A gradual return to office life has commenced for many businesses but a reintroduction to office life has to be managed in a planned and controlled manner to minimise risks to health and safety. We have shared advice from experts, insights from our Stockland property management peers and actions from our recent split team transition back to our head office to give employers confidence for a safe and healthy transition back to the workplace.
While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, it represents a starting point with proactive tips to manage staff numbers, rebuild staff morale and a review of the physical office setup to guide a safe return to the office.
With continual change expected over the next 6–18 months, the steps employers take now to prepare their workforce will play a vital role in their organisation’s long-term success.
Stockland created eight ‘return to office’ principles, as a short-term guide to support our people to safely return to the office. We thought they might be helpful for you to consider adopting these principles to underpin a strategy for a safe return to the workplace.
1. Taking care of employees should be the number one priority
- The health and safety of staff should always be the focus.
- Encourage employees to talk to their manager about their return to work and agree on how and where they will work during this time to support team outcomes.
- Team member health also involves some personal responsibility – ensure all employees support a COVID safe workplace and demonstrate the right behaviours.
2. Recognise employee carer responsibilities
- All employees should feel comfortable sharing with their manager any constraints this may have on their work schedule.
- Commit to working with employees to accommodate their caring responsibilities, while ensuring the business continues to meet its organisational outcomes.
3. Support employees’ health and safety
- Employees should not attend the office if they are ill or present with respiratory symptoms. Ask them to seek medical advice and testing where appropriate.
- If employees need to continue to work from home to support their personal health, they should be able to do so where possible.
4. Commit to acting inclusively towards all employees
- Recognise that employees are individuals with distinct needs.
- Regardless of where or when employees are working, they need to feel included.
- It is the role of both managers and employees to adopt new ways of working, when partial teams are in the office and other team members are working from home. This can be facilitated in many ways including the use of video conferencing systems.
- Teams should consider continuing the use of video-only meetings, with individuals dialing in separately wherever they are located – this is shown to reduce ‘distance bias’ and make all team members feel included (also good for health and safety via social distancing).
5. Encourage workplace flexibility
- Decisions on ways of working should be made with managers and other team members to help balance organisational outcomes, team performance and individual needs.
- During this period, encourage flexibility in start and finish times to assist in managing any risks associated with using public transport to commute to and from the office, and load on common areas like lifts.
6. Encourage a split team return to the office
- Split teams into multiple groups
- The purpose of the split team structure is to support social distancing restrictions and limit the number of people in the office environment at any one time. This approach will also limit the potential exposure to employees in the event there is a confirmed COVID-19 case among employees.
- Ask people to remain in the split team they are allocated and stick to their agreed office days.
7. Follow health and safety protocols
- When commuting to the office, employees should maintain social distancing, limit unnecessary contact with surfaces and exercise a heighted degree of personal hygiene.
- When employees arrive at the office, they should wash or sanitise their hands before they sit at their desk. Provide sanitiser dispensers throughout the office.
- Encourage the continuation of good hygiene practices throughout the day by maintaining social distancing, regular washing or sanitising of hands and limiting unnecessary contact with surfaces.
- Ensure employees sit at least 1.5 metres away from other staff members and avoid sitting in confined spaces for extended periods of time.
- Discourage greeting people without physical contact – i.e. no handshaking
- Minimise the number of face-to-face meetings employees have with other team members and stakeholders – use virtual platforms where possible.
8. Encourage open dialogue and transparency
- This is an uncertain time and many employees might be feeling anxious about the return to work and what the new ways of working will look like.
- Encourage employees to talk to their manager and team about how they are feeling and work together to determine how these principles will apply across teams.
Below is advice and specific actions from Safe Work Australia and tips from Stockland’s office strategy that can help with a safe return to the workplace.
Signage for the workplace
It is important to install signs and posters around the workplace to remind workers and visitors to the workplace of the risks of COVID-19 and the measures that are necessary to stop its spread. This includes posters on what is COVID-19 and how to stop it spreading, how to wash your hands and physical distancing requirements.
Signage examples can be found at Safe Work Australia’s website.
Stockland took inspiration from these designs, producing a comprehensive suite of decals and signs for our head office locations and the communal areas of the business park and office locations that we manage, including:
- Footstep decals for lifts indicating where to stand and a sign containing information on social distancing lift capacity;
- Social distancing floor decals for lift lobbies;
- News meeting room capacity signage;
- New shared table seating capacity signage;
- World Health Organization handwashing guidelines for bathroom mirrors;
- 1.5 metre floor decals for high-traffic areas, such as kitchens and footstep icons where queuing expected;
- Entry and exit signs (and barriers) at the entrance to busy lift lobbies for one-way traffic.
Readying the office
- Contactless hand sanitiser dispensers in lobbies, near receptions and contractor login areas and other common areas;
- Increased frequency of cleaning of high volume areas such as waiting areas, chairs, reception desks and frequently touched items (sign-in screens, lift buttons, doors, kitchen areas etc.);
- Readily accessible hand sanitiser and anti-bacterial wipes throughout buildings;
- Emergency Hygiene Kits where necessary;
- Individually wrapped snacks in communal kitchens;
- Developing a plan for deep cleaning if a case is confirmed.
Lifts and lobbies
Safe Work Australia recently relaxed its guidelines on office lifts: “there is no requirement to provide 4 square metres of space per person in lifts, however you must still ensure, as far as you reasonably can, that people maintain physical distancing in lifts and lift waiting areas".
The regulation also states that "users of lifts must maintain physical distancing, to the extent possible. Lifts must not be overcrowded and users should avoid touching other users". Here are some tips to help ensure sensible and practical social distancing in lifts:
Install signage in lobbies recommending that people do not travel in lifts if there is insufficient space to practice social distancing;
- Consider social distancing decals on lift car floors to indicate exact spacing dimensions;
- Assess whether lifts can be reprogrammed to minimise capacity;
- Where there are digital or static screens in lifts, consider displaying Australian Government COVID-19 advice;
- Prepare a plan of lobby/lift areas listing decals required to allow for 1.5m spacing in queuing areas;
- Ensure lobby furniture allows for 1.5m spacing. Consider decals for seating benches;
- For offices with cafés, liaise with the operator and install decals for queuing;
- Ensure café seating areas have spaced out chairs as required to maintain current 1.5m social distancing guidelines.
Rethinking the visitor policy
Keeping communication alive
- Think about how a collaborative team dynamic can be maintained via regular video conferencing, team meetings and check ins.
- Suggest staff read why it is important to download the COVIDSafe app here. Remember, the use of COVIDSafe is voluntary and an employer cannot require a worker or other person to download or use the app. That includes work-issued mobile phones.
Other things to consider
- Flu vaccinations – many offices are offering onsite vaccinations as we enter the flu season
The Safe Work Australia website has other helpful resources for workplaces including conducting office risk assessments, dealing with vulnerable workers, What to do if a COVID-19 case is confirmed in your office and information on mental health.