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Preparing for a return to the workplace

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

The government have published their ‘roadmap’ for easing current restrictions.

However, under the current rules people have been asked to work at home, and everyone who can work effectively from home, must do so. Only those who cannot work from home, or those in essential services, should continue to go into work.

Employers should note the dates in the roadmap are subject to review, as key dates are reached.

Where a return to the workplace is necessary, then, this is subject to safety measures being put in place.

For workplaces that remain open, employers must carry out an appropriate Covid-19 risk assessment to develop a strategy to stop the spread of the virus. Employers must take an individualised approach and follow steps to allow staff to work from home as much as possible; they need to consider the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of the workforce and monitor government guidance.

Guidelines are in place and set out measures which employers must follow. The ‘Working safely during coronavirus’ pages contain information on how to ensure that workplaces are “Covid-19 Secure”. Guides are provided for different workplaces

Some commonalities exist across the guides, namely that employers should:

  • Do a COVID-19 risk assessment;

  • Follow cleaning and hygiene rules (focusing on surfaces, communal areas and displaying appropriate signage);

  • Extra hand washing facilities;

  • Ensure social distancing (2m) wherever possible, (including when moving around the workplace, rearranging offices, removing communal areas, reviewing start and finish times);

  • If that is not viable, staff should observe 1m social distancing with additional precautions

  • Where this isn't possible, employers need to take steps to manage risks. These include people avoiding sharing vehicles, working side to side or back to back, provide PPE where required (but avoid using stocks of medical grade PPE) and try to keep personnel in the same teams.

  • Minimise the number of unnecessary visits to the office;

  • Introducing one-way systems to minimise contact;

  • Using screens or barriers between staff;

  • Staggering start/end times;

  • Collecting visitors' contact details for NHS Test and Trace

In addition, all retail staff and customers must wear face coverings, unless they are exempt.

Part of the support available for supporting a return to the workplace is the availability of testing for Covid-19. Employers with more than 50 employees, who cannot work from home, are able to join the rapid workplace testing scheme, which makes 30-minute lateral flow tests available. Details of the scheme are here:

When home working is not possible, the CIPD recommends three key tests before bringing people back to the workplace: is it essential; is it sufficiently safe; and is it mutually agreed? Many factors must be considered, including the size and nature of the workplace, the number of vulnerable staff or those who live with vulnerable people, caring responsibilities, public transport dependency, as well as local and wider outbreaks. So, an employer with a large premises and car park may be able to fully implement social distancing and minimise employees’ local transport use, while an employer with smaller premises may feel social distancing is impossible in the workplace.

Employers should use their risk assessments in their decisions to allow staff to return to the workplace. It is fair to say that employers with workforces that cannot work from home have found adapting premises to accommodate all staff returning on a socially distanced basis can be challenging.

Risk assessments and health and safety measures

As outlined above, for a return to the workplace, employers must have in place a detailed risk management to safeguard employees' health and minimise the risk of infection, basing plans on up-to-date government and public health guidance. The Health and Safety Executive are able to conduct spot checks and have also published advice and guidance relating to Covid-19 on its website which may be useful when considering health and safety measures.

Regularly communicate to staff the practical measures you are taking to help reassure them that their health, wellbeing and safety is your top priority. Make sure they are clear about the rules and procedures employees should follow both in the workplace and at home, especially if they begin to feel unwell.

Other issues to consider

The risks to people’s health from this pandemic are psychological as well as physical. These include anxiety about the ongoing health crisis and fear of infection, concerns about vaccinations, as well social isolation due to the lockdown. Many will have experienced challenging domestic situations, such as juggling childcare or caring for a vulnerable relative, and financial worries if their family has had a reduction in income. Some will have experienced illness, or bereavement. Some members of staff may have concerns about travelling and socially distancing on public transport – or it may not be as readily available. Some may be struggling with the significant change that society has seen, and the familiar workplace routines could feel very different.

Communication with your staff is key. Keeping people informed of what your business is doing – whether it is good or bad news for individuals - will help them to make their own decisions and give them some degree of security in very uncertain times. Knowing they are supported by their employer– and that you continue to prioritise their health and safety – will be key to their wellbeing.

Clearly there is a lot of information for employers to read and put into practice, but if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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