking care of them, and you have thought about their welfare.

How we can help

The Victorian Chamber runs deliver more than 700 short courses, nationally recognised diplomas and certificates, briefings and webinars, to business across the state each year. Find the course that can elevate your business as we return to office by clicking here.

The Chamber’s workplace relations advisors and consultants also manage an array of workplace issues and are on hand to help.

Our Workplace Relations Advice Line offers general advice on:

  • Flexible working
  • Award coverage and interpretation
  • Implementing workplace policies
  • Managing complaints
  • Disciplinary processes, performance management and termination
  • Personal illness and injury
  • Redundancy
  • Responding to claims
  • Occupational Health and Safety and WorkCover.

For assistance on any aspect of your employment obligations, please call the Victorian Chamber Workplace Relations Advice Line on (03) 8662 5222.

New Memberships for wherever you are in business

Hard times. Good times. Crunch time. Growth time. We’re here to support you at all those pivotal times in your business life. We’ve now tailored our range of memberships to fit wherever you are in business – today and well into the future.

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