“The pandemic isn’t over yet”: Hybrid work expert calls on businesses to remain flexible as COVID-19 batters “back to office” plans

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As Australian businesses reconsider their “back to office” strategies through yet another wave of COVID-19 cases, a hybrid working expert says company leaders should keep work from home plans in their back pocket, pandemic or not.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases are spiking across the country, with the end of pandemic-era remote working requirements and mask mandates coinciding with the traditional flu season.

Fearing the social and economic impact of revived COVID-19 restrictions, state and federal governments have stopped short of returning to strict mask mandates and density limits for offices.

Instead, health officials are strongly recommending business leaders consider their options.

Addressing the latest surge on Tuesday, Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said: “Employers should review their occupational health and safety risks and mitigations, and their business continuity plans.

“They should consider the feasibility of some employees working from home, wearing masks in the workplace and support employees to take leave when sick.”

While the threat of workplace transmission has been present since the earliest days of the pandemic, the latest wave means many businesses are now likely to reassess their “back into the office” plans — even without government mandates influencing those decisions.

This challenge is more proof businesses need to be agile in their approach to working arrangements, said Associate Professor John Hopkins, an expert in remote working practices at Swinburne University of Technology.

“If there’s really one take-away from all this, it’s that the pandemic isn’t over yet,” Hopkins told SmartCompany.

“Organisations need to learn to be flexible.”

It is fortunate that many organisations have already road-tested remote working systems over the past two years, he added, with those lessons proving valuable in today’s largely restriction-free environment.

“I think it will be it will always be a continuing process of improvement and trying to get the right kind of balance for the organisation,” he said.

While some businesses may have invested significant resources into their “back to office” plans, Hopkins added that the “vast majority” of companies would recognise the benefits associated with remote work.

“Be it the time spent commuting, to greater flexibility, to financial savings, spending more time with family, and whatever else,” he said.

Certainly, some business groups have welcomed recommendations from health officials urging company leaders to make their own decisions.

Last week, Paul Guerra, CEO of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, celebrated a “a common sense approach that avoids mandates”, allowing businesses to “protect their workforces as they have done over the past two years”.

Other industry groups are less circumspect. Last week, Luke Achterstraat, CEO of the Property Council of Australia, declared, “now is not the time to be bringing back conversations about work from home advice or mask mandates in office”.

But businesses ought to keep remote working policies “in the back pocket” even after the COVID-19 pandemic as we know it comes to an end, Hopkins said.

Pointing to the extreme temperatures blazing across Europe, Hopkins said Australian employers should consider how remote working practices could come in handy if severe weather conditions or natural disasters make working centrally impossible.

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