The Government started to lift the coronavirus lockdown back on 1 June. At that point, workers who couldn't work from home were encouraged to return to work where it was safe to do so. Despite this, many report that city centres are still far quieter than usual more than two months later as workers continue to work from home and many more are still furloughed. To counter this, the Government are now actively encouraging staff to return to the workplace.
The first swathe of businesses to re-open included outdoor markets and car showrooms. Since then more and more businesses have been permitted to re-open. Now, almost all businesses are permitted to open providing they are 'COVID-secure' including:
- non-essential retail businesses,
- outdoor attractions in the visitor economy,
- pubs, restaurants, cafes
- hotels, bed and breakfast establishments and other guest accommodation
- hairdressers, barbers and other close personal services
It should be noted that the coronavirus lockdown is being lifted to different timescales depending on where in the UK businesses are based as the devolved Government's ease restrictions according to their own criteria. Some areas have also been placed back into local lockdown measures where the number of coronavirus cases has started to increase again.
With schools re-opening and many children returning to school for the first time since mid-March, many workers may now feel it is time to return to the workplace. As an employer, you have a legal duty to keep your staff and customers safe. So, how can you convince workers that you have done everything possible to minimise the risks and that it is safe to return to work?
Thankfully there are plenty of things you can do to prepare for a gradual return to business and persuade your staff that it is safe to return to work.
Assess your workplace
- You need to assess the work your staff carry out, where they do it, how they do it and who they are likely to encounter as part of their working day.
- If staff cannot work from home, the Government has said they can return to work if it is safe to do no. Staff who can work from home, should continue to do so for the time being as it is the safest place for them.
- Assess whether staff currently on furlough can work from home when they return from furlough. Review the work they normally carry out, what tech they might need to facilitate home working and their personal circumstances. Are they, or anyone they live with, been told they are at higher risk of infection? Over a million people were asked to shield during the height of the outbreak. If so, adopting a flexible and considerate approach and allowing them to continue working from home will demonstrate to your staff that you have their best interests at heart.
- Assess the risks posed by your workplace. If you have your own office or building it is easier to control who uses the space and how they use it. It is also easier to control safety measures such as cleaning, access to hand sanitisers and how close people work in proximity.
- If you use a shared workspace, hotdesking or open plan office, you may deem it safer to continue working from home for the foreseeable future.
Assess how staff get to work
- If staff must come in to work to carry out their job, can you stagger start and finish times?
- Review how staff normally get to work. Are there safer options that avoid public transport? If staff use public transport, remind them of the rules on wearing face coverings. Can staff walk or cycle instead? Is driving to work an option? Would you have enough parking spaces for people to drive to work if you only have essential staff coming into the premises.
- Consider asking staff to check their temperature before leaving for work. If they have a temperature or any other symptoms, they should be advised to stay at home.
Review safety measures in the workplace
- Maintain social distancing in the workplace. You may only be able to use every other desk or workstation. Think about entry and exit points and how people move around the space to complete their work. Can you ask staff to enter the building through one door and exit through another?
- Close or limit access to communal spaces such as waiting areas, kitchens and rest rooms. Could staff bring in their own reusable cup which they take home to wash at the end of every day?
- Limit face-to-face meetings. Make use of communication and collaboration apps so people can work together remotely.
- Consider whether staff and customers should wear personal protective equipment? Make sure you have enough hand sanitising points and a more frequent cycle of cleaning.
- Can you install shields or barriers that will separate staff from each other and the public?
- Do you use company vehicles? Consider allocating specific vehicles to specific individuals to limit the number of people using each vehicle. The Government have published guidance on using company vehicles.
- If you serve the public, can you provide your service by delivering it to them electronically or physically rather than having them collect in person? Can you facilitate online ordering and payment?
Return to work advice for specific types of business
- Do you run a café, bar or restaurant? It is likely that you will have to limit numbers in your premises at any one time. Can customers order and pay for their food or drink using an app and then collect it from a collection point so that they have limited contact with your staff? Consider opening only to those that have a reservation so you can control numbers and space diners out to maintain social distancing. The Government have published specific guidance for Food outlets offering takeaways and delivery.
- Does your business operate as a shop? The Government guidance for shops will help you assess the risks and measures you should take. You should control entry and exit points and consider limiting numbers in your shop. Enforce social distancing rules between customers and between customers in staff. Consider whether you need to install a screen to create a barrier between people. Is it possible and safer to insist on electronic payments only?
- Can you allocate workstations to a single member of staff or will you need to clean them between shifts?
- Are you a hairdresser, beautician or other therapist? Consider the measures announced by the Government. These include: no waiting areas and magazines, no face-to-face talking (communication must be limited and done via the mirror), both the hairdresser and client must wear masks, gloves must be worn until the hair has been washed, no blow drying (if possible), all equipment must be disinfected between clients and strict social distancing must be maintained. This limits the number of clients you will be able to see in any one day. Salons also have to record customers' names so they can be contacted if necessary.
- Do your workers provide services in people's homes such as cleaners or care assistants? Consider providing them with personal protective equipment and allocating a specific worker to each household to limit the number of people they encounter. The Government have provided guidance for those businesses providing a service in people's homes.
- Are you a delivery business? Can you stagger deliveries and collections to limit the amount of people in close proximity? Can you use tech to sign for collections and deliveries electronically? Can you establish a safe place items can be left so that items do not have to be signed for in person?
- Are you an office-based business? The Government advice is that where possible, office staff should continue to work from home. Face-to-face meetings should be avoided and where this is not possible visitor numbers should be limited. A record should be kept of all non-staff who visit the office. Social distancing should be implemented, workstations should be allocated to specific people and cleaning and hand sanitisation points should be increased. Consider closing communal areas such as canteens and rest areas to maintain social distancing.
The Government has published 14 guides, each covering a different type of work, explaining how employers, employees and freelance workers can work as safely as possible. Guides cover:
- Close contact services
- Construction and other outdoor work
- Factories, plants and warehouses
- Heritage locations
- Hotels and other guest accommodation
- Laboratories and research facilities
- Offices and contact centres
- Other people's homes
- Restaurants, pubs, bars and takeaway services
- Shops and branches
- Visitor economy
Employees and returning from lockdown
It is likely that some staff will be nervous about returning to work. You should consult them about measures and plans as they are likely to be best placed to suggest how a safe return to work might be possible. Give staff plenty of notice about returning to work - especially those with care responsibilities.
You should also consider the mental health of your staff. Some staff may have experienced bereavement, financial difficulties and isolation during the lockdown. Mind has produced practical advice on taking care of mental health and has the NHS.
A final note of caution
Some areas of the country have already been placed back into local lockdown. It is entirely possible that other areas will enforce local measures if infection rates begin to climb. You should be prepared to make contingency plans. Review what has worked during lockdown and what measures could be improved in case your local area reverts to full or partial lockdown.