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Strategising the return to work

Strategising the return to work

Since COVID-19 became a reality in Australia and New Zealand, many businesses have had to close their doors, stand down their employees or mandate their staff to work from home. Now, with signals from the relative governments that the worst is over, business leaders are shifting their focus to creating a return-to-work strategy.

The return to work strategy encompasses multi-faceted, complex elements – employee wellbeing, health and safety, physical space and layout, logistics, cost implications, legalities, etc. – and involves key team members from different parts of the business – HR, IT, risk management, finance, facilities and legal. Bringing these different points of view into the discussion will enable an organisation to create a strong strategy and carry out a smooth return-to-work transition. Note: all decisions that are made will have a direct impact on the organisation’s consumer and employer brands, so should not be taken lightly.

Your guide to navigating the return to work transition in Australia
Navigating the return to work transition in New Zealand: What you need to know

Find out what the different teams must consider below.


HR professionals will play a huge role in strategising an organisation’s return to work. They must consider two key points of view: logistical and emotional. The former concerns the who, what, where, when and how; HR will likely play a key role in deciding the exact date and time when workers will return to the workplace and will devise the relevant protocols that must be followed to ensure a safe and sustainable return to work.

The “emotional” point of view relates to the overarching employee experience of returning to work. This is far greater than the moment an employee steps into a reopened building; it encompasses every stage of their return-to-work journey – the anticipation, the morning commute, the reaction upon arrival, etc. It is about employees’ mental and physical wellbeing, emotions, concerns and fears – and the unique circumstances that affect them.

When strategising the return to work, HR must be advocates for the employee experience and ensure that the decisions made are best for all involved. For example, it’s important that HR remember that employees are not returning to work as normal – they are experiencing a different reality and their workplace will most likely reflect this (i.e. the layout/use of the space will be different so that it adheres to social distancing guidelines), which may trigger the feeling of discomfort in some employees. Therefore, HR should involve employees in the process, and there should be flexibility around individual circumstances.

Risk Management

The purpose of risk management in this scenario is to assess both the short-term and long-term implications of returning to work to minimise any lasting negative impacts. For small and medium-sized businesses, HR will likely be involved in risk management, whereas an enterprise-sized organisation may have a dedicated risk management team.

Conducting an effective risk assessment during the pandemic is about preparing for the unexpected and evaluating all types of risks – financial, operational, strategic and reputational. It is wise to consult internal stakeholders (employees) and external stakeholders (clients and vendors) as well as advisers to gauge additional perspectives and to uncover any gaps in preparation.

Some of the risks an organisation may consider when strategising the return to work are as follows:

  • Workplace health & safety (WHS) – COVID-19 poses a huge risk to employee health, both physically and psychologically. Even if a business decides to recall its workforce and maintain strict social distancing, the threat of infection remains. Preventing infection will require the enforcement of strict hygiene measures and a rigorous cleaning and sanitisation regime. In the instance that transmission reoccurs, an exit strategy will be required, and this may have negative consequences in terms of cost, reputation and logistics. Under the same umbrella of employee health is mental wellbeing. Organisations must consider that returning to work may have an impact on employees’ emotions (e.g. they may be fearful of returning). Working collaboratively with employees makes it possible to reach solutions that suit everyone.
  • Supply chain ­– Organisations should consider the risks that their external stakeholders (clients, customers, vendors, suppliers, distributors and manufacturers) are experiencing, and the extent at which it will directly and indirectly affect business operations.


The key consideration of the IT team is the technology infrastructure. For example, office-based workers that have been instructed to work remotely over recent months may have taken home IT equipment to facilitate their work (e.g. laptops, monitors, keyboards, cables, etc.), and IT teams will need the equipment returned so they can reconfigure the office set-up. This will depend on several factors: e.g. which employees/teams are returning to the office – and whether they’re returning partially or full-time; and whether the office design will need to be rearranged in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Therefore, to ensure a smooth and efficient re-adjustment process, IT must work with HR to communicate to staff what they must do and bring when they return to the office.

Another consideration for IT is that portions of the workforce may continue to work from home and may still need access to the digital tools they have become accustomed to. For example, employees may use electronic signature tools to accelerate processes whilst minimalising manual handling and touchpoints, or video conferencing tools like Zoom to enable collaboration, or a VPN. These tools will still need to be available to all staff, wherever they are.

