Transitioning back to the office: pros and pitfalls

After several months at home, many businesses are taking the first, tentative steps back into the office.  

For obvious reasons, the workplace they are returning to looks a quite different to the one they left in March. That may mean fewer staff at any given time, limits on visitors to the building and staggered start and finish times.

For those trying to decide whether – and how – to make the move back to a shared workspace, there are a few considerations that may dictate the direction.

  1. Health comes first, always

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned “there will be outbreaks” and that has to be a consideration for anyone returning to the office. The recent experience in Victoria has demonstrated the return to work trajectory won’t necessarily be linear.

People with compromised immune systems will have to proceed with the most caution. SafeWork Australia suggests vulnerable people continue to work from home. If they can’t due to the needs of the business, it’s advised a risk assessment be carried out and they are potentially redeployed to another role.

Others will wish to stay home for mental health reasons. 

For those planning a move back to a shared space, a PwC report says there are several ways people can supported. Ideas include reviewed expectations around productivity due to frequent cleaning, transport alternatives and hybrid office/remote work options.

  1. The client experience

Some clients may be missing the face-to-face interaction, while others may prefer to continue with remotely-delivered advice. An informal survey of clients could guide how quickly businesses return to in-person appointments. The approach many will take will be a bespoke one, driven by state health guidelines, client demands and business capacity.   

For those looking to host clients in the office once again, certain changes will have to be made. A Deloitte report says measures like plexiglass dividers may need to be added if there isn’t sufficient distancing to ensure the comfort of clients. Other suggestions include single appointments in the office at any given time and the removal of waiting areas.

  1. Where are you happier and more productive while working?

There is a growing acceptance that working from home will have to play at least some role in the business of the future, but it is not always the productivity panacea it’s represented to be.

A study from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions found there are equal benefits and downsides to working from home and sometimes individuals experience both simultaneously.

“On the one hand, (remote) workers report reduced commuting time, more time for their families and a better balance between work and personal life; on the other hand, they also report an increase in working hours, a blurring of the boundaries between paid work and personal life and more work–life interference,” the authors said.

Advisers may have to do a cost-benefit analysis and consider a gradual, safe return to work if it’s the optimal choice in their personal situation and the broader business.

  1. Social interaction at a distance

Some advisers say one of the biggest challenges of the lockdown period has been the lack of team interaction.

A return to the office could boost team morale, but businesses will have to weigh that against new measures to ensure social distancing, such as smaller teams and physical barriers between people. There will be no large meetings or congregating in the kitchen, at least in the transitional period.

Ultimately, the transition back to the office will be a slow and staggered one, requiring a lot of preparation. How it’s managed and whether it’s necessary will depend on a variety of factors, including health considerations, team dynamics, client demands and personal preferences.

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