How to plan your transition back to the office

by Sirius People

2020 06 15
Estimated Reading Time: minutes

As Australia is entering the first stages of relaxing lockdown restrictions, many organisations are beginning to move their workforce back to the office.

We speak with a number of our clients and candidates every day, and many of them are beginning to put together a transitional plan to bring their employees back to the office.

This may be because:

  • The business cannot function without staff being physically present on the premises;

  • Employees are proving to be more productive in the office;

  • Employees are more collaborative at the office; 

  • Company culture is stronger in the office; or

  • The organisation is concerned about your employees’ mental health whilst working from home.

No matter your reasoning, the most important aspect of your transitional Return To Office plan is to ensure your employees’ safety as they return to the workplace.

We’ve created this informational blog post to provide you with a general overview to help you navigate the transition back to a safe office environment in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.

DISCLAIMER: Please note, this blog post does not outline all the legal obligations of the employer during COVID-19 and is to be used as an informational starting point and guide only. We encourage you to refer directly to government and Safe Work Australia websites to ensure your organisation is up-to-date and compliant with all regulations in your respective state.


Nominate a COVID-19 Officer

Before looking into what policies, procedures and standards your organisation will need to implement to ensure the health and safety of your employees, appoint a COVID-19 Officer. 

This may be an employee who is part of your leadership, people and culture, and/or HSR team, as they are already familiar with the work health and safety policies and procedures already in place, and will be helping put together and executing your organisation’s COVID-19 Return To Office plan.

This individual will be in charge of staying on top of the latest COVID-19 government regulations and policies that impact your business, and presenting, creating and implementing policies, procedures and standards that reflect the latest changes. 

For a full list of what this role includes, visit Safe Work Australia’s website here.

For employers wishing to require their employees to come back to their place of work, you must have a COVID-19 Return To Office plan to ensure a safe working environment for all workers. 

We will share some resources with you for your organisation’s COVID-19 Return To Office plan below.


Commuting to and from work

The Government is recommending avoiding peak hour on public transportation to allow for social distancing and less crowds. 

To account for this, employers should adjust their start and end times for workers to ensure employees have a wider window of time to arrive and leave work to circumvent peak hour on public transportation. This may include individual start and finish times for employees that are decided upon with their direct manager; and encouraging alternative forms of commuting, such as walking or cycling to work.


Building entry and lifts

Once you arrive at work, there may be a few new features in your office building.

For instance, newer office buildings may utilise touch-free technology, like voice-activated lifts, touchless taps, soap dispensers and hand dryers, improved ventilation and UV lights to disinfect surfaces overnight.

You will also likely find signage and floor marking regarding social distancing, additional hand sanitiser stations, and building workers facilitating crowd control.

Depending on your state’s government and your building’s regulations, you and your employees will also face limitations on how many people are allowed in your building’s lobby, in each lift, and in each stairwell to your office. There may also be restrictions on building facilities, such as access to bike storage, changing rooms, and fitness centres.

Confirm with your COVID-19 Officer that they are in regular contact with building management to ensure that they are receiving regular updates about facility restrictions, building regulations and any confirmed cases in your building, as part of your COVID-19 Return To Office plan.

You also may want to check the temperature of everyone who enters your office to ensure a safe work environment for your staff.


Office set-up

As indicated by the name, the bulk of your COVID-19 Return To Office plan will revolve around the set-up and additional hygiene measures available at your office.

If your office is an older model, this may include reverting to an older style of office, which includes individual, high-walled cubicles. 

Your office may choose to move desks and tables around to create wider pathways or even create one-way lanes using social distancing markers on the floor throughout your office layout to ensure your staff are staying two metres apart – this Norwegian company even went so far as to coin a new phrase, the ‘6 feet office.’

To gain an idea of some of the increased COVID-19 preventative measures your organisation may want to consider include:

  • Restricting the number of individuals allowed to congregate in a specific area;

  • Limits on the numbers of individuals allowed in enclosed spaces, such as personal offices, conference rooms, the communal kitchen, lunch area, and bathroom;

  • Limits or restrictions on visitors, clients and stakeholders in the office;

  • Enforcing a visitor log, where non-employees must check in and log the:

    • Date and time of visit

    • Full name

    • Address

    • Phone number

    • Email address

  • Encouraging the usage of masks coming to and from the office;

  • Conducting temperature checks and hand sanitiser use/hand washing with each individual entering your office;

  • Sending employees showing symptoms of COVID-19 home and only allowing them to return to the office with a doctor’s note and a negative COVID-19 test;

  • Prohibiting handshakes and physical touching;

  • Staggered start, finish and lunch times for employees to ensure adequate space;

  • Space between desks;

  • Requiring daily wipe-downs of all office surfaces;

  • Requesting staff to bring family photos and mementos home with them to ensure a santised desk space;

  • Assigning a seat chart for employees; 

  • Enforce social distancing by using tape marks, signage and other indicators around the office; and

  • Prohibiting hotdesking.

