Reopening offices after lockdown: are you following these steps?

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Are you ready for the new normal? 

In the UK, the signs are promising that we can gradually get back to work in offices around the country, after months of lockdown. 

Indeed, just as we write this article, Boris Johnson has announced a relaxation in the government’s guidelines. 

While the revised guidelines won’t be announced in full until 1 August, the government has stated that they intend to “give employers more discretion on how they ensure employees can work safely. Working from home is one way to do this, but workplaces can also be made safe by following Covid-19 secure guidelines.”

Boris Johnson elaborated on this, adding, “Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees, and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe.”

Just as Boris Johnson was discussing a relaxation of restrictions, his senior science advisors were sounding less optimistic. While giving testimony in the House of Lords on 17 July, chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance suggested that we need to remain cautious: 

“There is a very significant chance that it [coronavirus] comes back in force. Everyone that I’ve spoken to thinks it’s highly likely that this disease will continue to circulate and will come back in waves. And therefore, the measures of reducing contact to reduce spread, the sorts of social distancing measures that we’ve talked about, and the hygiene measures that go along with that, will be necessary.”

So, while you may be allowed to reopen on 1 August, you may prefer to wait a little longer, or proceed with a partial or staggered reopening. 

Should you reopen your office on 1 August?

It probably comes down to a question of risk versus reward. 

How well can your business function with colleagues working remotely? 

What is the impact on colleagues, operations, and financial performance when everyone works from home? 

Are you able to minimise risks for colleagues who need to be office-based? 

We’ll explore the government’s current guidelines for protecting office workers shortly, but for now it seems that a possible middle-ground is to partially reopen, and encourage some colleagues to remain at home. 

By reducing the number of colleagues in the office (perhaps by using a rota system) you can increase the distance between colleagues and reduce the chance of infection. 

With this in mind, how can you prepare to reopen your office?

Managing risk as you reopen offices

The UK government has comprehensive advice on how to work safely during the coronavirus crisis, which we will summarise here. 

If you have questions about how to manage risks to your colleagues, your business representative organisation or trade association may have additional advice.

Risk assessment

Conducting a risk assessment is the most logical place to start your preparations for reopening your offices. 

The UK government advice on risk assessments is simple. They encourage businesses to approach the exercise with a focus on identifying risks, not generating paperwork. In fact, if you have fewer than 5 employees, you don’t need to write anything down at all. 

You should involve your colleagues in the risk assessment process. Not only will this help you identify and address every risk issue, but it will reassure colleagues that you are concerned about their safety, and taking practical steps to protect them.

As well as reporting on risk issues, ensure that every concern is followed-up and that all risks are adequately mitigated. 

If you have more than 50 employees, you should publish your risk assessment on your website. 

What should your risk assessment include? Like any risk assessment, you should consider:

  • What could cause illness or injury at work
  • Evaluate the level of risk (how likely is this to happen?)
  • Take steps to eliminate the hazard or reduce the risk

Mental health support

While the UK government advice focuses on the practicalities of reopening your offices, you may also want to think about the invisible implications of reopening. 

If your office reopens, your colleagues will make a big leap in the volume of time they spend out of home, as well as the time they spend travelling and the time spent around other people. 

People who have spent months sheltering from the virus, either cocooned with their families or isolating in isolation, may find it challenging to simply return to normality. 

After all, we’ve been hiding from an invisible threat, and must now dodge this invisible threat while going about our business. 

This is a weird time, so it’s worth considering how your colleagues are feeling, and potentially offering additional support or adjustments for people who need a little time or space to help them return.

Reducing coronavirus risks in your office

Reopening your office successfully may partly rely on a shift in culture. People will need to change their behaviours and shift their thinking. 

Reducing the spread of coronavirus will require increased hand washing and surface cleaning. 

‘Presenteeism’ must stop. The habit of going to work when you’re sick was always terrible, but coronavirus means the risks to health are now greater. It cannot be acceptable to attend the office with any symptoms. Additionally, colleagues will also need to isolate if they have had contact with someone suspected of having coronavirus. 

Some colleagues may need persuading that it’s okay to take a sick day, and to stay at home if they’re feeling ill (or live with someone who may be infected). This is a point that may require repeating, repeatedly, on notice boards, by emails, in conversations and possibly through training. 

Other ways to protect colleagues after lockdown:

  • Aim for 2m social distancing when possible
  • Avoid face-to-face working (try side-to-side or back-to-back)
  • Avoid raised voices (music or background noise may cause people to raise their voices)

Social distancing at work

While the government guidelines on social distancing may be relaxed from 1 August, employers still need to be satisfied that risks are justifiable and managed. 

