A Return To The Office Workplace – COVID-19

On 17 July 2020 Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a statement on coronavirus (COVID-19) which affected staff with regards to the decision on whether to return to the office. It was announced that from 1 August the Government’s advice for England on going to work was as follows:

“Instead of government telling people to work from home, we are going to give employers more discretion, and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely. That could mean of course continuing to work from home, which is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees. Or it could mean making workplaces safe by following COVID Secure guidelines. Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees, and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe. As we reopen our society and economy, it’s right that we give employers more discretion while continuing to ensure employees are kept safe.”

To this end it is now down to employers to decide whether to allow staff who have been working at home, to continue working from home or whether to ask them to return to work. Where a business decides it would like staff to return to work they must plan how employees can return to their office workplaces in a safe manner.

Working From Home vs. Working In The Office

Understandably many workers will be anxious about returning to the office workplace given that COVID-19 is still present. It’s therefore important for businesses to carefully consider if there is an absolute need for staff to return and if they are “coronavirus ready” and able to protect their staff within the office environment.

Based on current government guidance for offices and contact centres (PDF) businesses should consider the following:

Continuing to work from home
Is there an absolute need for staff to stop working from home and to return to the workplace? If staff can continue to work from home without loss to productivity then businesses should be encouraging staff to do so. If staff cannot work from home businesses should assess whether the work is business critical. If the work is not critical then the business should look to keep the employee on the Government Job Retention Scheme until such times as they are needed of the scheme ends.

Making workplaces safe by following COVID Secure guidelines
Employers have a duty of care to employees to ensure that the workplace is safe for their return. According to the HSE “Under the law employers are responsible for health and safety management. It is an employer’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their business. Employers must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this. This means making sure that workers and others are protected from anything that may cause harm [this includes coronavirus], effectively controlling any risks to injury or health that could arise in the workplace. Employers have duties under health and safety law to assess risks in the workplace. Risk assessments should be carried out that address all risks that might cause harm in your workplace.”

Consult closely with their employees
It’s important that employers consult with and communicate clearly with employees. Any safety concerns should be clearly addressed and employees should feel safe returning to work.

Making The Decision For Staff To Return To The Office

In order to make a decision as to whether staff should return to the office workplace the three points above should be assessed and a risk assessment carried out. More information can be found on the HSE website regarding risk assessments. A brief guide to controlling risks in the workplace is also available. A risk assessment specifically aimed at COVID-19 safety concerns (PDF) can be found on the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development website.

A Safe Return To The Office

Based on Government guidelines (Working safely during COVID-19 in offices and contact centres) and your COVID-19 risk assessment the following safety measures will need to be in place before staff return to the office. In summary businesses should:

  • ensure workers who feel unwell (and who have any of the following symptoms, high temperature, continuous cough and loss of taste or smell) should stay at home and not come to work.
  • increase the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning.
  • put social distancing measures in place as per the guidelines set out by the government (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable is acceptable) and staff should make every effort to comply with the social distancing.
  • consider whether an activity can be redesigned to maintain a 2m distance or 1m with risk mitigations where 2m is not viable where the social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full, in relation to a particular activity to reduce the risk of transmission between their staff.
  • use screens or barriers to separate people from each other.
  • ensure that steps are taken to avoid people needing to shout or unduly raise their voices to each other to be heard. “This includes, but is not limited to, refraining from playing music or broadcasts that may encourage shouting, including if played at a volume that makes normal conversation difficult. This is because of the potential for increased risk of transmission, particularly from aerosol transmission.”
  • implement back-to-back (preferable) or side-to-side working (with social distancing in place) rather than face-to-face working where possible. Look at the layout of your office to implement social distancing.
  • reduce the number of people each member of staff comes in contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ (so each person works with only a few others)
  • if people must work face-to-face for a sustained period with more than a small group of fixed partners, then as a business it is your responsibility to assess whether an activity can safely go ahead. It’s important to recognise that you cannot ask a worker to work in an unsafe work environment.

For more details you can read our article “School and Workplace COVID-19 Measures – The New Normal”.

JBH Refurbishments Helping You Return To The Office

Contact us if you need to put in place office COVID-19 measures. We can supply a range of acrylic desk screens, polycarbonate desk dividers, foam PVC desk dividers desktop screens, floor standing protective screens, floor standing safety screens / glass partitions to enable staff to return safely. You can get in touch via our contact form or calling us on 0333 207 0339.

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