Coronavirus (COVID – 19): returning to the workplace

Effective planning, communication and implementation are absolutely the “keys” to ensuring a relatively smooth and above all successful transition back to work and the simultaneous protection of the health and safety of all our employees.

While at present there is no formal end to the government’s restrictions on work or travel, the current ‘Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’ (commonly known as the furlough scheme) is currently due to end on 30th June 2020, and so every organisation needs to start thinking about what happens next when the lockdown is partially or fully lifted.

You will need to review your workplace and consider the following:

  • Will your employees be able to maintain a 2 meter physical distance between each other;
  • Can you ensure where possible, that pc’s and other office equipment are generally only used by a single employee.
  • How do you envisage the management of meetings, interviews and other business interaction taking place;
  • What strategies will you put in place to support physical distancing within communal areas such as canteens. kitchen and reception areas.  The key protection and hygiene measures will need to continue to minimise the spread of the infection, such as reminding employees about regular and effective handwashing, and providing hand sanitisers.
  • If your premises have been closed for a period of time, we advise that you carry out a deep-clean before you reopen. You should also look at reviewing your cleaning arrangements, for example ensuring all phones/keyboards etc are wiped daily with anti-viral cleaner. Depending on your working environment, you may need to consider providing additional PPE, including gloves, masks or anti-viral hand gel to your employees.

You will need to consider if additional support in the wellbeing and welfare of your employees is required in view of any changes arising in the re-start of your full business operations. The risks to the health of your employees from this pandemic are psychological as well as physical. These include anxiety about the ongoing health crisis and fear of infection, as well as social isolation due to the lockdown. Even if your employees have carried on working and participating in video meetings, they will still need to adjust to working in a shared environment with their colleagues again. Many of your employees may have concerns about travelling to work on public transport when the lockdown comes to an end.

In summarising, whilst the majority of employees will be happy to return with minor or no concerns as to their welfare and safety, there will be a minority of employees, who will need reassurance and will understandably have either unrealistic or possibly excessive concerns as to their personal safety and welfare.  Therefore, in order to reassure what is likely to be a minority of employees and to minimise the risk of legal health and safety claims against the Company, it makes sound commercial sense for employers to both fully prepare for the return and to reassure and communicate their actions to all employees and hence, simultaneously minimising the risk of employees being unreasonably concerned upon returning to work.

How do you ensure that your employees feel safe to return to work?

It is unlikely anyone can expect all our employees to return back to “normal” as soon as lockdown restrictions are lifted and it is therefore crucial that employers recognise that although many employees will have not experienced the worst of the COVID 19 issues, some will have gone through a traumatic experience or even lost family members or friends.  It will therefore take time to reassure your employees before they return to work.

There are two things that are critical for managing the return to work experience:

  • Managers must realise that the employees “perceptions” of safety are just as important as the actual level of safety that is being provided to their employees. Therefore, clear communication with their employees is key around the health and safety measures the company will be putting in place, and why they are being put in place, is of critical importance. Managers should take time to consult with their employees and understand their concerns in returning to the workplace.
  • You should prepare for the potential ‘shut-down’ scenario if an employee tests positive at one of their work locations after returning and will need to have a rapid exit plan in case of any positive tests occuring. This will build more confidence in your employees that you know they are valued and you are taking their health seriously.

In summary, it is important to recognise that the COVID 19 pandemic is a significant and unprecedented occurrence and that both in the UK and overseas, the impact on people, working environments, society and individual people, is unquantifiable and uncharted. Therefore in preparing for the return to work, communicating these safety preparations and reassuring all of our employees, we will play a significant part in both helping our employees to adapt to the new “norm” and simultaneously, enable each employee and every part of the Company to maximise the organisations ability to get back on track and be successful.      

Written by Allison Murray, HR Manager PSM