To get started on your organisation’s own COVID-19 Return To Work Policy, please refer to the following Safe Work Australia and government websites below:

  • To download free, printable signage and posters that outline the symptoms and preventative measures of COVID-19, and business changes in operation, click here.

  • To learn more about COVID-19 regulations that may impact your industry, click here.

  • If your organisation works in an office environment, learn more about the necessary COVID-19 precautions here.

  • For a complete overview of COVID-19 national safety principles, click here.

  • Download your checklist on how to clean and disinfect your workplace here

  • To ensure that your workplace is safe for the return of your employees, click here.

  • To ensure that your office is adhering to physical distancing guidelines, download your checklist here

  • For the most up-to-date restrictions by state, click the following links for:

Your organisation may also want to introduce the COVIDSafe App to your employees, however it’s important to note that the app is completely voluntary and no person (including employers) is allowed to require the downloading and use of this app, including on mobile devices provided by the company.

Finally, before you invite your employees to return to the office, have your COVID-19 Officer create and send around a COVID-19 Return To Office Policy that outlines the increased measures your organisation has created to ensure a safe working environment. 

Have each member of staff sign off on the new policy to ensure they are aware of and accountable to this new policy.

You may also want to consider staggering your roster, so half the staff comes in one week, and the other half comes in the next; or provide the option to continue remote work for 2-4 days per week to allow a gradual transition for employees back to the office.

This will help ensure a smooth transition for both your business and your employees back to the office.


Traveling between offices

Some roles require regular travel between offices. Although New South Wales and Victoria are allowing intrastate travel for work and are allowing interstate travel, both states advise following the Australian Government advice of avoiding all non-essential domestic travel

However, if this cannot be avoided, please refer directly to the NSW Government travel & transport advice page or to the Victoria State Government Department of Health and Human Services travel restrictions page to verify the most up-to-date travel restrictions.

Queensland will be considering intra- and interstate travel, as of July 10, 2020.

As intra- and interstate travel slowly becomes re-introduced, ensure that your traveling employees are aware of the COVID-19 restrictions in place in the visiting state, and verify beforehand whether their travel requires self-isolation upon arrival or return, or not.

Click here to learn more about the current interstate travel restrictions.


Give your employees notice

Give your employees some notice before going back to the office so they have time to prepare themselves, mentally and in terms of seeking childcare, or care for other dependents.

Finally, encourage active dialogue between your employees and their managers to ensure that they feel safe coming into the office. Whilst working remotely may not be an indefinite option for your organisation, it’s imperative for your employee retention that your employees feel like they have some control over when and how they return to the office.


Employee burnout

Employee burnout was a top mental health concern throughout the pandemic, however the return to office shouldn’t signal that its over. 

Many of your employees’ go-to stress relieving activities, such as fitness classes, gyms, seeing friends and family, travel, beauty services, art classes, or even shopping, may still be closed or restricted when your organisation decides to send your employees back to work. This may mean your employees may be continuing to feel more stressed than usual, despite the transition back to ‘normal.’

To better support your employees through employee burnout, check out our free resource on how to identify, prevent and reverse employee burnout here.


Annual leave

Some employees may want to take holiday as soon as travel restrictions lift, leaving you in the unenviable role of having to tell them, ‘No.’ 

Whilst it is possible for employees to take annual leave, it’s also unrealistic to have a large number of employees take leave at the same time, particularly at a crucial time, such as the return to office.

One of the best ways to mitigate this situation is to set expectations prior to the return to office so employees understand that their much sought after – and well-deserved – holiday may have to be on hold a little while longer.

You may also want to consider putting together a timesheet with select openings so employees can preemptively book off time for events they had pre-planned and are likely to go ahead.



Those were our top ideas and resources for putting together your organisation’s COVID-19 Return To Office plan to ensure clear guidelines, processes and protocols for the safety of your employees as they return to the office.

Finally, don’t hesitate to reach out to other organisations within your industry to see how they’re planning to re-open a COVID-19-safe office. Your company is not alone in this – and shouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to best practices.

As we’ve been saying all along – we’re all in this together.

Once you’ve completed your COVID-19 Return To Office plan, feel free to send it over to your Sirius recruitment consultant to discuss what other organisations may also be including – we speak with hundreds of clients and candidates every week, and we’re happy to provide general consultation.

As for next steps, be sure to download our free retention checklist to make sure that your employees are likely to stay with your organisation as our economy continues to recover.

We can see the market is beginning to pick up again and the demand for great talent across many industries is increasing, as projects that were once on hold are now going ahead again. 

So, don’t delay! Download your free retention checklist below.


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