Plan for a return to the office

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How do businesses return to work?

Robin Troy replies:

The government is lifting restrictions placed on businesses and the workplace almost on a daily basis.

Offices have been restricted to five workers essential to the conduct of the business, with the result that many employees have had to work remotely from home. This has not always been possible for all businesses and their employees, but for those that have been able to provide for remote working (sometimes providing new laptops and other technology) this has not always occurred smoothly, but many have seen the benefits.

For those who have embraced new technology, remote-working practices and flexibility, there has arguably been a revolution, not just in the way business can be conducted, but working-practice thinking. The future of the large (often expensive) floorplate is perhaps being questioned, especially in a reassessment of costs and overheads and a desire to reduce them, without losing productivity or quality of service. This could be a trend for the future.

Employees are often keen to get back to an office environment, with some suffering from isolation and some having had to work at home at the kitchen table or a desk in the corner of a living room or bedroom. Constant disruption from family members and other distractions from not being in a work-orientated environment has meant that, for some, the usual 9-to-5 day has not always been possible, with some having to work early in the morning or late at night to accommodate every aspect of family life and work. In this, flexibility by employees and employers has been and is the key.

Businesses can now bring employees back to the workplace or office, if they cannot work from home. This is still with restricted working practices, as set out in the guidelines recommended by our government and set out in the UK government document ‘Working safely during Covid-19 in offices and contact centres’. Physical distancing requirements combined with narrow corridors, small working areas, small kitchens, toilets and social areas mean a complete review of the workplace by employers, to provide a realistic, building-specific, health-and-safety-orientated workspace plan for a return to work. An additional risk assessment for communal areas may also be required.

The safety of staff is paramount. It should be recognised that the usual health and safety at work rules and regulations still apply and an employee is entitled to a safe working environment.

These are some of the additional issues to consider specific to the current crisis:

lAn assessment should be made of which staff members are needed in the premises as essential for the conduct of the business.

lVulnerable members of staff should work from home.

lIf it is difficult for staff to work from home, can they safely return to the workplace?

lConsider flexible or staggered arrival and departure times and the impact on public transport for staff coming back to the workplace.

lConsider the number of people in the premises and their movement around the premises, especially communal areas, toilets, kitchens, staff rooms, reception areas and meeting rooms.

lCan movement be restricted in corridors to one direction and the number of people using meeting rooms or staff kitchens restricted to allow for physical distancing.

lIt is essential to provide a working space of two metres (see guidelines for exceptions) between workstations. Perhaps consider marking out on the floor safe areas around workstations or work areas to reinforce this practice.

lThe plan must consider enhanced cleaning and sanitising practices. Staff should wash hands regularly and common areas and workstations should be sanitised regularly, including handles and hand rails and all equipment. Sanitising products should be provided to staff for workstations and a cleaning regime established for communal areas. The employer should provide adequate PPE to staff of a type dependent on tasks and an assessment of risk.

lKeep records of the regimes that have been put in place and compliance with them in order to demonstrate this to authorities, if required.

Above all, communication with staff is fundamental so that they know what is required of them and what they are entitled to expect.

Employers must provide ongoing active guidance and observance of the requirements, if need be on a daily or employee-specific basis.

lThis article is not intended as legal advice. Legal advice can be obtained by contacting Tony del Amo (email or Robin Troy (email, telephone 760760). Restrictive interview practices may apply.

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