Stay Safe on Return to Work
Coronavirus has had an unprecedented impact on life and is primarily a humanitarian issue with healthcare professionals battling to save lives.
Nonetheless, workplaces and businesses have been impacted like never before and after lengthy periods of lockdown, some countries are starting to ease measures.
In light of this, some “non-essential” businesses will be re-opening and employees may begin to return to offices. Certain protocols will need to be in place and office life will not be as it was before, at least in the short term. This article will provide some guidance on some of the measures that will need to be put in place.
1. Managing staff numbers
Given that the spread of coronavirus stems from close contact of groups of people, the return to work of staff will need to be carefully managed. Any return may require employees to be phased back in small numbers and over time. A phased approach is not only important for ensuring sufficient social distancing can take place in the office but also to minimise the number of people using public transport to commute to and from work at any one time.
Staggering start and end times for work should also be considered to reduce the numbers on public transport at any given time, and prevent a crowded rush hour scenario. Timings could be segmented based on roles or departments.
Choosing which employees to bring back to the office first is also an important consideration. If it is straight forward for some employees to continue working from home then they should be permitted to do so. Where productivity or physical space requirements are important, these employees should be phased in first.
2. Office Environment
The government has already warned that social distancing is likely to continue for some time. This may be easier for some workplaces and roles to implement than for others. Employers must start planning for this now, as it may take time to get right, in order to be in the best possible position when a return to work for staff is possible.
Key considerations include:
- Spreading work stations 2 metres apart.
- Minimising close interactions and meetings in small closed spaces.
- Limit the number of people permitted in communal areas at a time, such as office kitchens.
- Promote healthy personal habits including regular washing of hands
- Provision of masks to all staff and anti-bacterial stations throughout offices.
- Make use of PPE including plastic screens on office desks such as those used at supermarket tills.
- Signs to make social distancing easier to follow.
- One way systems on stairs and limiting of use of lifts to certain floors.
- Regular cleaning with cleaners operating throughout the day.
- Stagger lunch hours and encourage eating at your desk.
3. Health & Safety
Employers have a duty to provide a safe place of work and to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees.
Some of the office environment suggestions above relate to hygiene in the workplace. Employers will also need to review sick policies and share updated policies with staff. Anyone with COVID symptoms should immediately self-isolate and not attend the office for 14 days.
Some employees may not want to return to the office out of fear of using public transport and being in public spaces. This may not be considered unreasonable and therefore employers should tread carefully in how they deal with this. In the UK, if an employee who refuses to return to the office is dismissed, then this may be considered automatically unfair under section 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. Similarly, if an employer decides to furlough such staff or reduce their pay and they subsequently resign as a result, then this may be considered constructive dismissal which may also be automatically unfair.
Careful communication and open discussions with employees is key. The main considerations are whether an employee believes that COVID-19 poses a serious and imminent danger to them, and is this a reasonable belief for them to hold. This is fairly subjective and will be considered in line with government advice.
4. Back to work training
Staff should all be offered back to work information and any relevant training to ensure they understand new policies, new hygiene requirements, what they can and cannot do and there new work hours.
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