As we progress through the government’s route map out of lockdown, phase 2 potentially includes re-opening of non-essential indoor workplaces which are not office based, although the default position will remain working from home. Over the next few months, it is to be hoped that more businesses will be able to bring back staff who are furloughed and more work will be able to resume as we move through phases 3 and 4 of the route map.
However, this brings with it a number of challenges so it is worth carrying out planning now for what steps might need to be taken. In this blog, we consider the shorter term issues employers may need to consider when looking at a return to work and envisaging a return to office based working.
The key points for consideration for a return will be a review of the business and likely business needs, and risk assessment of the workplace. Consideration of business needs will assist to identify distribution of work, what staff are required and whether remote working on an ongoing basis is possible, which staff will be required to physically return to the work premises, and so on.
Risk assessment will be key to ensure businesses are complying with their duty to protect the health and safety of employees at work by considering the risks presented by coronavirus and what measures can be taken to reduce these risks.
Although the considerations will vary from business to business, consideration may be given to the following:
- Work patterns: consider whether it would be beneficial to have staggered start times or more flexible working times so that not all employees are arriving and leaving the office or using eating facilities at once, or change shift patterns so that there are fewer employees working at one time.
- Rotation of staff or division into teams – it may be preferable to continue to have staff working remotely with only those who cannot returning to the premises, or splitting teams or departments where possible and having some teams in the office and some working remotely to reduce the risk of infection and protect business continuity.
- Changes to premises/equipment: given very few workplaces outside the health and social care sector are established with infection control in mind, consideration should be given to changes in layout, use of equipment and facilities. For example, spacing out employees or changing the layout, putting up screens between workstations, having a one way system or splitting the workplace into zones which are restricted to certain teams, restricting access to communal areas like bathrooms, kitchens and lifts, cleaning of touchpoints and equipment.
- Customers, clients and meetings: Employers should consider what rules or policies should be in place for contact with customers, clients, suppliers or other business contacts. It might be that the policy is to avoid face to face contact where possible for a prolonged period. If there are to be meetings, consider policies around who authorises such meetings, whether to restrict areas in which such meetings take place or how many can take place on a given day. This will also involve consideration of employees own risk profiles – employees may not feel comfortable going into meetings, particularly if they are considered to be in a higher risk group. If employees work in a customer facing role and contact is unavoidable, such as work in retail or hospitality, consider what steps should be taken to minimise risks to the employees, such as provision of PPE, installing screens or putting in place arrangements to reduce contact with objects.
- Business development or marketing: Often business development involves client entertainment or attending networking events, dinners or sporting or charitable events. It is likely to be the case that such events will not resume in their previous format for the foreseeable future, but businesses will need to consider how they intend to conduct business development going forward. Employees may not be keen to travel to or attend events, and indeed clients may not be particularly keen to attend either. Consideration may need to be given to more flexible and creative ways of networking.
- Business travel. Even prior to the lockdown, a number of business had ceased all business travel to avoid the spread of the virus. Remote working during this period has shown that meetings can often be carried out effectively remotely, and it might be worth reviewing the extent to which employees are required to travel on business at all, particularly to internal meetings. This might also be a point to consider in terms of cost savings to the business given the economic impacts of the crisis. In the short term, it is worth considering on an ongoing basis whether business travel is essential. If it is, transparency with employees is advisable as to why they are being required to go and, as with most measures at this time, the risks to that particular employee and how these might be managed.
- Consider how to address employee concerns. Employees will have their own individual challenges, whether this is their own health, childcare responsibilities, caring for elderly relatives and fears for vulnerable family members, transport difficulties and so on. Some employees may be hesitant or anxious to return to the workplace. Although these concerns may be unfounded, employers would be advised to have compassion and seek to enter into dialogue about arrangements. Some flexibility might be possible which will allow that employee to feel more comfortable, or allowing them to continue to work remotely for a period where possible. Communication and transparency with staff will be important around the contents of risk assessment, the measures which have been put in place and the rationale behind any policies. Employees who are at particular risk should ideally be kept working remotely if possible.
- Consult with staff: If they have the ability and depending on the size of the workforce, businesses may wish to consult with staff prior to re-opening the workplace. This will allow staff to feel included in the process, and their concerns to be addressed which might assist in making the return process smoother.
- Travelling to work – the UK Government advice is to avoid the use of public transport to get to work where possible, and to walk or cycle instead. It is possible that employees who do not drive (or for whom the cost of driving to work or parking is prohibitive) will have no choice but to use public transport. Consideration should be given to any concerns of these employees and what assistance or flexibility could be afforded. If they cannot work at home, they might be assisted, for example, by flexibility in start times as discussed above to avoid travelling at rush hour, or allowing them to work compressed hours over fewer days to reduce travel if this is appropriate.
Dealing with illness in the workplace
A key policy to have in place will be around illness at work and what happens if an employee is found to have coronavirus. Generally employers will have been advising employees not to attend work if they have the symptoms listed on NHS websites. Consideration should also be given to the following:
- An incidence of potential transmission of coronavirus in the workplace is reportable to the Health and Safety Executive under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013) where there is ‘reasonable evidence’ of this, so measures may need to be taken to comply;
- Employees could be encouraged to tell i.e. their line manager if they are suspected or confirmed to have coronavirus and particularly if they believe they contracted it at work;
- Consider what arrangements will be if an employee begins to feel ill with what may be the virus while at work. They should immediately be isolated from other employees: it may be advisable to identify a suitable area in the premises for this purpose.
- Consideration should be given to the policy in relation to the rest of staff. Will the workplace be closed to allow for cleaning? Should other employees who have been in contact with the affected employee be required to self-isolate? What arrangements will be put in place for their work if this happens? Should staff be informed that a colleague has tested positive for the virus (subject to data protection obligations which would not permit identification of that colleague unless necessary)?
Whatever steps are taken to facilitate return to the workplace, communication and openness with staff will be important to ensure they feel safe. Employers are likely to maintain better relationships with staff if they feel their safety has been taken seriously and their concerns have been listened to and considered.