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Unlocking the office: top tips for returning to the workplace

Gateley Legal

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“Back to the office” remains the business slogan of the day as far as the government is concerned, and it’s fair to say that a number of employers share this enthusiasm.

Amongst this enthusiasm its easy to forget that the pandemic still rolls on and presents a risk to employees mixing together in the often close confines of the office. Added to this, employers are still responsible for keeping their staff safe in the working environment and will therefore have to take appropriate steps to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 issues affecting to workplace health and safety when inviting staff to return to the office.

What steps can you take to keep your staff safe in the working environment?

1. Update risk assessments

For businesses with 5 or more employees the current guidelines expect a bespoke risk assessment addressing the potential spread of COVID-19. The risk assessment will form the main tool to identify the risks of COVID-19 spreading and the controls that can be put in place to mitigate that spread. This will then feed back into keeping the workplace a safe space in which  employees can operate. The risk assessment should be shared with employees to make it clear you have considered the potential risks and taken steps to mitigate them.

2. Check the guidance

The government has produced updated guidance for a wide variety of employers to assist their staff’s return to the office.

The main guidance and sector specific guidance can be found at:

You also need to consider guidance if placing staff in an atypical working environment, such as organising an outdoor event to celebrate the return to the office or a policy for staff to follow when they travel to attend external meetings.

3. Bring in systems and processes to mitigate risks

These could take almost any form depending on what sort of business you run but some common examples include:

Examples of systems and processes you can introduce to mitigate risks

  • Implement a robust system of hand washing and sanitisation, particularly at contact areas (such as printers) and potential bottlenecks (such as doorways and lifts).
  • Encourage employees to maintain social distancing where possible, such as by using larger meeting rooms, giving space in corridors, and avoiding close working off one computer/screen.
  • Encourage the use of face coverings when employees cannot maintain social distancing.
  • Improve ventilation, by avoiding the use of air conditioning systems and opening windows and doors where possible.
  • Change the office layout, to keep distance between desks or workstations and to avoid staff working face to face, such as by placing desks diagonally or in rows without other desks facing them, and even using one-way systems.
  • Control office congestion, through encouraging flexible working and the use of desk booking applications so that you know how many employees are in the office and where they will be working.
  • Develop a clear policy on self-isolation so that employees know when they should and should not come into the office, even if the government’s guidance later changes.
  • Control third parties entering the workplace, such as by implementing an approval system for external meetings to take place, and by encouraging virtual meetings wherever possible.
  • Control staff mixing where possible, such as by fixing desks to small pools of employees rather than hot-desking and encouraging “cohorting” (where teams or even the workforce are split in half to avoid an outbreak forcing the whole workforce to isolate).
  • Offer easily accessible testing and encourage staff to test regularly, to avoid asymptomatic infections and to catch outbreaks early.
  • Implement stronger cleaning practices, such as by employing more cleaners, encouraging staff to self-clean the spaces they use and introducing guidance in areas with significant contact-risk such as kitchenettes and coffee machines.

4. Encourage staff dialogue and flexibility

Clear, simple communication and making staff feel a part of the “back to the office” process will be key to encourage staff confidence, which in turn will drive a swifter and more comprehensive return to the office. Conversely, where polices are decided and/or communicated in ways which are difficult for staff to engage with or understand this will drive down staff enthusiasm to return, which will in turn knock the enthusiasm of the staff who do return to a half-empty office.

Clarity on who should be in the office, what they should be doing there, and what steps everyone will be expected to take are key, supplemented by visual cues and clear signposting of what is expects of employees and where, such as reminders about masks in corridors and using hand sanitiser after touching door release buttons.

Monitor how things are going and  obtain regular feedback from the staff who have returned in order to ensure that the workplace is a safe space for all to return to.

Returning to the workplace should be a positive experience. Robust systems, clear communications and patience with those staff who have doubts will ensure that staff feel happy and safe in the workplace when they return.

Would you like further guidance on keeping your employees safe in the working environment? 

For more information on how you can keep your employees safe as they return to the office, please contact our experts listed below and visit our Health & safety service page.

Gateley Plc is authorised and regulated by the SRA (Solicitors' Regulation Authority). Please visit the SRA website for details of the professional conduct rules which Gateley Legal must comply with.

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