We have collectively travelled through the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic and individuals and businesses alike are starting to plan a return to the workplace. The government plans to announce next steps this week and this note sets out some likely parameters and gives guidance to best practice in the workplace.
How you manage a return to the workplace will depend on the type of closure arrangements you have been operating. The three most prevalent types are:
Business not trading at all (all staff furloughed)
Business trading on a limited basis (some staff furloughed, some working from home or in company premises) or where only ‘essential’ workers are currently in work
Business trading fully but all staff working from home.
Whichever of these is closest to your individual business, there are some common issues you will need to address:
It seems highly likely that there will be a requirement for some form of social distancing for some time to come. Lockdown restrictions will likely be lifted incrementally, and all staff who can work from home will be expected to carry on doing so. Where certain groups of employees or businesses are part of a sectoral return to the workplace, employers will need to consider detailed risk management approaches to safeguard their health and minimise the risk of infection. It’s therefore essential that employers continue to base any plans for returning to the workplace on up-to-date Government and public health guidance in relation to COVID-19. The health and safety executive has published advice and guidance relating to COVID-19 on its website which may be useful when considering health and safety measures.
Given that the priority for every business should be managing a safe return to the workplace for staff, it’s crucial that you work in close collaboration with your health and safety and occupational health teams wherever possible. Communicate the practical measures you are taking to staff on a regular basis to help reassure them that their health, well-being and safety is your top priority. Make sure employees are clear about what procedure they should follow if they begin to feel unwell, both in the workplace and at home.
You will need to review your workplace and consider – can staff maintain a 2m physical distance between each other? How will you manage meetings, interviews and other interactions? What about communal areas such as canteens or kitchen areas? How can you implement resourcing strategies to support physical distancing such as ‘cohorting’ (ie keeping teams of workers working together and as small as possible), or staggering working hours so that not all staff are in at the same time?
All of the key protection and hygiene measures will continue to apply to minimise the spread of infection, such as reminding staff about regular and effective handwashing, and providing hand sanitiser. If your premises have been closed for a period of time, you should carry out a deep-clean before you reopen. You should therefore review your cleaning arrangements, for example ensuring all phones/keyboards etc are wiped daily with anti-viral cleaner. You can refer to the government guidance for more information.
Depending on your working environment, you may need to consider providing additional PPE, including gloves, masks or anti-viral hand gel. If you want people to wear gloves/masks, then you will also need to think about training/briefing staff on their correct usage – since both can be ineffective if used inappropriately. Information is available on the government website. It’s also likely that more large-scale testing for COVID-19 infection will form a key part of facilitating a safe return to the workplace for larger numbers of employees. This could form an extension of the current framework for the testing of essential workers and members of their household, and will mean every employer implementing a systematic approach for their workforce. Employers should continue to monitor the latest government guidance and be prepared to act upon any changes.
Staff who travel or visit other company premises may also need additional equipment or briefing. Remote meeting facilities and video-conferencing should be encouraged wherever possible to minimise the need for staff to travel and/or use public transport.
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, 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, as well as financial worries if a partner has lost their income. Some will have experienced illness, or bereavement. Even if staff have carried on working and participating in video meetings, they will still need to adjust to working in a shared environment with colleagues. Some may take more time than others and it’s likely that most people will need a period of readjustment. Some members of staff may have concerns about travelling to work on public transport – or it may not be as readily available. Many may find that they are still coming to terms with the significant change which society has seen, and the familiar workplace routines could feel very different. If your business has an Employee Assistance Programme or access to Occupational Health advisers make staff aware of the services they can provide.
It will be vital to have a re-orientation or re-induction process for returning staff. Encourage and support every manager to have a one to one return meetings with every employee, where a key focus is on health, safety and well-being. Managers need to have a sensitive and open discussion with every individual and discuss any adjustments and/or ongoing support they may need to facilitate an effective return to the workplace. This is especially important for those who have been furloughed, and should cover topics such as changes in company services or procedures, how specific customer queries or issues are being addressed, or changes in supply arrangements, as well as any changes to their work duties or tasks. It could be that some staff require a phased return to their full role, or want to discuss a new working arrangement, especially if their domestic situation has changed because of the pandemic.
Finally, it will be important for every employer to ensure that the organisation culture is inclusive, and that every employee feels they are returning to a supportive and caring environment. The pandemic has had an unequal impact across the workforce in many ways, as different groups of employees, and individuals, will have been affected in diverse ways according to their job role and individual circumstances. Some organisations will have people who have been furloughed on 80% or 100% pay, for example, while others may have continued to work or even had increased workloads. The uneven nature of people’s work and personal experiences and the challenging nature of the lockdown and ongoing situation, means there could be potential for some negative feelings creeping into the employment relations climate. Therefore, it’s important that the organisation fosters an inclusive working environment, and managers are sensitive to any underlying tensions and confident about nipping potential conflict in the bud.