With COVID-19 restrictions easing, borders opening, and travellers from New Zealand running amok, the great work-from-home experiment might soon be coming to an end.

Yet many Australians are still concerned about the latent threat of coronavirus with just over half of workers (51 per cent) saying they aren’t yet ready to head back to the office, according to a new report from recruitment firm Hays.

Nick Deligiannis, Managing Director of Hays ANZ, called the fear of returning “a new dilemma for employers”.

“With the virus still in circulation, employers who call their staff back to work may find that their employees are not comfortable returning,” he said.

“The potential for new waves of infections is certainly very real, therefore even employers who have started transitioning staff back to the workplace find that social distancing and therefore flexible working arrangements will likely need to remain in place until more is known about COVID-19.

“Given this, employers need to focus on ensuring managers are equipped with the skills they need to lead a hybrid team.

“It’s also important to make sure employees feel they can work effectively in such a setup. Communicate regularly, be transparent, offer flexibility and provide ongoing feedback to make hybrid team working a success.”

Across the country, each state has returned to working at the office in different capacities which may have ongoing effects for teams spread around the nation.

Western Australia leads the way with 73 per cent of respondents to Hays’ survey saying they had either already returned to the office or plan to return in the next three months.

The states with the longest, most consistent number of active COVID-19 cases – Victoria and New South Wales – unsurprisingly saw the lowest percentage of workers returning to the office: 32 and 41 per cent respectively.

But not everyone will go back to the office, despite the pleas of state premiers and treasurers wanting to see local business districts flourish once again.

Australian tech giant Atlassian decided in August that it simply wouldn’t require employees to work from the office – a move that has been common across the tech world with the likes of Twitter, Square, and Coinbase all announcing permanent work-from-home arrangements fairly early in the pandemic.

In an interesting recent decision, cloud storage firm Dropbox said it would become a ‘virtual first’ company that is digital only – forcing workers to continue remote work.

Removing rental costs and other overheads are an obvious benefit of this approach, but there are also apparent productivity gains with 85 per cent of Australians reporting to an Atlassian study that they felt their productivity increase while working from home.

But there’s a cost.

A mental health challenge

COVID-19 has caused a strain on mental health which has come out in at least one study on the mental health of software developers around the world that found a decrease in well-being since the pandemic began.

Last month’s Harvey Nash/KPMG survey of 4,200 chief information officers (CIOs) around the world found that 84 per cent of CIOs were concerned for their employees’ mental health.

“A smiling face on a video call can hide many things that would have been picked up during an informal chat at the watercooler,” the report points out.

Of that 84 per cent, only 58 per cent said they had a program in place to support people.

Interestingly, CIOs tended to think current modes of working promoted a “healthy, sustainable environment” for their workers.

This could be due to a paradigm in business importance away from customer-facing teams to those who have been tending to the infrastructure keeping the business running.

“Those people focused on supporting and enabling the workforce, from setting up services on cloud through to getting people at home set up for the first time with a laptop, have almost taken on the status of ‘key workers’,” the report said.

“Many hours, and nights, have been worked. Many organisations have been surprised by how smoothly the process happened.”