The next chapter in the new normality – returning to the workplace post lockdown
For many the new normality over these past weeks has been adapting, very quickly, to working from home over an extended period. For many others this ‘normality’ has seen them being placed on the government job retention scheme. For those working from home, this has presented challenges both professionally and personally in terms of logistics, communications, the blurring of work and private lives. For both groups there is the mental wellbeing concerns associated with social isolation, occupational insecurity and general anxieties the current uncertain and unpredictable circumstances represent.
It is expected that soon we will see an easing of the restrictions of movement observed so far during this public health crisis, and a return to the workplace will begin. The workplace, and how we use it, will be significantly different to that which we left behind in March as we embark on this next chapter of the ‘new normality’. The return to work and balancing business continuity with worker safety will be as much (if not more) of a challenge to businesses than the transition was to having their workforce largely dispersed or ‘placed on hold’, and the changes will be much longer lasting. ‘Business as usual’ it will not be.
Each workplace is going to have its own individual challenges, there will be no ‘one size fits all’ methodology as to how the return will be managed. For the purposes of this article the focus will be on the office type environment with a largely ‘static’ workforce and is based on the current general guidance around physical distancing.
In advance of any staff returning to the workplace, a risk-assessment-based approach will help in identifying the risks and considering the further control measures. Control measures required to protect, not only the safety and health of workers, but that of anyone else the business physically interacts with within the workplace.
What elements should the risk assessment process consider?
Workplace layout and physical distancing
Workplace design has over many years, certainly for office type environments, moved from the traditional cellular design to the open plan model we are familiar with. This design was about breaking down both the physical and abstract barriers between management and ‘workers’, and between different groups or teams (it’s also cheaper to build, can accommodate more workers and is easier and cheaper to heat and light). The inevitability is that physical distancing is going to be a way of life for the foreseeable future and as such, from a risk control perspective, will have to be prioritised above all other considerations.
While altering the physical layout and fabric of an existing workspace may not immediately be practical, altering how it is used in order to maintain physical distancing in the short term may be achievable. Start with a floorplan of the whole workplace indicating which spaces will require to be used and by applying physical distancing guidance (on the basis of the current two metre guidance) will determine how much of the space can be used at any one time and by how many, which will be appreciably less than it was. Longer term solutions may require alterations to how workspaces are arranged, for example reducing the number of workstations in each area or raising the height of partitions between opposing banks of workstations creating a physical barrier, or screen, enabling workers to sit opposite one another. Workstations, as far as possible, should be allocated to one person until the widespread threat of virus transmission has diminished.
Consider whether meeting rooms or break-out areas can be repurposed (subject to adequate furniture being available and the space having sufficient light and ventilation) increase the numbers who can be in the workplace at any one time while maintaining physical distancing protocols. Removing the number of chairs from meeting rooms or removing chairs and monitors from unoccupied desks will discourage use.
Other physical distancing considerations could be to implement one-way systems through workspaces, where practical, so that workers are not walking past each other, restricting the use of lifts to one person at a time, and even how to many persons can use toilets at any one time.
Having groups of workers alternating days spent in the workplace with days working from home or introducing shift patterns will help in easing any inconvenience that the reduction in the useable space to permit physical distancing will present.
Significant change to the workplace layout / arrangements, and how work is carried out within it, may have to be reflected in any standing risk assessments (for example, fire risk assessments).
Workplace high, medium and low risk areas and maintaining effective hygiene controls
Consideration should be given to determining what is a high, medium or low risk areas in the workplace; using a floor plan will assist in determining where these areas are. A collaborative effort will be required in buildings where facilities and resources are shared between more than one organisation to ensure that all occupants agree on the controls, and that these are delivered in a consistent manner.
High risk areas will be spaces that people (e.g. workers from more than one organisation, visitors or contractors) share during their normal workday. These areas will require more frequent and stringent cleaning regimes to reduce the potential for surface transmission of COVID-19. High risk areas will include reception areas, toilets / communal facilities, passenger lifts as well as any frequently touched surfaces within and on the routes to these areas such as door handles / secure entry systems, etc. Longer terms solutions may include the adoption of technologies which provide a continually (anti-microbial, anti-viral and anti-fungal) self-cleaning surface on ‘high contact’ surfaces such as door handles and door push pads.
