Without a doubt, 2020 has been a challenging year for most people. A year where it forced people to adapt to new realities and challenges, whether positive or negative. From a workplace perspective, HR functions needed to rapidly pivot in uncharted ways in response to COVID-19. Agile HR professionals had to adapt to a new mindset and various working methods to add value including, but not limited to, remote working arrangements, digitisation of tasks and rolling out sufficient systems for communicating/reporting – whether ready or not.

Now that we are starting to see some ‘normality’ in Australia with the easing of restrictions, what is 2021 going to look like? Although we do not have a crystal ball to see how workplaces will adapt to ‘COVID-normal’, one thing we are certain, is that in the next 12 months will continue being unique and challenging environment for businesses. However, one that we can be certain about, is that if a return to office-work is carefully implemented and continuously monitored, employers will place themselves in a better position to respond to future issues that may arise.

Moving forward, employers will need to place a high priority on the health and safety of their employees. This will be enhanced if they focus on working conditions supporting infection control and physical/ mental health. HR’s role will need to be focused on making decisions that ensure the safety of the workforce. Therefore, it is crucial for HR to carefully plan and update all company policies and procedures with respect to the ‘new normal’ and address changes in the way work is performed.

As a first step, HR will need to conduct a Risk Assessment and outline control measures to reduce the risk of further coronavirus outbreaks (albeit low risk in Australia) and the impact this will have on both the business and its employees. In addition to a detailed COVID-Safe Plan, safety measures will need to be put in place with respect to physical distancing, handwashing, and with hand sanitisers being readily available. All leaders will need to be consulted and retrained to ensure they incorporate these safety measures into daily practices.  

Employee well-being should be the forefront of every employer’s agenda. Returning to the workplace can bring up a range of feelings including fear and anxiety, especially those with existing mental health issues. HR needs to understand that whilst employees are returning to their usual workplaces (against a backdrop of heightened levels of psychological distress in the community) can create feelings of fear and anxiety for a wide variety of reasons. Some of these may include things such as, contracting coronavirus (albeit low risk in Australia), having to commute in peak times, being surrounded by others after extended periods of time, and spending less time at home with the family. Returning to an uncertain working environment will worsen their personal distress, leading to increased absenteeism, workers’ compensation claims and low productivity. Therefore, support mechanisms will need to be offered to help employees navigate any mental health challenges as they return to the workplace.

Finally, despite employees slowly transitioning back to the normal workplaces, employers will also need to remember that despite its initial pessimism, working remotely has also become the ‘new normal’. There has been a permanent shift towards a greater number of employees working fully or partly from home. Most employee surveys highlight that most employees are going to expect and desire to continue some of the remote working practices, at least for part of the working week. Therefore, HR Leaders will also need to be on the front foot with offering flexible work arrangements to remain competitive.


This article is prepared to only provide general information about the topic. It is not intended to be used as advice in any way.


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