Since the pandemic hit the UK, people’s homes have become for many their main place of work. But just as we’ve settled in and got used to our video calls freezing, Amazon packages turning up midway through a meeting and pets running riot, the rules are changing…
From 19 July, the UK Government is no longer instructing people to work from home if they can. But is this likely to pile on the pressure for employers when it comes to handling HR requests to continue working from home, not to mention the never-ending battle for Coronavirus Health & Safety measures? You bet it is. That’s why we’ve mapped out a complete guide for employers on how to prepare for the return to the physical workplace. In this article, we look at the issues associated with getting the workplace ready for re-occupation.
Critically, it’s important to remember the ongoing need to review your Covid-19 safety measures. Updated government guidance regarding the lifting of the restrictions makes clear that employers still have a legal duty to manage the risks to those affected by their business, and that the way to do this is to carry out a Health and Safety Risk Assessment and take reasonable steps to mitigate the risks identified. The Government has published 6 new guides for employers in different sectors which should be followed from 19 July and which can be found here.
Since September 2020, the HSE has been carrying out in-person inspections and telephone spot checks on businesses across the country. These spot checks are set to continue for the foreseeable future.
Here are some key things to consider:
All businesses must have a Coronavirus Risk Assessment. If you have less than 5 employees, don’t have to put it in writing but it is good practice and advisable to do so. It is also key that you nominate a person within your business to be responsible for monitoring and reviewing the risk assessment and sharing any findings with your employees.
Working from Home
Whilst the Government is no longer instructing people to work from home where they can, they ‘expect and recommend a gradual return over the summer’. As this period will also coincide with school holidays, it makes sense to consider a phased return to the workplace over the next few weeks, ensuring that your employees have a reasonable opportunity to make any necessary arrangements to enable them to make the transition.
As many employees have become accustomed to the benefits offered by home-working, you may also wish to consider the introduction of a hybrid work model. Where this is not feasible, and you are implementing a wholesale return to the office, be prepared for to receive flexible working requests from employees who do not relish the return, and put in place a procedure and training for managers on how to deal with them.
Although there will no longer be any specific requirement to maintain social distancing in the workplace, the government is advising people to ‘increase close contact gradually’. That being the case you should continue to put in place measures to avoid sustained close contact between individuals in the workplace and do what you reasonably can to maintain adequate personal space for all staff and visitors.
- How will you manage larger meetings, interviews and other interactions?
- What about communal areas such as canteens and kitchens?
- Can you implement resourcing strategies to support physical distancing, such as cohorting (keeping teams of people who work together as small as possible) or staggering working hours?
- Where close contact cannot be avoided, can you use screens to offer added protection?
Government guidance to employers to reduce the risk of infection through rigorous cleaning remains. If you have not already done so during the pandemic (e.g., because your workplace has been closed) you will need to review your cleaning regime as a priority. High-contact surfaces such as door handles, light switches, taps, kettles, toilet flushes, card payment machines etc. will need to be cleaned regularly.
- Have you considered if you will need to instruct your team to carry this out or employ additional cleaning services?
- Do you need to implement new office procedures to enable effective hygiene to be maintained such as clear desk policies, limits on the consumption of food in workspaces, washing of crockery etc?
- Have you thought about company vehicles that may require cleaning?
Now is not the time to relax the handwashing/sanitising regime. Ensure that handwashing facilities and hand sanitiser are readily available for all staff and visitors, and that they are used.
Whilst face coverings are not mandatory, they remain advisable in a number of sectors, such as hospitality and retail. You need to consider what your policy will be, and ideally consult with staff about its implementation, taking account of individual circumstances.
You may need to consider taking steps to improve the ventilation in your workplace to help reduce the risk of airborne transmission. The updated government guidance on the steps employers need to take after 19 July specifically refers to the need to identify poorly ventilated areas and taking reasonable steps to improve air flow, and to ensure that any mechanical ventilation maximises fresh air flow rather than re-circulating.
If your workplace has been vacant or underused during the pandemic, you may need to conduct a more wide-ranging inspection of building systems which are covered by statutory requirements before bringing your staff back, including such things as checking fire alarms and escape routes, emergency lighting and other emergency systems, boilers, water systems (legionella), electrical appliances, lifts etc.
Another source of useful information relating to your business premises is the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers London (CIBSE), which has produced freely downloadable leaflets on ventilation, lifts and escalators and safely reoccupying buildings. They can be found here.
You should consider the fact that although restrictions have been lifted, the infection rate is rising sharply which is likely to mean that some staff will feel anxious about returning the workplace, especially after having been away from it for so long. It is therefore vitally important to communicate with your employees about your COVID-19 Risk Assessment and the measures you have put in place to mitigate any risks. Failure to do so could lead to increased absences, grievances, and ultimately Employment Tribunal claims where issues cannot be resolved.
Over the next month at least, we are likely to see a significant rise in the number of people who either contract Coronavirus or have been in contact with someone who has. Look out for our new Factsheet in which we will provide you with an update on the rules regarding testing and self-isolation.
At EML, we have an in-house Health & Safety Consultant that can conduct a health & safety audit for your business. Audits are an excellent way to spotlight areas that need attention, allowing you to develop an action plan to assist in meeting your health and safety requirements. We can help you with all areas of health and safety from audits, to training and we offer a friendly, professional, bespoke service, tailored to your needs.
Remember that the rules change frequently, and it’s important to keep up to date. More information can be found at www.gov.uk/coronavirus.
If you would like any further information or if you have any questions regarding the information discussed in this article, please get in touch on 01942 727200.