Medium risk areas will include meeting rooms, shared workstations, shared equipment such as printers, copiers, kitchen equipment, storage facilities and again high contact items such as door handles, light switches and environmental controls.
Low risk areas will be workstations or individual spaces that are occupied by only one person during the working day. Cleaning / sanitising products should be made available (although securing sufficient stocks of these items will be challenge until the supply of them is stabilised), and workers instructed to clean down their workstation before and after use (desk surface, keyboard, mouse and phone). Clear desk policies should be enforced.
Arrangements with contract cleaners will certainly require review, at the earliest opportunity, to ensure that the frequency of visits, the scope of service delivery (again with an emphasis on attention to high contact areas) and even the cleaning products they use are adequate to ensure that effective hygiene controls can be preserved, and where not what alternative arrangements will need to be made (including self-delivery). Bear in mind some contractors may not be able to automatically provide increased levels of service for all customers and discussion with them is essential – they may also be dealing with unpreceded demands on their resources.
Cleaning methods which previously were more commonplace in healthcare or laboratory environments, such as electrostatic cleaning (where an electrical charge is applied to the cleaning solution and the droplets created when sprayed become positively charged, enabling them to stick to, and envelop, a surface) may see wider applications in the general workplace.
The provision of hand sanitiser dispensers, will much like they are at the entrances to hospital wards, become a common feature within the entrances to many buildings (public and commercial) and throughout workspaces, especially in high contact locations such as shared communal areas.
Who will be using the workplace?
Following on from considering how the workplace will be used, is to consider who will be using the workplace.
While many workers were able to make the transition to working from home (and which many will continue to do so and perhaps on a more permanent basis), that has not been an option for many others due to the nature of their role and the work they carry out. This latter group will be amongst the first to return to the workplace. It is essential that HR data is used in order to make an informed evaluation about who will be able to make an early return to the workplace, considering factors such as individual vulnerability (for example age or and underlying health conditions), and domestic situations. Wider HR issues should consider how to respond to workers who would like to return to the workplace but whose roles do not make them a priority during the initial return period.
Different departments within an organisation are going to have their own ideas over which workers they consider to be ‘essential’ and would like to have back in the workplace during the early stages of any return. These needs, however, will have to be balanced against the space available following the provisions made to observe physical distancing.
Protocols for internal and external meetings will have to be decided. The first consideration is whether a face-to-face meeting is essential. The virtual meeting technologies, which have been embraced so readily over the past few weeks, are here to stay, and will be a practical alternative to face-to-face meetings (and can be a solution to restricting external visitors to the workplace). The use of these technologies should also be continued for internal meetings until virus transmission has been curtailed. Where a physical meeting is essential (and is it ever… the last few weeks has proved that) then there are two considerations: first the available space and whether the number of attendees would make physical distancing attainable, and second, (whilst there are no guidelines on this yet) the duration of the meeting: having a number of people collected in a smaller space for an extended period may introduce increased risk (reduced ‘awareness of controls’ after an extended period of time, lack of ventilation).
General health and safety issues should not be neglected when planning which workers will be involved in the initial return to the workplace. In these groups of returning workers are there sufficient numbers of trained fire wardens and first aiders?
Managers must be alert, more so than ever, to the mental wellbeing issues of their staff, and the new anxiety over returning to work for both health and personal reasons. Having effective support and resources available to workers (and not forgetting those who may continue to work from home) and being prepared to make necessary adjustments should be of critical importance.
A collaborative approach
A collaborative approach in establishing how the return to work will be managed is vital and, depending on the size and complexity of the organisation will require the input of a number of groups: management, HR, facilities management, IT, health and safety support, as well as building landlords / management agents, contractors and service providers.
It is essential that return to work arrangements are effectively communicated to workers in advance and that they have the opportunity to discuss any concerns they may have. Managers should be as flexible as possible and be prepared to make changes based on individual concerns.
Engagement, involvement and transparency will build confidence and trust and ensure that workers feel safe and secure in returning to the workplace.
Further information and support
If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article or how Navigator Employment Law can support in the creation of, or project manage, return to work risk assessments for your organisation please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a follow-on from this article we will very shortly be releasing practical tools to help organisations on the elements which should be considered (from a health and safety perspective) as part of the return to work process.