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How can we make the office return safe?

Alan Price, CEO - BrightHR

As many businesses begin to reopen and government guidelines change, more and more workers will be returning to the office. However, the Government still advise that those who can work from home should continue to do so for the time being, causing increasing questions as to what this means for some white-collar businesses and the Confederation of British Industry calling for greater clarity over when workers can come back to offices.

With much flexibility on the rules surrounding office return, Ministers are less than concerned about employers phasing a return to the office at gradually increasing rates; however, employers will need to keep in mind that, although their offices can reopen, in some cases not all workers will be able to return to the office at the same time.

Arguably, office space is a relatively easier environment than restaurants or pubs to implement measures that ensure workers are safe. Government guidelines state that employers must make the workplace as safe as possible for workers by:

  • avoiding face to face seating arrangements in the office by changing office layouts
  • reducing the number of workers in enclosed or social spaces
  • improving ventilation
  • setting up protective screens and providing face coverings
  • providing hand sanitisers and surface cleaning wipes
  • promoting regular hand washing
  • drawing up risk assessments to assist in managing staff who are in the building
  • staggering shift patterns

For some businesses, this may be easier said than done and more clarity may be needed from the Government as to what they can and cannot do when returning workers to the office, particularly those who were asked to shield. It has been announced that shielding for the most clinically vulnerable people in England will be paused from 1 August 2020, meaning those who received letters telling them to stay in their homes for 12 weeks will be allowed to return to the office if they cannot work from home. In this case, employers should take the specific circumstances of a once-shielding employee into consideration when deciding whether that worker should be brought back to work.

Notably, the Government has said that they are simply ‘pausing’ shielding rather than putting it to a permanent end which opens up the possibility that it could be reintroduced in the future. If once-shielding employees return to work, employers should, therefore, be aware that shielding rules could be reimplemented at any time before or after 1 August.

Finally, if businesses choose to reopen to allow some of their workers back into the office, it is crucial that the safety measures above – and any further appropriate measures – are put into place keep their employees safe and to avoid reputational damage. Some businesses in Leicester have faced scrutiny for unsafe working environments as a localised lockdown was introduced in the area on 29 June due to a spike in coronavirus cases.

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