Coronavirus: the roadmap to returning to the officeNatalie
Will you be returning to the office after freedom day?
The government has finally published guidelines on new workplace safety before ‘freedom day’ on Monday (July 19th 2021). These guidelines have been widely criticised so far by the Institute of Directors, the TUC and the FSB.
In a nutshell, we’ve been told that employers no longer need to have in place social distancing measures and that working at home is no longer necessary. However, the government has recommended a gradual return to the workplace over the summer.
The guidance says that employers need to “take reasonable steps to manage risks” in their workplaces. Totally vague and utterly useless, if you ask me! This really leaves massive gaping holes around employer’s liability, should they get things wrong.
Overall, businesses still have a responsibility to minimise risk to their employees and customers when returning to the office. For me, there are too many questions around whether businesses will be held liable should they drop the current levels of safety.
Since the vaccination programme rollout, it seems that the public now has better protection against the virus, bringing the likelihood of dying from contracting Covid-19 to the lowest levels we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic. However, those people who are catching the virus despite having had one or both of the vaccines are still reporting being very poorly, often with symptoms and fatigue lasting 1-2 weeks. We also know that with the Delta Variant being the most viralent version of the virus in circulation, it seems to be incredibly infectious and easy to catch.
Keeping these factors in mind, this virus could still have a huge impact on the daily running of businesses. I have already seen how quickly the virus can circulate an office, even with Covid-safe measures in place. One of my clients had 9 people fall sick with Covid-19 a few weeks ago. All of whom were off sick for at least a week, one person is still of sick 3 weeks later.
So let’s look at some of the main things to consider when returning to the office;
Should we still maintain social distancing in the office?
Social distancing will be abolished after the 19th July 2021, but employers need to weigh up the risks of having staff packed in next to each other without any PPE or screens in place. In my opinion, we should keep social distancing in place for now and monitor this over the coming months. You should carry out your own risk assessments for returning to the office.
Should we still wear PPE in the office?
Whilst there will be no legal requirement to wear face coverings in offices and shops as of the 19th July, the public and businesses are being encouraged to use ‘common sense’ and take ‘personal responsibility’. The government expects and recommends that people continue to use face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces. Does this mean packed boardrooms with no ventilation? You’d best do a risk assessment and decide how your business wishes to proceed.
Should we issue new sickness absence guidelines?
Most of my office-based clients have had a Covid-19 related scare over the last couple of months where a member of staff has come into the office feeling slightly under the weather and has subsequently spread the virus around the office.
You must be really clear on what your employees should do if they feel even remotely unwell. Certainly, I’m recommending that if people don’t feel well but are okay to work, they should stay at home and work remotely where possible. Alternatively, if they have to come into the workplace they should carry out a lateral flow test first, then when in the workplace (assuming the test comes back negative), they should exercise a higher level of precautions such as social distancing and wearing a mask to protect others.
The potential impact of having several of your team off sick all at the same time could be high. By following these guidelines, for now, you can help reduce this impact.
What about managing child care whilst there are still restrictions/limitations?
The government want a gradual return to the workplace over the summer, however, bear in mind that many summer schools, summer activity camps and other childcare provisions are either not going ahead or numbers are severely limited. This may result in a big impact on our working parents. Most parents will have booked some holiday to be able to manage this but for single parents especially, the summer holidays can be particularly difficult to juggle. My recommendation is that managers discuss this with their team members and act with flexibility and sensitivity – discussing each individual’s circumstances with them and coming up with a plan that suits all parties. Allowing people to work from home more during this period may be a good solution.
How do we manage employees with anxiety about returning to the office?
I am seeing high levels of staff with anxiety about returning to the office, mainly stemming from the fear of mixing with large groups and using public transport to commute. A gradual return to the office and maintaining reassuring safety measures will help with this. Speak to those individuals who are nervous about returning – treat them with compassion and reassure them.
I recognise that many leaders and business owners would like to have full offices and return to the workplace buzz that we once had pre-pandemic. Many employees also want this, albeit with the choice to also work remotely on occasion too. However, the virus still has the potential to cause a negative impact on attendance and people’s long term health.
It’s clear that we’re going to have to live with this virus but for now, be sensible, lead with compassion and keep your team safe.
For tailored advice, get in touch!