How to support your team’s return to the workplace
As employees head back into workplaces across Australia, many of them understandably have health and safety front of mind.

In fact, SEEK research reveals that 61% of Australians said they were concerned for their health to some extent when returning to work and 11% were extremely concerned for their health.

We asked Nicole Gorton, a director at Robert Half Australia about the best ways employers and managers can support employees during the return-to-work period.

The top changes to the workplace

Many workplaces have made changes to their environment and working conditions since COVID hit. In Australia, the top six changes workplaces have made to ensure COVID-safety are:

  • Physical distancing (65%)
  • Increased cleaning frequency (58%)
  • Reduced number of people who can be in the workplace at any one time (30%)
  • Keeping workspaces further apart (30%)
  • Restrictions when using meeting rooms (30%)
  • Restrictions on visitors to the workplace (30%)

In general, Gorton says business decisions around returning to work should be guided by safety protocols and the wellbeing of employees. This is why it’s important to understand and reference official guidelines and state health guidelines and resources like Safework Australia.

“And as businesses encourage employees to return to work, it’s important they understand what concerns their team may have and work hard to address these,” Gorton says.

Physical distancing and the number of employees at work

One way to navigate the return-to-work is by staggering employees coming back to the workplace. This may see some teams working remotely while others work in-house, or some teams coming back a few days or weeks before others.

“This dynamic approach assists with managing physical distancing as you can arrange for a proportional number of employees to return each day in order to manage capacity,” Gorton says. “It also helps to keep workspaces further apart and allow for every second or third desk to be occupied.”

Increased cleaning frequency

The change that candidates most wanted to become permanent was increased cleaning frequency (70% wanted this). Having hand sanitisation stations, sanitising wet wipes and cleaning information displayed all contribute to staff having peace of mind that their health is prioritised. “It’s also important to emphasise that staff should stay home when feeling unwell to avoid the risk of spreading seasonal illnesses around the workplace,” Gorton adds.

Many businesses have adjusted their cleaning procedures to meet or exceed COVID-safe practices, and Gorton recommends that businesses reflect staff sentiment by employing a regular external cleaner to keep communal spaces clean and hygienic.

“Another initiative is to limit common areas or shared resources like supplied food to restrict unintentional peer-to-peer contact,” she says. “This could also include personal desk-side bins to avoid tissues being left around.”

Restrictions when using meeting rooms

If you’re managing a dynamic return, keeping a schedule that monitors the number of people attending the workplace is useful. “If welcoming external parties, establish clear procedures – for instance, checking in to the workplace, sanitising hands or undergoing temperature checks,” Gorton says. “To contain the number of new people throughout a workplace, you could also designate a specific meeting room to host external parties and record the contact details of participants”.

Keeping your teams informed

It’s likely that official workplace health and safety guidelines will be refined over time and you’ll need to communicate clearly with your staff about any anticipated changes. “These changes could include new rules around the numbers of people entering kitchens, meeting rooms, distancing between workstations, desk cleaning regimes and best practices for hand hygiene and using facilities,” Gorton says.

Gorton suggests regular email updates, updates on the company’s intranet and social channels, as well as frequent town hall meetings (online or in a smaller setting) as key elements of an effective communication approach.

For many employees, returning to the workplace after the pandemic feels significant and for some, a little daunting. As an employer, it’s important to understand and address employee concerns, and clearly communicate expectations and procedures. This is key to ensuring that your staff can come back to the workplace excited and ready to work – knowing that their health is paramount.

Source: Independent research conducted by Nature on behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4800 Australians annually. Published April 2021.