Signing documents whilst working from home: 5 solutions you can use today.


For the building facilities team (aka corporate real estate team for enterprise-sized organisations), the main responsibility is reconfiguring the physical workspace to ensure it is safe, socially distanced (in line with government guidelines), and conducive to productivity in the immediate term. In relation to office-based workspaces, the layout of the office will depend on how many employees will be returning – and what jobs they do. The team should work with HR and IT to determine the employee and technological needs of the new layout.

Another area that may need to be reconsidered is the communal kitchen area. Communal kitchens can be potential breeding grounds of the contagion, especially if shared crockery and cutlery is used. Therefore, facilities will have to consider introducing single-use plastic in the short-term to avoid transmission. This means sustainability may have to be compromised until it is safe to resume the intended usage of the communal space. It may also mean that communal areas won’t be as pleasant to use, and so may not be used at all. This may prompt employers to ask themselves: why do employees choose to come into the office at all?


When strategising the return to work, organisations should pay close attention to the different laws, regulations and guidelines that are relevant to their business industry, size and location. There may also be conflicting laws and information, especially across Australia and New Zealand (i.e. local, state and federal guidelines), which will need to be considered if an organisation operates across countries/states.

Legal professionals can advise on how to navigate the circumstances, practices and safeguards by which workers can return to the workplace. According to a professional in the Employment Law Group at McCabe Curwood,[1] the law in Australia currently states that an employer can direct their workforce to return to the workplace, and disciplinary action can be taken towards those who refuse.

However, even if the law permits workers to return to the office, is it the right thing for everyone? Some employees may not feel comfortable returning to work, so adopting a mindful, employee-centric approach is practical. In addition, employees with unique circumstances may require special consideration – for example, those with disabilities or carer’s responsibilities. Hasty decisions taken now could open up the employer to adverse action or discrimination claims.

It should also be noted that the employer’s duty of care extends to those working from home. Therefore, there are several WHS regulations that must be followed for both office-based and remote-based employees. Not adhering to WHS legislations can land an organisation in hot water. Read ELMO’s blog on creating a safe work from home environment here.


When forecasting the return to work transition, there are several financial implications to consider. Business leaders and CFOs should recognise that the way people use workspaces may change in the long-term, as well as the short-term – especially if more workers choose to remain working from home.

CFOs will likely find themselves taking a cautious approach to returning to the workplace, anticipating that workplace safety measures will need to be changed and that the site will need to be reconfigured to comply with social distancing guidelines.

They may also consider conducting a cost optimisation exercise, which may include imposing hiring freezes, travel bans and reductions of contractors. They may also consider perhaps postponing financial investments.

The continuation of remote working may also mean that additional IT costs are incurred, such as further investment in tools and software (e.g. upgrading accounts and licenses for video conferencing so employees can stay connected).

Aside from the practical and logistical monetary costs, organisations must consider the reputational cost of returning to the workplace. For instance, if the workforce returns and someone becomes infected, there may be reputational damage, which may impact how a company’s customers, competitors and talent pool view them. In this case, all the steps and decisions taken in the return to work transition will need to be reversed. Therefore, the risks on both sides should be weighed up.

Talk of returning to “normal” can be confusing for both employees and employers. In fact, “normal” will look different for everyone and depend on so many factors. However, with an open-minded approach, a willingness to be flexible and diligent preparation, an organisation can navigate the return-to-work journey in a successful – and safe – way.

Reintroducing your staff to the workplace – to a ‘new normal’ of work – requires a lot of planning. When creating a return-to-the-workplace plan, the critical areas to consider include the physical and psychological wellbeing of employees; practical workspace solutions to reduce reinfection; and maintaining high levels of communication to enhance employee engagement and performance. For guidance on developing an effective return-to-work strategy, check out ELMO’s eBook “How to make the new ‘normal’ great: Developing a successful return-to-the workplace strategy

ELMO Cloud HR & Payroll can help business leaders manage their workforce, even while operating remotely. As a cloud-based solution, ELMO helps employers manage their teams from anywhere at any time from a secure, centralised database. All employee-employer touchpoints are covered by ELMO’s suite, from ‘hire to retire’. This includes recruitment, onboarding, performance management, payroll, rostering / time & attendance, learning & development, and more. For further information, contact us.

[1] “My staff don’t want to return to work – coming back after COVID-19”, HRD, May 2020