Here in Sydney our lives changed last Monday, 11 October 2021. That day became known as Freedom Day and it started our road out of lockdown where we have been for the past 3 plus months. You could almost hear a collective sigh around the city and a new feeling of optimism and hope was palpable. My first visit was to my hairdresser at 6pm on Monday evening whereas my 19 year old went to the pub with his mates (priorities right!) And we have caught up with family and friends who have been absent from our lives for too long. This pandemic has certainly taught me who is important in my life and to not take them for granted. I hope that I remember that lesson as life returns to a semblance of normality and don’t slip back into complacency.
What will the new normal look like for Australia’s workforce as the country begins our economic recovery, as our borders open, as we begin to travel again, eat a meal in a restaurant, attend weddings, concerts, the theatre and sporting events? As part of our economic recovery, governments want employees to return to the office and for good reason. Whether you work in a major city, country town or in the suburbs, having people moving about creates the need for services – transport, retail, hospitality and accommodation to name a few – which leads to businesses getting back on their feet and jobs growth.
But why would employees want to return to the office? They have proven that they can work productively from home over the past 18 months and having spoken to many, there are mixed emotions and thoughts about heading back into the office. Some are desperate to return. Some are anxious about mixing with too many people on transport or in the office itself. Others simply don’t want to navigate a long commute anymore – they have discovered a better balance between their home and work life, and don’t want to give it up.
So what is your roadmap back to the office? Are you going to retain and attract the best talent in the marketplace? There is never going to be one size that fits all – it’s a balancing act for employers – but here are a few things to consider to help make the transition smoother.
- Health & Safety of EmployeesMental Health
We know that lockdown has caused an increase in mental health issues but just because lockdown’s have/are ending, doesn’t mean these issues will miraculously disappear. Whilst some employees will be excited to see their colleagues face to face again and to have meetings and social gatherings, others may feel overwhelmed and need some time to settle back in. Tread carefully and ensure you are taking your employee’s state of mental health into consideration when working through the return to the office plans.Physical Health
Do you have a vaccination policy in place? This is a complex and difficult discussion that needs to be had. I am aware of at least one pharmaceutical company who has just implemented a mandated vaccination policy. This makes sense for them because most of their workforce are out in hospitals and doctor’s surgeries, mixing with vulnerable members of our community. And they didn’t want to differentiate between their field and office staff. Whilst this may not be the case for your organisation what measures are you going to put in place to ensure the health and safety of your employees and those that attend your site?
There are financial benefits for organisations not returning to a fully office based workforce. A reduction in your real estate footprint could mean significant savings from the bottom line, thus increasing profits. On the flip side, have you spoken to your landlord about a better deal for staying with your current footprint or staying at all?
- Employee Engagement
Over the last 18 months the traditional employer/employee relationship has been tipped on its head and the balance of power has shifted to the employee to decide which organisation is going to meet their needs. Providing different models in your roadmap to offer them the environment and flexibility that they are looking will help keep them engaged and retained. This might include working a 2/3 day office/home work week, one week office/one week home split, flexible start and finish times or moving to a 9 day fortnight? Don’t be afraid to ask your employees for their ideas to help shape your models. There is no point going to the effort of developing and implementing options that no one utilises.
- Leadership Capabilities
Once you have decided on your roadmap, be sure to engage with your people leaders so that they are all singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak, in terms of how they are speaking with, and providing direction, to employees. Employees love consistency and this strategy will save you a lot of headaches.
Whatever you, as an organisation, decide is your own roadmap back to the office, my advice would be to maintain the flexible approach you have shown since the beginning of the pandemic. The world has shifted and I doubt will ever return to the way it was before. Heading into 2022, as the economy improves and confidence grows, employees who have been too afraid to move roles, will start looking. Get ahead of the curve – implement your roadmap strategy now with this in mind and give yourself the best opportunity of retaining and attracting the best talent.
Something else to consider following action in the US:
Apple News put out an article recently highlighting a trend called the Great Resignation that is happening across the US, with staff from all types of industries leaving their jobs – and “exhausted” Aussies could follow.
 5 things to keep in mind when staff return to work after lockdown, Kate Neilson, HRM, 7 October 2021