Date posted: 27/05/2020 10 min read

Not like you left it: How the workplace changed while you were away

It’s not quite the death of the office, but workers face a depopulated, sanitised ‘new normal’ after COVID-19 lockdowns.

In Brief

  • Employers should not be in a rush to get everyone back in the office, as social distancing rules still apply.
  • Aim for every second desk to be empty, so workers are 1.5 metres apart.
  • Some organisations are arranging for shifts to come into the office on alternate days.

By Fiona Smith

As people dust off their suits and start trickling back to work after nearly three months at home, it may take them a while to get accustomed to new ways of doing things.

In big cities, getting as far as the foyer may already have been a battle. With some jurisdictions requiring social distancing measures on public transport, half-full buses and trains might switch on a “not picking up” signal and pass by commuters, leaving them waiting for a ride.

When workers get to the office, they may have to cool their heels before they can get into a lift – and then be asked to turn their backs and face the walls to avoid breathing on others.

When they do get to their floor, possibly half their workmates will still be at home, the furniture will be rearranged and there will be all sorts of unexpected areas where they cannot linger.

And in a death blow to hot desking (more politely known as activity-based working), they will have been allocated their own desks once again.

Some people will be excited to be back in the office after the COVID-19 lockdowns; others may have some trepidation. They are returning while other employers have announced they will not recall their people until at least the end of the year (Twitter, Google, Facebook, Microsoft) or until a coronavirus vaccine is available (Mastercard).

‘Fast followers’ in getting back to the office

Founder and CEO of Kelly+Partners Chartered Accountants, Brett Kelly CA, is looking forward to getting people together again.

“Teams work well together when they see each other occasionally, face-to-face. Where we’ve got client-facing situations, it’s good to have people physically present to the degree that makes sense,” he says.

Sydney-based Kelly has a few advantages when it came to handling the impact of COVID-19 on his business of 250 people in 14 offices. This includes his tendency to be a “germ freak”.

“When I started our business from scratch in an empty room, I knew I couldn’t afford to get seriously ill,” he says. His wife and one of his children have cardiac issues.

“We’ve had life experience that has made us very conscious of how important your health is,” he says. The company will have more hand sanitisers around its offices and already has swipe-card-operated doors.

Critically, Kelly+Partners never took up hot desking, which means that people will be able to come back to their own desks. Providing people with their own workspace shows respect towards people, says Kelly.

Kelly approached the first phase of COVID-19 physical distancing as a 90-day campaign – sending people home and managing them to work remotely. The process of bringing them back will also take three months and will not be done in a hurry, he says.

“We won’t be the early adopters. We will be the fast followers in this situation. We are not seeking to be cavalier in any sense,” he says.

Employees will probably return in two teams (red and blue) and populate the offices on alternate days.

McCallum & Dallas in Taranaki, New Zealand, is a step ahead. It officially opened its office last week, and most of its team of 12 have returned. They all drive or walk to the office: “There’s no public transport where we are,” explains McCallum & Dallas director, Meredith Pick CA.

The firm welcomed everyone back with a NZ$100 bonus each to spend in the local community.

“It’s a thank you to them for everything that they did. All their work during that period got out on time and we maintained client service levels as much as possible,” says Pick.

“Everyone is really happy to see each other and everyone is refreshed.”

Is the office, as we know it, dead?

In Australia, corporate landlord Dexus surveyed 700 tenants in early May and found just under a quarter of their workforces would return by the end of that month. Up to 43% were expected back by June, 50% by July and 71% by August.

Kate Pilgrim, the senior director of tenant representation for real estate firm JLL, says one of the biggest employee concerns about returning to the office is catching public transport – where physical distancing is encouraged, but not enforced.

In some cities, people can plan their journeys with the help of phone apps that show how full the transport options are.

Pilgrim says she expects to see more people driving to work and some carpooling. Governments have also been recommending people try to travel at off-peak times if they can. However, this could create other issues for parents with childcare responsibilities and for people whose roles require them to start and finish at set times.

There are already signs that office markets are contracting, as employers anticipate a shrinking workforce in a coming recession and acknowledge that some employees will be working from home permanently.

Reports that tenants are reducing their office space by 20-30% are backed by Kelly, who says he is negotiating rent reductions for his clients of 30-50%.

“There’s blood on the floor. The office, as we know it, is all over. They’re cooked,” he says.

“There’s blood on the floor. The office, as we know it, is all over. They’re cooked.”
Brett Kelly CA

JLL has prepared a comprehensive guide of strategies to prepare office spaces as businesses return to work: (Re) entry – A guide for working in the next normal. Some of the innovations we are likely to see in the office include:

  •  tracking devices to monitor seating
  • phone apps to call lifts
  • increased use of apps to order coffee and lunch to avoid queues
  • more use of sensor doors and lighting.
  • sneeze guards, physical barriers at high-risk areas (such as reception) and furniture panel height adjustments
  • touchless technologies for bathrooms and rubbish bins.

Four key factors to consider when preparing for re-entryPicture: Four key factors to consider when preparing for re-entry (Click image to enlarge).

COVID-19 workplace guidelines

Keep your distance

Australia: Four square metres of space per person is required within offices and people should be 1.5 metres apart.

New Zealand: At Alert Level 2, people should keep one metre apart in workplaces, cafes, restaurants, and gyms. They should keep two metres apart in public and in stores.

Who can open

Australia: There are different restrictions in each state and territory, now mostly affecting tourism, arts and hospitality businesses.

New Zealand: All businesses can operate if they can do so safely. Alternative ways of working are still encouraged where possible. There is no maximum limit on customers allowed in a store, as long as they are two metres apart at all times.

Office lifts

Australia: There is no requirement to provide four square metres of space per person in lifts, but people should maintain physical distancing in lifts and lift waiting areas as far as is reasonable.

New Zealand: Physical distancing is encouraged.

Public transport

Australia: In NSW, people should be seated at least 1.5 metres apart. No passenger limits in Victoria.

New Zealand: At Alert Level 2, people are encouraged to maintain physical distancing. Avoid sitting or standing next to someone you don’t know.

Who comes back

Identify who will return first, taking into account the personal concerns of individuals. Create shifts, so that every second desk is empty. Suspend desk sharing.


New cleaning protocols. Provide masks, approved wipes, and hand sanitisers.

Common areas

Keep showers, gyms and lockers closed or highly limited. Encourage workers to bring food to the office or have pre-packed lunches delivered to eliminate trips outside the office.

Read more:

Safe Work Australia

Safe Work Australia has COVID-19 safety guidelines and resources and links to each state’s work safety organisation .

Find out more

WorkSafe NZ

WorkSafe has information on working safely at Alert Level 2.

Find out more

The website has information on workplace operations during New Zealand’s Alert Level 2.

Find out more

Re (entry)

Get a copy of JLL’s Re (entry): A guide to returning to work in the next normal.

Get your guide

Your COVID-19 Resources hub

This dedicated hub is regularly updated to ensure members are equipped to navigate the serious long-term economic and business impacts from this pandemic, including the latest updates on available government packages, guides for your practice or business and support to maintain your mental health and wellbeing.

Read more