You may prefer to go beyond government guidelines if you can effectively continue your business while offering enhanced protection.

Key considerations when creating distance between colleagues:

  • Entrance and exits. Could you have a one-way system?
  • Staggering start and finish times
  • Limiting passengers on company trips and transports
  • Avoid hot-desking when possible. Clean desks and equipment in-between sessions.
  • Use screens to separate people if separation is not possible otherwise.
  • Avoid in-person meetings. Use online meeting tools if you can.
  • Have meetings outdoors whenever possible
  • Offer hand sanitiser in meeting rooms
  • Stagger break times if you share a building with other companies to prevent lots of people sharing a space at the same time
  • Encourage people to bring food and stay on-site
  • Leave personal items in lockers during the day

Accidents, security, and emergencies

You and your colleagues are not expected to comply with social distancing guidelines in the event of an emergency, or if someone needed first aid. 

Again, this exception is worth sharing with colleagues so that they understand that they are free to help colleagues in a crisis. 

Protecting people at higher risk

The threat from coronavirus is not equally shared. 

Some of your colleagues are at greater risk from coronavirus complications because of existing health conditions, including people with specific cancers, transplant recipients, people with respiratory conditions, as well as other people who may have been advised by their GP to isolate. 

Your workplace preparations may need to account for these colleagues. How can you continue to support them as they work from home? As some colleagues return to the office, how can you ensure that home workers feel included and involved in team activities, decisions, and projects?

Equality laws also apply here, making it against the law to discriminate against colleagues who need to continue working from home. 

Visitors and guests

You may want to revise your policy on visitors to your offices, and to encourage colleagues to aim for virtual meetings whenever possible. 

  • Keep a record of visitors
  • Encourage visitors to use hand sanitiser
  • Avoid overlap of visitors
  • Ensure visitors understand your requirements and safety measures

Cleaning your offices

Frequent cleaning is advised, with particular attention given to objects and surfaces that are touched regularly and shared. 

For things like printers, whiteboards, and conference room phones, you may need to restrict access to a select group of people, or devise a cleaning protocol that ensures they are wiped down frequently.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

In general, most office workers are not expected to wear PPE, such as face masks or gloves, during a typical day. However, your risk assessment may highlight that PPE is essential for certain tasks or moments. 

If your colleagues require PPE to do their job, you have a duty to provide adequate equipment.

Training and awareness

Your colleagues are likely to be very aware of their responsibilities when it comes to hand washing and hygiene, but it’s worth putting up posters to maintain high standards and awareness of the reasons for taking precautions. After all, hand washing is as much about protecting colleagues as it is about personal health and wellbeing.

You may also need to provide training on matters such as social distancing, working with external partners, protecting visitors, entering, and exiting the office, and when to stay home. Consider how you can keep these rules and expectations front-of-mind, perhaps with periodic emails to highlight different risks and the relevant mitigation strategy.  

Deliveries and dispatches

How do you safely receive and send packages and post? 

You may need to revise pick-up and drop-off collection points, procedures, signage, and markings. 

Can you reduce the frequency of deliveries? Perhaps by ordering larger quantities of essential supplies?

Plan for outbreaks at work

What will you do if there’s a coronavirus outbreak in your office? Or in your town? Or in your county? How will you respond to a second wave of coronavirus? 

Now is the perfect time to make a plan. 

How and when should colleagues self-isolate if they have symptoms, or have been in contact with a suspected sufferer? And how long should they self-isolate for? 

Your plan should account for the disruption caused by different degrees of quarantine. Outbreaks of coronavirus could see individuals or teams needing to isolate at short notice for at least 7 days at a time. 

How quickly can your colleagues revert to home working? And what are the risks to business continuity of these ad-hoc and unexpected periods of quarantine? 

Another key consideration is how you will clean your office if a colleague or visitor has a suspected or confirmed case of coronavirus. 

Read the UK government advice on cleaning after coronavirus here.

Re-opening your office after lockdown

Are you ready to return to the office? 

Whether you’re itching to return or tempted to stay home, it’s important to remember that your colleagues are likely to be feeling a mixture of excitement and trepidation about the prospect of working away from home again. 

By following these steps, and taking advice from experts and authorities, you can improve the chances of a successful reintroduction to office life. 

Key takeaways:

  • Risk assessments are vital. Identify risks and then develop plans to mitigate them.
  • Raise awareness about key issues so colleagues understand their role in protecting health and safety
  • Create and communicate your plans for self-isolating in case of exposure
  • Plan for future disruption now so that you can effectively ride out a secondary wave of coronavirus
  • Consider the mental health as well as the physical wellbeing of your employees

Valentine Hutchings

Head of Community and small business enthusiast

Tide Team

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