So much has changed these past few months, including the way we work and do business. But as restrictions caused by COVID-19 start to ease across Australia, we might soon get a semblance of normality. And for those of us fortunate enough to still have a job or a business to run, returning to the workplace is becoming a bigger part of our conversations and plans.

But as a business owner, how do you organise this transition without risking the health and safety of your employees? How do you prepare for the new normal of social distancing at work?

Here are some key things to keep in mind.

Stagger employees’ return

Getting everyone to go back to the office at the same time might increase the risk of spreading the virus, so stagger the return of your employees. One way is to rotate those who work from the office every couple of days.

“Staggered shifts, enforced flexitime and 24/7 operations may become the norm, along with working remotely,” Rachel Morrison, Associate Professor at Auckland University of Technology, says in a recent article.

Whatever approach you choose, plan and create a clear process for your employees’ transition back to the office. This will minimise any disruption to their routine and your operations.

Reconfigure your workspaces

Open and collaborative workspaces might not be viable in this post-pandemic world. They allow viruses to easily spread through droplets from coughs and sneezes.

So, some companies are now reconfiguring their workspaces to create partitions between desks. Sneeze guards and other protective barriers are finding their way into offices, and even cubicles might be making a comeback.

To help businesses prepare for returning employees, real estate services company Cushman & Wakefield has created the Six Feet Office. Based on the six-feet rule of social distancing, the design prescribes that areas surrounding each desk be empty. It also proposes “six feet routing”, which uses signs to direct the flow of people and encourage them to keep their distance.

So, consider using road signs in your workplace. You can create standing spots at your lift lobby, put visual instructions on office walls and use lines on the floor to guide traffic.

Set new protocols

COVID-19 calls for other changes in the way your office works. Gone are the days when you could call everyone to the boardroom for meetings, or to gather for tea or drinks. To keep your workplace safe, limit social and in-person interactions, including with visitors and customers. Consider capping the number of people who can visit your office at the same time.

It’s also wise to introduce safety protocols, such as discouraging handshakes, promoting good hand hygiene and regularly sanitising your office. Visit health.gov.au for more tips on how to keep your workplace virus-free.

Support your staff

Finally, consult your employees about your transition plan and support them as they move back to the office. As PwC suggests, lead with empathy and understand that some people have had more difficulty dealing with this crisis due to health conditions or parental responsibilities. For these reasons, they might not be ready to return to the office.

Going back to a changed workplace will take some getting used to, so allow your people the flexibility to adjust to their new way of working.

“Give people time to mourn the past, because you may not care about it, but they do,” says Ken Matos, Lead People Scientist at worker survey provider Culture Amp.

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