Safety first – a “back to the office” roadmap for employers

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This “back to the office” roadmap is designed to help employers and HR professionals in the accounting sector navigate the ins and outs of the new office environment.

Step 1: Understand the risks

Whatever approach you plan to take to bringing employees back to the office, it’s important to know what you have to do to make it safe.

So your first port of call should be the government website, where you will find reams of guidance for employers, including mandatory steps for those with office-based workers.

“The UK Government’s ‘Covid-19 secure’ guidelines set out a process for employers to follow, based around risk assessment, social distancing measures and actions to mitigate the risk of coronavirus transmission,” said Susie Munro, senior employment law editor at online HR resource XpertHR.

The next step is to carry out a thorough risk assessment on your office building. “Conducting and updating risk assessments is key to ensuring employers meet the ever-changing guidance around social distancing, cleaning, hygiene, hand washing, ventilation, and air conditioning,” Ford said.

As we know from experience, coming out of lockdown does not necessarily mean it’s over for good, so it’s also sensible to have a contingency plan in case of further restrictions.

Step 2: Introduce protective measures

Failing to follow government workplace rules could land you in hot water with the Health & Safety Executive, which has already conducted more than 150,000 spot checks to ensure employers are toeing the line.

So regularly consulting government guidance is the easiest way to check you are meeting minimum Covid-19 standards.

At the time of writing, measures employers in England are required to take include:

  • Minimising unnecessary visits to the workplace
  • Ensuring employees observe 2m (6ft) social distancing where possible
  • Cleaning surfaces, objects and communal areas more frequently
  • Providing extra hand washing facilities
  • Introducing one-way systems to reduce contact
  • Staggering start/end times

Other measures recommended by HR experts include supporting employees to work from home if they can, helping staff to avoid public transport where possible, and recognising the on-going need to protect workers’ mental health.

Step 3: Consider extra steps

You don’t have to limit your anti-Covid measures to those required by the government.

You may, for example, decide that lateral flow testing at the entrance to your premises is the best way to ensure business continuity and reassure both employees and clients that they are unlikely to catch Covid-19 in your offices.

Making testing mandatory has data protection and privacy implications, though. “We are seeing many ‘office based’ employers insisting on lateral flow testing before entering the office to give confidence to staff, customers, and third parties,” Ford said.

“However there are legal risks, so most employers are strongly encouraging a ‘negative test before entering the office’ approach, but avoiding introducing a blanket rule.”

Encouraging staff to be vaccinated when the opportunity arises is another policy likely to appeal to employers. But there are issues surrounding how you do this too.

“Questions for employers include: Can you ask employees whether they have been vaccinated? Can you insist those who do not get vaccinated work from home? How do you treat employees who cannot have the vaccine, for example because they are pregnant? And do you give sick leave for those who’ve had a bad reaction to it?” Ford added.

Step 4: Communicate with your workforce

As an employer, you have to keep your employees informed of changes affecting their health and safety. “Employers are obliged to consult with their workforce on matters concerning health and safety, which includes the measures they are taking to make premises Covid-secure,” Ford said.

But obligations aside, an effective communication strategy is a crucial step in facilitating a problem-free return to the workplace.

Recent research from smart locker provider Velocity Smart Technology indicates that employees remain concerned about the risks involved in going back to work in an office, with two fifths of UK office workers worried about catching Covid-19 from their colleagues.

So explaining the measures you are taking to protect them looks set to be key to ensuring your workforce stays happy as well as healthy. HR experts also advise addressing employees’ individual concerns on a case-by-case basis.

“HR will be required to manage the needs of employees with particular circumstances that make it difficult or impossible for them to attend the workplace, such as health concerns, childcare or transport issues,” Munro said.

“Applying a blanket approach to all employees will not be appropriate.” Once people are back in the office, you also need to continue checking and adjusting your policies based on changing government guidance, as well as employee responses to the new ways of working.

In summary

Whether you want your staff to return to the office full time or part time, there’s a significant amount of planning and preparation required to ensure the process goes smoothly.

And meeting government requirements is just one piece of the puzzle. Communicating with and listening to your employees will also be an important part of getting it right.

Further reading

Jessica Bown is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor.

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