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Key challenges to consider when transitioning employees back to the office

As the government begins to lift restrictions around the country, business leaders are now starting to grapple with the process of transitioning their employees from remote working to returning to the office environment. Jason Trevethick, Managing Director of Paxus and talentCRU, has extensive experience and knowledge in workforce management across a range of industries and company sizes. In this series, he shares his thoughts on the challenges we are now facing and how we can overcome these with an appropriate Return to Work Plan.

At the start of 2020, no-one could predict the unprecedented shift to our social and working lives that lay just on the horizon. COVID-19's spread into Australia has forced us to swiftly transition our office-based workforce to remote working as a drastic, but necessary move to reduce the virus' spread. This process bought about a new set challenges for everyone, but as a country we have demonstrated innovation and resilience by successfully overcoming these to help flatten the curve.

Now that the government has announced a three-stage plan to get us all back to some sense of normality, it's time for business leaders to plan how to return our employees back to the office. We are all eager to restart the economy and profitability of our businesses as quickly as possible. However, it's our responsibility to ensure that any plan must take into account the health and safety of our employees and the broader society.

We must accept things will not just return to the way they were before. Our new normal will be one of physical distancing and strict health and safety measures for the short to mid-term. For us, we not only have to incorporate this new normal into policies and processes, but also into our overall business culture.

So, a question that many of us are asking ourselves right now – where do I begin?

At Paxus, we quickly established a cross-functional team to identify, plan and execute measures to keep our employees safe and the business operational. Such a team needs to meet on a frequent and consistent basis. It also needs to be agile enough to respond quickly in this rapidly changing situation.

Additionally, throughout this time it's better to over-communicate rather than under-communicate. Establish open lines of communication with your employees. Conduct regular town hall meetings, and have a formal system in place where employees can voice their concerns or issues.

Not only does this mean you're complying with your duty to consult with your employees on health and safety matters relating to COVID-19, but you're also helping to get their buy-in to the business's Return Back to Work Plan. Encouraging involvement from the onset will help to reduce employee anxiety and fear when the time comes to transition back.

This is also the time to conduct a thorough risk assessment if you haven't already done so. As stipulated by Safe Work Australia, it is our responsibility to assess the risks relating to the exposure of COVID-19 and implement measures to either eliminate or reduce those risks if reasonably practicable. An example of this could be discouraging employees to take public transport where their risk of coming in contact is higher, or reshuffling the office layout so it complies with social distancing recommendations.

Another crucial part of your plan is to consider your Business Continuity Plan. A plan like this should answer questions like, ‘what happens if an employee suspects they have COVID-19 and is waiting test results?' If that employee has been in close contact with other employees, should the entire office self-quarantine while that person is waiting their results? If that employee tests positive, what process should be followed? How do you return equipment back to other employees suddenly finding themselves working from home again? Which government authorities do you need to notify etc.?

On a broader note, a Business Continuity Plan should also consider what your business' process will be if there are second or third waves. Hong Kong and Singapore flattened their curves, however this was short-lived with second waves causing strict restrictions being employed again. Transitioning employees to work from home, then back to the office, and to home again, can have major impacts on productivity. A good Business Continuity Plan should map out a process that causes the least disruption and gets people working again as quickly as possible.

Returning our workforce back into the office is a process. At Paxus and talentCRU, we're currently working with each department and state office to determine how best to tackle this. We are also taking into consideration that some functions are better setup to work from home than others. These functions are likely to continue to work from home for a much longer period, so we can reduce the overall numbers in the office, reduce reliance on public transport and comply with physical distancing mandates.

In NSW, we are already seeing limits on buses and trains. Such measures may be replicated in other states as well. This, combined with the likelihood of increased road traffic due to many avoiding public transport, will increase our employee's commuting times and subsequently could affect their productivity levels. We will need to decide what is best for our business overall – encouraging employees to return in these conditions or to continue working remotely.

At Paxus, we appreciate that this process will continuously evolve. The situation in each state is different. Currently, we are planning to transition employees back into the office in WA. The WA Government has been very proactive and produced a set of guidelines on how to return to the office, including a Safety Checklist of items to consider and implement, which results in a certificate being issued. This will provide learnings for us to build on when we start to transition offices in other states.

Finally, how do we know when to put these transition plans in place. Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has recommended to continue to work from home until stage three. However, the final decision comes down to each state depending on their own situation. As mentioned, we have already started to prepare to transition employees back to our WA office. There, all businesses must develop and implement a COVID Safety Plan and display a COVID Safety Plan Certificate once they reopen or recommence operations. We will have to wait for instructions for the other states, however it's likely to follow a similar process to WA.

The process of returning employees back into the office will not be a simple one. The plans we are developing now will need to consider the safety of our employees, while also strategising how best to return to and sustain productivity levels to pre-COVID times.

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How prepared are you for your employees to return to the workplace?

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