COVID-19 HR Resource Hub

The pathway to a return to the workplace: A Case Study

Written by: Ange Jones CAHRI, Assistant Director People and Development

While there is continued uncertainty on when the right time may be to transition your workforce back to the physical workplace, planning and communication is critical.  To understand where to start, the Catholic Education Office Ballarat (‘CEOB’) considered the people central to our narrative, similar to stakeholder mapping:

  • employees need to be informed, engaged, and connected
  • the leadership team needs to be supported and empowered to lead
  • the organisation needs to ensure compliance with regulators and legislation
  • schools need to be informed, engaged, and supported through rapid changes to education
  • engagement with partners and suppliers is needed so all are better informed.

We considered each relationship and what each group needs to know and do, working in partnership to resolve issues.  This understanding enabled CEOB to communicate early and often, and to establish a suitable cadence over time.

Education sector collaboration
The education sector has needed to adapt fast through the COVID-19 pandemic. Enabling remote learning, a coordinated approach to managing a safe return to on-site learning and detailed planning for a broad range of preventative and responsive safety measures, each is significant in scale and complexity, with a very short lead time. The rate of change and adaption required continues.

CEOB continues to work closely with other Dioceses across Victoria through the Catholic Education Commission Victoria (‘CECV’) and cross-sectoral with the Victorian Department of Education and Training (‘DET’).  This consistent approach enables greater clarity and enhanced confidence for school communities including employees, students, and their families.

The Catholic Education Office
While working with our partners in education is a central to the CEOB response, the focus of this overview is on employees working in the Catholic Education Offices across the Ballarat Diocese.

Like many workplaces, early communication centred on moving to remote working and ensuring that wellbeing and occupational health and safety considerations were top of mind.

Since then, we have continued to map out and build on an organisational response, with the understanding that it was necessary to not only plan for that moment, but also through the ambiguity and eventual return to the workplace.

Organisational oversight

A COVIDsafe response team was established in March, including the Directorate team, Media & Communications, Safeguarding, HR and OHS subject matter experts. This team initially met daily to monitor and mitigate identified and emerging risks, plan communication and engagement, and to think strategically about next steps.  In recent weeks, meetings have reduced to twice weekly and on an as-needed basis.

A COVIDsafe overview plan was developed to align to the Australian Federal Government’s three step framework for a COVIDsafe Australia.  The CEOB reviewed those elements most relevant to operations – gatherings and work, education and childcare and domestic travel to inform forward planning, aligned to the predicted timeframes for each stage.  Changes to restrictions and advice from the Victorian State Government and the Department of Health and Human Services have been monitored to inform how and when the plan is enacted.

Adapted from ‘Beyond contactless operations: Human-centred customer experience’ (McKinsey & Company May 2020),  CEOB developed a risk identification to executing a solution toolkit to empower teams and enable effective, human-centred solutions where we were required to think and work differently.

In a practical sense, while 90% of employees continue to work remotely, physical distancing markers have been placed on the floor, hand sanitiser is available on entry/exit,  meeting rooms and common areas like kitchens have been labelled with maximum number of people who can use the facilities at the same time.  Disinfectant wipes are placed in these spaces along with advice to clean surfaces down after use.  Information posters on coronavirus symptoms, hygiene and safety are around the office.

Each office location has a nominated responsible officer to ensure employees and visitors to that location and are informed on what to expect when they do attend and to manage access.

"Importantly, we gained insights that validated some of what we thought we knew and enabled us to reframe where needed."

Leadership support

As the circumstances around the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, and in light of easing restrictions and Government economic recovery plans a team leader discussion guide was developed for one-to-one conversations to understand what is working well, what is not, and to gauge readiness for a gradual transition back to the workplace.

The discussion guide is designed to create an effective transition to the workplace or flexible working arrangement based on individual circumstances and operational needs.  Team Leaders engaged with team members in late May to better understand how team members were feeling, what questions they may have and what support may be beneficial.

The discussion guide includes a template for a record of the discussion, a working from home protocol outlining mutual obligations of remote working, and a sample site roster.  The discussion guide is being adapted now for a check-in again in late June and will continue to guide thinking about when and how employees may return to the workplace.

Extending on the COVIDsafe overview plan, a leadership action plan was shared with the leadership team to prepare and respond to the pandemic.  The leadership action plan provides a summary of actions and timing including checking in with the team, coordinating a safe transition, attendance at meetings and onsite, individual flexibility needs, managing health and safety, and engaging employees in planning.  The action plan provides a communication overview including target audiences and the communication approach.  

The CEOB is working closely with our employee assistance program provider, Access EAP and have continued to produce and promote a range of leader specific resources for looking after self and others through a crisis and managing remote teams.

All leader focused guides and information developed are available on a shared Google Drive following initial communication as they are developed or updated.  An appreciate inquiry approach to learning from the experience has been adopted, looking at what is working well, and opportunities presented.

Employee communication and engagement

We are communicating frequently and encouraging discussion around a transition back to the workplace and alternative ways of working.

Team based communication remains a priority; team meetings, peer-to-peer catchups and for team leaders to check in with team members individually.  As with many organisations, increased adoption of technology has enabled this. CEOB employees use multiple platforms, as works best for various interactions and team preference.

