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The road back to the office

Edition: 5

With COVID-19 restrictions starting to ease in some parts of the country, many workplaces have begun to consider how and when to transition staff back to the office. But getting staff back is arguably more complex than it was to leave in the first place.

“Having a transition plan that is strong but flexible is key to returning safely to our usual workplaces. There is no one-size-fits-all option – each organisation’s plan will need to be tailored to its circumstances,” ComCare CEO Sue Weston explains.

Of course, official guidance and directions should form the basis of transition plans. The underlying principles of the National Cabinet’s Roadmap to a COVIDSafe Australia include maintaining physical distancing, staying at home if unwell, and frequent cleaning and disinfecting of communal areas.

“This obviously includes following the health advice and directions in place in each state and territory,” Sue adds.

Following the advice of work health and safety regulators is also critical. This advice is underpinned by the national COVID-19 safe workplace principles – agreed to by all governments – to ensure we return to healthy and safe working environments.

A good transition back to the workplace will focus on ensuring workplaces are safe for all workers, while also delivering critical functions.

“Make sure your plan aligns with government policy and health advice, the current restrictions in place, physical distancing guidance, and the safe workplace principles – these are the basis for a safe and effective transition.”

It’s also important to factor in the personal circumstances of workers. “Perhaps they are vulnerable due to existing health conditions or need support for caring responsibilities. A good plan will allow for different personal circumstances and have a strong element of flexibility in order to deal with that.”

“Clear and ongoing communication is also very important – including consulting with staff and advising of local restrictions and government advice.”

When it comes to managing risks, an approach that can be reviewed regularly and adjusted to factor in the ever-changing environment is essential. “Transitioning staff back to the office doesn’t come without risk, and that needs to be managed carefully,” Sue said. “We are seeing a range of different situations across the country and things are changing rapidly. If you compare the current situation in Victoria with that in WA, for example, you realise that circumstances may be different across the country and the type and level of control measures needed to ensure people are protected from COVID-19 will be different.

“This is certainly not a ‘set and forget’ situation we find ourselves in and, as such, control measures must be continually reviewed to make sure they remain effective and are up to date with the latest situation.”

Beyond maintaining physically safe workplaces, it’s important to consider the longer-term impacts the pandemic is having on mental health and wellbeing. “The pandemic is creating a new level of psychological risk for workers that is different to risks we have considered before,” Sue said. Some staff members will struggle to cope with feelings of uncertainty, stress and anxiety.

“It’s essential for HR professionals to stay connected with their workforces and remind them of the support they can access – whether it’s your EAP service or the broad range of helplines and published resources available to help them stay positive and productive.

“Staff should know that their health and wellbeing is the number one concern of their employer.”

The COVID-safe Comcare webinar provides more information about transitioning back to the workplace.

Comcare also recently ran a webinar on  COVID-19: Navigating a new normal. This session  provided information to employers about managing workplace health and wellbeing during COVID-19. 

Last reviewed: 
3 November 2020