Returning staff to the workplace, safely

By CCIWA Editor

As COVID-19 restrictions ease, businesses are getting back to work, but with new rules to consider.

Some businesses will need a COVID Safe Plan to reopen, while others will need to consider government guidelines.

But there's no one-size-fits-all approach to bringing workers back onsite, safely. Your strategy will depend on your industry, headcount, workspace and location, government regulations, and your employees.

Our team of experts has broken it down:


Managing the number of employees in one place at any time will be critical to protecting their health. Employers should conduct a risk assessment, and consider what controls they can introduce, including:

  • staggering the reintroduction of employees to the office;
  • changing the office layout;
  • arrangements to allow staff to avoid public transport peak times;
  • alternating groups between the office and work-from-home setups; and
  • varying working hours or breaks.

Any changes to established rosters or working conditions may need to be discussed and agreed with employees.

Office setup

Physical distancing rules still apply, and businesses will need to be proactive in reconfiguring their office spaces. Try to keep a distance of 1.5 metres between employees and ensure you allow 2 square metres per person in indoor spaces. Consider whether people can safely use staircases and emergency exits as an option to lifts. Put notices up for areas like the lunchroom and meeting rooms that tell people the maximum number of people allowed in the space. You may also wish to:

  • continue using online platforms for meetings;
  • provide face masks or other PPE to staff; and
  • require customers to complete a risk assessment.

Cleaning and hygiene

COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets, so implementing appropriate cleaning and disinfecting measures for your workplace is key to keeping staff safe. Safe Work Australia (SWA) has developed a comprehensive cleaning guide for specific surfaces.

Keep across advice from health authorities and SWA (which has published over 20 industry-specific webpages on COVID-19 and work health and safety with free information, resources, checklists, and signage available). Continue promoting hand and respiratory hygiene. Provide easy access to handwashing facilities, hand sanitiser and closed bins for used tissues.

Safety and industrial relations

Special consideration is needed when assigning staff to alternative duties under JobKeeper-enabling directions. These duties may be unfamiliar to them and increase their risk of injury or illness. You will need to meet various industrial relations and OHS considerations to make sure what you're asking is lawful and safe.

We strongly recommend that you seek legal advice from our Workplace Relations team before issuing any direction to employees to perform alternative tasks. We can also assist in preparing the required written documentation.

Employee support

COVID-19 has caused psychological suffering in our community. Offer information and support for affected employees, where possible. This may include counselling through an employee assistance program. Australians can also access a mental health care plan through their doctor.

Maintain regular communication

COVID-19 has led businesses to rethink and, in many circumstances, improve their communications strategies, especially if employees are working remotely. Returning to usual workplaces is not the time to relax. A change in environment can be disruptive. Keeping lines of communication open and ensuring you articulate your priorities will help your team stay focussed.

You may also face some resistance from employees who don't want to return to the office. They may have carer responsibilities, concerns about their health and safety at work, or worries about catching public transport. Some may simply because they have become accustomed to working from home. In these circumstances, you should seek guidance from CCIWA’s Employee Relations Advice Centre to confirm your rights and responsibilities as an employer.


It has been a tough few months, and getting staff back into the workplace is worth celebrating. COVID-19 is unlikely to spread via food if it is properly prepared and cooked. So do not share crockery or utensils, ensure good personal hygiene, maintain appropriate physical distancing, and celebrate with a morning tea, if you like.


Evaluate your overall response to COVID-19, and think about how the lessons you learned can apply to future events. Starting this process quickly is essential to being prepared. You may need to build a new pandemic and business continuity plan, making changes as appropriate.

CCIWA has experts that can assist you in ensuring your workplace is COVID safe. As a CCIWA Member, you can also access the Employee Relations Advice Centre by calling 08 9365 7660.

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