The COVIDsafe response team, with leadership, have continued to develop and share information through a variety of mediums including videos, recorded presentations, newsletters, intranet posts and published documents, as well as virtual meetings.

A Q&A document with commonly asked questions and information about the gradual transition back to the workplace has been developed as a dynamic document.  It is updated to reflect Government and Department of Health advice, and organisational decisions and events.  Where a Q&A is updated it is date stamped so it is easier for people to, at a glance, see what has changed.

To better enable employees to understand altered working arrangements, and mutual obligations, guidelines were developed for:

  • working from home / remotely,
  • working onsite in a CEOB office, and
  • working onsite in schools.

We recognised an opportunity to better promote the EAP and make a variety of wellbeing resources more accessible, a space we continue to explore and expand on.

In late May, staff were invited to participate in a CultureAmp COVID Response survey to share feedback on how they feel CEOB is doing (leadership confidence) and what is top of mind for them (should focus on).  Pleasingly, we had almost a 90% response rate and a company confidence rating of 91%.  Importantly, we gained insights that validated some of what we thought we knew and enabled us to reframe where needed.

In response to feedback, through the survey and through team discussions, we are working to respond quickly to the things that we can and plan strategically for longer-term improvement. Transparency is paramount, both the feedback and planned response has been shared with all employees.  We continue to encourage dialogue through formal and informal channels.

As the pandemic shapes and changes resources and plans are adapted and new guides are created to inform next stages.  Most recently, we have created a workplace guide for employees that outlines the key safety measures and COVIDsafe practices in place in the workplace and how Team Leaders will continue to work with our people in considering a possible return to the workplace.  This guide was informed through research of various AHRI publications and Employment Hero COVID-19 resources.

This guide introduces the concept of a workplace audit to identify mission critical work that needs to be completed in a time-bound, specific manner, and to meet predetermined commitments or regulatory obligations.  While initial analysis is undertaken by leadership this process involves consultation with team members to validate operational assumptions.

"Leadership committed to develop a strategic response for CEOB’s ways of working into the future recognising that a holistic, whole-of-CEOB operations view was required."

Reimagine and reframe

Having experienced the translation of primarily onsite teams to a distributed workforce it was evident that not only were employees keen to maintain flexibility, it can and does work.  CEOB has committed to enabling blended ways of working, that is, ways of working that reflect operational needs and the needs of individuals.  

For the CEOB, a blended workplace recognises that points of difference can be accommodated where some people may continue working predominately from a CEOB office, some will continue to work predominately on-site in schools, and  some of in a blended way across these ways of working including the possibility of remote working where aspects of the role can be managed effectively off-site.

Leadership committed to develop a strategic response for CEOB’s ways of working into the future recognising that a holistic, whole-of-CEOB operations view was required.

The CEOB’s strategic response plan seeks to align elements that inform future ways of working. The focus areas for the plan include:

  • organisational capability and clarity (enabling systems that enhance transparency on long term direction, role clarity and paradigms of working)
  • partnering with schools (a parallel project to be considered through this lens as it progresses to action)
  • people and culture (enabling a blended work environment that is conducive to wellbeing and an engaged workforce)
  • physical workspace (aligning our physical environment with our ways of working)
  • ICT and resources (access and utilisation of ICT systems to effectively connect, collaborate and perform duties in a blended environment).

Each of these elements requires an action plan to realise the intended ways of working.  The plan is considered through a systemic approach that acknowledges that the focus areas are interdependent.  Inherent to systems thinking is an understanding that various parts of a system (the CEOB as a dynamic organisation of people) interrelate and impact on each other.

By assigning these elements to related, but independent focus areas with discrete timelines and actions, we can better plan and deliver a considered and agile response that creates lasting value for the CEOB, our people and our partners in education. 

Where to now?

We continue environmental scanning to predict and validate emerging changes as informed by government and health advice working with key stakeholders and subject matter experts. We also choose a strategic response an imagine what can be. The strategic response plan provides a lens to reflect on, and where necessary, to reframe our priorities and annual action plans in response to the emerging drivers for change. 

As we reimagine and reframe our future ways of working, we will continue to be intentional about how we connect, relate, and work together. CEOB will continue to ask questions and listen to the responses as we step off to explore and intentionally design our next normal.

The Diocese of Ballarat, Victoria, has 64 diverse primary and secondary schools in total, providing distinctive Catholic education in rural and regional settings from the Murray to the Sea.  The Diocese has over 18,000 students enrolled in 52 Primary Schools (F-6), 1 Foundation to Year 8 School and 11 Secondary Schools. Strategically, the Catholic Education Office Ballarat plays an important role in ensuring effective governance of our parish and diocesan schools.


Ange Jones is a senior People and Culture specialist experienced across cultural transformation, building capability and performance, leadership coaching and facilitation, employee engagement and experience, strategic business partner. 

She has extensive experience across public sector (local and federal government and statutory authority) and private sector (education, professional services, insurance and healthcare). Ange’s current role is Assistant Director People and Development, Catholic Education Office for the Ballarat Diocese.