How to return to the office after Covid

February 18, 2021

By Liza Robbins.

“We’re known as the lucky country,” says Michael Goodrick, Partner at Stanley & Williamson, one of the two Kreston firms in Australia.

The saying refers to Australia’s natural resources and economic opportunities. But it applies equally to its experience emerging from the Coronavirus crisis.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Australia has suffered fewer than 1,000 deaths. Now, almost alone amongst Western countries, Australia is inching back towards “normality.”

As of February 1, the staff at Sydney-based Stanley & Williamson were expected to work from the office on a part-time basis.

I called Michael to find out how they’ve managed this ‘reverse transition’. He told me that the key was to loosen the restrictions gradually.

“We started to let some staff back into the office at the end of May, but it was limited,” he says. “They had to come in by car, there was no hot-desking, we kept people away from each other and the office was cleaned several times a day.”

By September, government guidelines allowed more flexibility. More staff members were allowed to return even if they used public transport, but they couldn’t travel during peak hours.

“At that point, we didn’t force anyone to come in if they weren’t comfortable,” says Michael. “And we had to drill into people that they had to behave responsibly outside the office. We couldn’t risk exposing the team to Coronavirus.”

At the end of December, they informed staff that it would be compulsory to work from the office by February.

Giving plenty of notice allowed staff to prepare practically and psychologically. And it allowed the firm to work on new arrangements – because they weren’t going back to the “old normal”. The firm understood some team members had enjoyed remote working, and wanted to accommodate them.

Under the new rules, most staff members must come into the office at least 5 days every fortnight. Receptionists and juniors need to be in the office every day, and the entire team has to come in on a Thursday to make it easy to schedule training and social functions.

And team members are asked to meet clients face-to-face if required, no matter where they’re working from.

“Nearly half of our staff have chosen to continue working from home on some days,” Michael reports.

The majority, he says, are relieved to be back in the office – but “they’re appreciative that we’ve listened to what they wanted, and come up with a solution that works for everyone.”

After months working alone, there has been “a lot of collaboration straight away. It’s remarkable how quickly you can resolve issues if you don’t have to schedule a call.”

But there’s also been some re-adjustment.

“Getting used to working with other people around has been a challenge,” he says. “Our office is largely open plan. We need to remember not to speak too loudly…”

During the crisis, the firm lost a few clients whose income dried up, and saw a drop in M&A and international business.

However, they also gained some medium-sized clients who needed more attention than the Big 4 could give them – which is Stanley & Williamson’s sweet spot. And now that things are re-opening, there is “a lot of money floating around and enormous appetite for transactions to start happening again.”

So this firm, which celebrated its 50th anniversary a couple of years ago, has big plans for 2021 – not least adding Kreston to its name!

“We have lots of clients operating internationally, and want more of them,” says Michael. “Having Kreston in our name will allow us to be seen as a more global firm and take things to the next level.”

Every firm will approach its return to the workplace differently.

But Australia’s lesson for the rest of us?

If you’re still in lockdown, there is hope. Start planning…