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Rethinking the workplace for returning employees

09 September 2020

As the phased-reopening of facilities and workplaces continues, Richard Guy, country sales manager, Ergotron UK & Ireland, examines the best options to help this process run as smoothly as possible.

IN EARLY May 2020, the government published new guidance on making workplaces safe for those employees who were told they should ‘go to work’. For employers, whose workforces had primarily gone ‘virtual’ the announcement heralded they would now need to start planning how to move their employees back into the office.

Fast forward to early June. When the UK commenced a phased re-opening of schools and non-essential retail shops it was clear that plans were afoot to get the UK economy back on track - with a full re-opening of remaining businesses and premises scheduled throughout July.

With anxiety levels likely to remain elevated among the UK population for some time, organisations will need to implement a whole new set of protocols if they are to undertake the safe and successful return of employees to workspaces.

While staggered returns, flexible hours and implementing a shift work strategy over a seven-day week all represent options that can help firms to engineer a highly managed approach to bringing employees back into the workplace, they will also be acutely aware of the stringent duty of care responsibilities they will need to observe for the returning workforce.

Working safely - employer responsibilities

Employers have a legal responsibility to protect workers and others - like visitors - from any risk to their health and safety, doing everything that is reasonably practicable to minimise these risks.

In June, the UK government reissued its guidance for employers, employees and the self-employed based in offices and contact centres. The guidelines include recommendations that businesses must undertake a detailed risk assessment to identify what control measures they will need to put in place. To support organisations to undertake this assessment in a structured way, a number of interactive tools have been made available on the Health and Safety Executive website.

Top guidance recommendations for reducing workplace risk to the lowest possible level include:

  • Keeping people two metres apart wherever possible
  • Increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning
  • Reducing the number of people each individual has contact through fixed teams or partnering
  • Using screens or barriers to separate people from each other
  • Using back-to-back or side-to-side working whenever possible. 

Employers are also urged to minimise the amount of time people must work face-to-face, recommending that where possible this activity should be undertaken using remote meeting or collaboration technologies.

Ultimately, the guidance is clear; no employee should be obliged to work in an unsafe work environment. Furthermore, the guidance emphasises that it is illegal to discriminate against any employee at greater risk of Coronavirus because of a protected characteristic such as age, sex, disability, race or ethnicity.

This all adds up to a complex and ever changing environment for employers to navigate. Especially given that in late June, the government indicated that the social distancing rule is likely to be lowered to 1m from early July. Staying mindful of employee concerns and taking undertaking regular consultations with the workforce will be essential for initiating appropriate workplace environments that make people feel confident about returning to the workplace - and ensuring they will engage wholeheartedly with their day-to-day tasks.

Prioritising practical measures that keep people distanced

Making it easy for employees to maintain social distancing wherever possible is set to remain a top priority for the foreseeable future. For employers this might mean staggering workforce arrival and departure times and using signage to introduce one-way flows at entry and exit points as well as corridors of movement around the building. Providing handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at all key entry/exit points and not using touch-based security devices such as keypads will also be vital.

Ensuring employees can work safely at an appropriate distance from one another will require a major rethink, especially for firms that use standard cube configurations or benching systems.

To safely accommodate personnel, it may be necessary to initiate flexible working and hot-desking systems that limit how many people can work in the building at any one time. This means that each desk and its accessories, such as phones and workstations, will need to be sanitised daily, or multiple times a day. Shared resources, like printers and filing cabinets, will also need frequent and thorough wipe-downs, so cleaning products, sanitisers, and personal protective equipment (PPE) that make it possible for employees to safely use all these facilities will be another top priority.

Firms will also need to limit access to common shared facilities, such as coffee stations, unless appropriate cleansing and PPE equipment can be provided at all times. Similarly, the government recommends that physical group meetings in conference rooms should be avoided. In team spaces, where regular meetings need to take place, floor signage should be used to help people maintain social distancing.

Implementing partitions that raise cubicle walls or create physical barriers between employees will help limit the risk of office spaces become incubators of mass infection. Finally, firms will need to deploy signage and notices everywhere to remind employees of the importance of maintaining safe distances from colleagues, the need for regular hand washing, and any specific hygiene protocols that apply to the work areas they are entering.

Invest in adaptable office furnishings

Post-Coronavirus, the world of office work is set to look very different indeed. Alongside implementing measures designed to keep workers safe, business leaders will need to plan how they can adapt the office to cope with any unexpected future changes such as a second national COVID-19 outbreak or further changes to government safe working guidance.

Today’s kinetic and mobile office furnishings allow firms to repeatedly flex and reconfigure their office spaces to make the most of their existing spaces and accommodate the appropriate number of staff safely. These next-generation furnishings give employees the flexibility they need to maximise their immediate working environment and take care of their long term physical wellbeing by ensuring that desks, seating, and workstations are always comfortable and ergonomically matched to their height or productivity needs.

Finally, to help mitigate against the risk of future virus transmission and further protect employees, companies could consider offering temperature checks to everyone prior to entering the building. Thermal imaging carts are a great way to perform instant temperature checks for both employees and visitors. Other options include the provision of Perspex screens or masks or stipulating that everyone wear a face mask during office hours.

Maintaining the health and wellbeing of remote employees

Continuing capacity constraints on office spaces and a desire to ensure business continuity can be maintained for the long term means that many firms will be asking non-key personnel to remain working remotely for as long as possible - and for the foreseeable future. It may even be that the success of the remote working strategy means that going forward, employees will be given the freedom to opt for this more flexible way of working that eliminates the need to regularly commute to a fixed work location.

However, working from home on a semi-permanent basis means that these employees will need to be afforded the same duty of care as office-based workers. Which means that employees who are asked to stay working from home for the long term will need help to utilise their work technology in a safe and appropriate way.

Since couches, dining room tables, kitchen benches and beds were never designed for comfortable or productive working, many organisations are now requesting that at-home employees take photos of their working area so a health and safety assessment can be undertaken.

To ensure employees can then take advantage of appropriate desks, seating, laptop equipment and monitors that optimise wellbeing, companies are offering to provide resources such as sit/stand desks and other fixtures to set up a suitable home-office environment.

Making employees feel confident and supported
Investing in new safety and hygiene protocols and reconfiguring office layouts to promote social distancing will be core to making employees feel more comfortable about being on-site.

Organisations will also need to engage in open and transparent communication with employees about everything from the response and shut-down protocols they plan to utilise if a second health crisis arises, to the assistance that’s available for individuals experiencing challenges that could prevent them from returning to work.