Planning your return to the office after working remote? What if employees don’t want to go back?

For many workers, working 100% remotely during most of 2020 has been hard. But as states and industries look towards fully reopening in a new post-Covid-19 world, new people challenges are starting to emerge.

As many as a quarter of Australian employees say they don’t want to return to their offices until they feel safer – or perhaps ever. 

Some staff members will have been enjoying a (much!) shorter commute, working in their comfiest clothes, and personally opening their door to online shopping deliveries, and will be reluctant to give these perks up when enforced work-from-home (WFH) ends.

So how should your organisation address this potential challenge?

1. Victorians: Start preparing your ‘Return To Work’ strategy

Organisations outside Victoria will be well versed in the ‘COVIDSafe Plan’, the federal government’s safety guidelines for organisations to return to the office.

But Victorian-based organisations should soon start planning for both physical and emotional security of your employees and volunteers. For example:

  • What cleaning routines need to be put in place?
  • How many staff will be allowed in the office to start with? And which ones?
  • How will office occupancy rates, along with social distancing, be monitored?
  • How much time do employees need to transition back to the office? 
  • What kind of mental health and manager support will be available?
  • How (and to who) should staff speak up to about personal issues that may impact their ability to follow the plan?

Most importantly, once you have drafted a plan, share it with your team and openly ask for input. Organisations are required to consult with staff on health and safety matters relating to COVID-19.

Don’t wait – it’s only fair that everyone is on the same page in advance of stepping into the office, and therefore feels safe doing so.

2. Acknowledge why employees may be apprehensive, and incorporate their feedback

Even with a COVIDSafe plan in place, many employees and volunteers are likely to still be reluctant to go back to the office.

Tackling concerns with empathy is key. Managers need to create a safe setting in which they can speak candidly with any individual staff or volunteer who is feeling anxious about the transition, listening to them without judgement and compassionately talking them through how the organisation is approaching their concerns. 

Whether it’s a fear of contracting the Coronavirus or difficultly adjusting to changes that have happened at home, approach each person’s concerns individually – and use their feedback as an opportunity to revise and refine your organisation’s COVIDSafe Plan. 

3. Find middle ground when rolling out change    

Understanding the specifics of team members’ work-from-home situation has become critical to success as an effective manager in 2020. As people start returning to the office, extending this mindset is paramount – staff will continue to experience challenges adapting to change.

Managers can start by deciding on the time each employee needs to be on-site for face-to-face engagements against the time for tasks that can be completed remotely. This can help to serve as a transparent guideline for determining an equitable split between in-office and remote work.

Scheduling more frequent catch-ups to check-in on each team member’s general wellbeing and productivity can be valuable while staff are balancing work at home and in the office.  

If you don’t already have one, providing access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can assist employees to manage their mental health and wellbeing throughout the transition. 

And offering mental health training to managers will support them in identifying employee mental health needs in a split remote and in-office environment.

4. Understand your legal rights and responsibilities

Some employees – those who have worked for you for at least 12 months – have a right to request to continue working from home indefinitely because they:

  • are the parent, or have responsibility for the care, of a child who is of school age or younger
  • are a carer (within the meaning of the Carer Recognition Act 2010)
  • have a disability
  • are 55 or older
  • are experiencing violence from a member of their family, or
  • provide care or support to a member of their immediate family or household, who requires care or support because they are experiencing violence from their family.

If such a request is made, you’ll need a legitimate business reason to refuse the request. And given you’re likely to have already made operational changes to allow most staff to work from home this year, many of the reasons you might have previously relied on to refuse such a request – for example that it would be too costly or impractical – may no longer be available.

If you’re truly unable to reach a compromise with a staff member, there’s no legal requirement that you ultimately agree to their request. If their request has been made in writing, you must either approve or refuse the request in writing within 21 days. 

If you refuse their request, you must include reasons for the refusal – for example, that the request would be likely to result in significant loss of efficiency or productivity, or have a significant negative impact on the service they provide to clients or customers.

4. Begin to reimagine what your workplace might look like in the future

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the working lives of literally billions of people around the world, and some of the changes that Australian NFPs have been forced to make this year have no doubt been challenging or even uncomfortable for many.

But as millions of employees transition back to their offices, rather than simply returning to ‘the way things were’, it will be valuable to seriously consider what your organisation has learned from this huge, world-wide experiment in remote working.

At the end of the day, keeping your staff and volunteers happy and productive is always a priority. And if that means some significant changes in your internal processes, rostering, staff skills or technology, its probably worth considering these changes or investments to help create a workplace that will attract the best staff and volunteers and truly thrive into the future.

Have you discussed any ‘Return To Work’ strategies with your employees? If so, we’d love to hear about them. Comment below!

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