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When the office lights are turned back on employers and employees will not simply be able to return to 'business as usual'. Arguably, businesses and the individuals within it have been changed forever and it is critical that employers are more agile and focused on adapting to the new ‘normal’. So, what can organisations expect when employees return to the workplace?

For many organisations, the office lights have been off for some time. Over the last couple of months, Australians have proactively bunkered down and risen to the challenge of flattening the COVID-19 curve, and it seems we are now in a position where employers can think about switching the lights back on.

The war against Coronavirus may not be over, but it is almost time to rally the troops and return to the workplace. This may seem like an easy enough task, but COVID-19 has caused damage that in some cases may take years to recover from. Sales are down, production has been hindered and profits are in many cases far below baseline. Employees are vulnerable and exhausted from the personal and professional toll of the pandemic.

And now, another challenge begins as employers scramble to return to ‘business as usual’ and address the fallout of the coronavirus. Leaders cannot expect that the status quo returns just by flicking the lights back on. Arguably businesses and the individuals within it have been changed forever and it is critical that employers are more agile and focused on adapting to the new ‘normal’.

What can organisations expect when employees return to the workplace?

Employees have all been impacted in some way

Every Australian has been impacted in some way. For some it has been a crippling financial experience, others have tragically lost a loved one or been restricted from visiting their families and support network. If you have been lucky enough to avoid hardship, there has still been the toll of social isolation and restriction of things that we enjoy. In many cases we have got to know each other like never before and become closer together by being further apart. This represents a unique opportunity for employers to find unity and collaboration by rebuilding the culture as well as the business. There is no doubt that employees have enjoyed video meetings in their Ugg boots, but they have also craved the face to face contact and routine of the workplace.

Leadership and empathy will have the platform to shine

Over recent times, leaders have had a front row seat into the world of their direct reports. Video catch ups have provided glimpses into the home lives of team members and in some cases, has created a better understanding and empathy of an employee’s world. Leaders across the globe have been forced to work on their emotional intelligence skills to effectively manage teams remotely. They have had to juggle home schooling and learn a new appreciation of the challenges of blending work and home life. Arguably employees returning to a physical workplace can expect a leader with a stronger set of skills and an acquired empathy that that will only benefit the employment relationship. 

Flexibility requests will significantly increase

Employees that have never craved working from home have now got a taste of the benefits of missing the busy morning commute, walking the dog in their lunch break, ditching the suit for a pair of jeans and having unlimited access to their fridge!  For some workers, this has been a wakeup call of what they have been missing. Employers should expect that a percentage of their workforce will return to the physical workplace with some key requests about how they want to do work differently.  Given that COVID-19 has effectively given everyone a trial run, employees will no doubt confidently be able to demonstrate how they have already been successful. Whilst employers absolutely need an operating model that meets core requirements, it is important that leaders enter this conversation with an open mind as not only will this strengthen the employee proposition, it could also reduce operating costs and improve efficiency.

Technology will be more of an enabler 

Irrespective of the level of comfort with technology prior to COVID-19, organisations and the employees within them will enter the other side more technically competent. Employers have had to leverage new systems and platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom in order to meet the challenges of collaborating and communicating remotely. Employees of all ages and levels of technical capability have been asked to embrace new technology to ensure that the challenges and requirements of the business can be met. These skills and platforms will not be ‘put in the bottom drawer’ when the lights get switched back on. This is an opportunity to build on the agility and ability of the workforce and continue to embrace technology as a critical enabler.

The necessary and the optional have been highlighted

There is nothing like a pandemic to put a spotlight on functions or people that are not directly adding value to the organisation’s strategic goals. Workplaces are filled with rituals that happen ‘just because’. When overnight businesses were forced to work remotely, all of a sudden questions were being asked about why the Tuesday morning operations meeting happened and what were the benefits. When employees return, there will be less meetings and rituals and employers will have a much stronger focus on activity that specifically meets business requirements. The Coronavirus has in effect provided a clean slate for leaders to empty the diary from meetings and consider how things can be done differently and more efficiently.

The lines will become blurry

In times of crisis, it becomes less about “that’s not my job” and more about getting the job done. Employees have crossed the boundaries of their own roles to find a creative way to meet the business and market requirements. In a way, employees have become more entrepreneurial in the way in which they have needed to think outside of the box to solves problems and generate new solutions. These skills along with the high levels of collaboration and innovation are incredible competencies to have in business and employers should not rush back to putting rings around positions. Agility and teamwork will be vital to rebuild and recover from the damage of COVID-19.


Without question, the COVID-19 pandemic has done unimaginable damage to organisations, the economy and the individuals within it. Long after employers switch their lights back on, they will be repairing the devastation and attempting to safeguard the business for another potential storm. What we know, however, is that with the pain has come incredible stories of resilience and a window into how we can put the learnings of this crisis into action to pave the way for a better tomorrow.

Further assistance

For  assistance with any workplace matter, Ai Group members can contact us or call the Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice and resources

Ai Group is continually publishing new COVID-19 advice and resources for employers:

  • Specific HR Resource Centre and Health & Safety Resource Centre content to assist members during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here.
  • Dedicated COVID-19 member advice, industry news, resources and latest information can be found here.

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Download our brochure to see why you should join and call us on 1300 55 66 77 or visit our Why join page to sign up for a consultation with one of our member representatives.


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