Safe Office Working during COVID-19

Posted on: May 14th, 2020

New Government Guidance

The Government has this week launched guidance for employers on how to work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. This provides some much needed clarification  of the Prime Minister’s encouragement that those who can’t work from home and can return safely should do so.

The new Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance is divided into different sections for different sectors. So although there are strong underlying themes, employers will need to consult the version that is directly relevant to their industry. You can find the full guidance here.

Office and Contact Centres

The guidance for offices and contact centres can be found here. They make essential and interesting reading for both employers and employees. To some extent there is little of great surprise and also a large amount of common sense. Employers first need to ask themselves if there really is a need for staff to return to the workplace and then whether that can be implemented safely. The requirements to consider measures such as screens, barriers, floor marking, good hygiene and other social distance friendly ways of working (e.g. staggered start, end and break times) will be familiar to anyone who has ventured into a supermarket recently. Many of the requirements will have already been implemented to some extent by offices that have had to stay open.

In addition, a specific COVID-19 risk assessment conduct in light of the new guidance is intended to focus minds and identify areas of concern. The Government recommends that the results of the risk assessment are shared with staff and further expects that employers with over 50 staff will publish a copy on their website. The need for transparency and accountability runs through the guidance and employers should be mindful of this.

As ever, the devil will be in the detail as what is appropriate for one workplace will not necessarily be appropriate for another. Indeed, the same employer with different sites and teams will need to assess each on their own circumstances.

It is one thing to set out broad aims and requirements (most of which are laudable and difficult to criticise) but it is entirely another to apply those to particular circumstances, implement and then enforce them to the satisfaction of all. The room for tension is multiplied many fold when individuals with their different opinions and perceptions are added into the equation.

Risk Assessments and Different Perspectives

Any brief examination of social media provides ample evidence that many people are very scared by any easing of the lockdown. So even if the employer and the majority of the employees are satisfied the workplace has been made safe, there is scope for disputes with more cautious members of staff. Alternatively, we may see cases of staff feeling that the employer has gone too far and that the steps taken to make the workplace safe are actually infringing on their human rights or rights to privacy.

Similarly, until schools re-open there are likely to be a number of staff who are prepared to return in theory but simply cannot. Then there will be those with caring responsibilities who cannot access help they may otherwise have received. In effect the issues we faced coming into lockdown are repeated as we come out the other side. Technically, these individuals who cannot work due to caring for their dependents are not entitled to be paid. . This will create a very challenging situation in which an employee who’s been paid while on furlough risks losing their livelihood because they are unable to meet the employer’s call back to work. Employers will be put to the test of how accommodating they must try to be.

When staff fail to comply with the new guidance

It is easy to imagine scenarios where members of staff fail to comply with the new guidelines. If the reason for non-compliance is deliberate then, in the absence of very good mitigation, a severe disciplinary sanction is highly likely to be warranted. But it is less clear cut what would be appropriate action if the failure was accidental or just negligent. How to grade what is a minor non-compliance and what is major is complex, not least as such actions can still have serious consequences for colleagues and even the employer through vicarious liability. It may be initially that employers will play safe and adopt a robust or even zero tolerance approach.

Prepare for whistleblowing

Hopefully a number of these concerns can be addressed by ensuring the steps taken, requirements going forward and expectations are clear and that staff receive training where necessary before going back. Even so, we will probably still see a proliferation of whistleblowing complaints by staff both internally to their employer and externally. Employers would therefore be sensible to check their whistleblowing policy is fit for purpose and to adopt one if they haven’t previously.

Changing Expectations

It is worth bearing in mind that the expectations of both employer and employee may have changed significantly over the last 2 months. It remains to be seen what impact this will have as businesses phase back to work. I suspect most of us agree things will never be the same again but how different they will be remains to be seen.

If it becomes clear that a business can run with many staff working from home and only a few in the office or with staggered start, break and finish times, that should not be ignored in a world where time, cash flow and general well-being of individuals and the planet itself are all precious. Indeed, the most forward thinking employers will recognise how they handle the return is an opportunity to develop new working practices to give them a competitive edge in attracting and retaining the best talent.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article or need help translating how the working safely guidance applies to your business, please do get in touch. As well as providing specific advice to your individual circumstances, we can share a wealth of knowledge of what is going on in the business world generally.