Ten top tips for returning to the workplace safely
The UK government’s advice remains to work from home wherever possible, but this stance is likely to change over the coming weeks. As restrictions continue to be lifted and we gradually ease out of lockdown, many businesses are already looking ahead and preparing to get back to the workplace.
Returning to the workplace will look for different for each organisation as it works towards partial or full reopening, and business leaders must be mindful that advice and restrictions will continue to change according to the path of the pandemic. Above all, employers must plan any return to the workplace in a way that supports their people and safeguards health and wellbeing.
With that in mind we have created this ten-point guide to help businesses successfully navigate the transition back to the office.
Tip 1 – Factor in mental health and wellbeing
The pandemic is having far-reaching and often unforeseen consequences, and the impact on mental health is enormous. Every employee will be processing the situation in their own way and returning to work may be a huge adjustment, so don’t expect business-as-usual from day one. A robust communication strategy that demonstrates you are taking practical steps to ensure employee safety is a good start. Providing access to resources such as mental health first aiders is also highly beneficial. Lead by example and show employees it is ok to discuss how they are feeling. The success of your return to work strategy will largely depend on how you manage this key area.
Tip 2 – Take time to plan your return
Returning to the workplace doesn’t necessarily mean a total return to the way things were. The COVID-19 situation has driven innovation and transformation, so take time with your team to assess the way you currently work, identifying the positives you’d like to hold onto and the negatives you’d prefer to let go. The past year has changed expectations and possibilities, especially around flexible working. Consider how you want the future to look once restrictions are lifted. From this starting point you can develop a brief and ensure this aligns with your organisational plan.
Tip 3 – Update policies and procedures
If you have five employees or more you must have a written health and safety policy which – in the current climate – should detail your COVID-19 policy, arrangements and procedures. Health and safety policies should always be reviewed and updated on a regular basis, but it is particularly important to check your policy before returning to the workplace to ensure it is suitable for the present situation. All employees should be fully briefed on the requirements of the revised policy as part of return-to-work training.
Tip 4 – Undertake a risk assessment
A risk assessment allows you to identify hazards in the workplace, identify those at risk of harm and put processes in place to control the risks. If you returned to the office at some stage during the pandemic you may have completed a risk assessment, but this process should be repeated as the situation is continually evolving. You may need to identify employees that are deemed at higher risk, perhaps those that were shielding due to underlying health conditions, and implement specific controls to ensure their safety. Remember, if you have 50 employees or more you’ll need to publish your risk assessment on your company website.
Tip 5 – Check the office environment
If your office has sat empty for an extended period of time need, it will need a number of checks prior to occupation. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) inspections and maintenance many need to be carried out to ensure good air quality, while water systems may need to be checked to eliminate legionella, which can be prevalent when water outlets are not used for some time. You may need to liaise with your landlord to determine when maintenance checks will be completed for the office building. Reviewing cleaning arrangements to introduce regular deep cleans is also advised.
Tip 6 – Implement workplace controls
You may have made your workplace COVID secure at some point over the past 12 months, but it is well worth revisiting workplace controls to ensure they are still effective. At the current time social distancing of two metres is still recommended so furniture should be carefully laid out to ensure this is maintained wherever possible. In addition flow management with clearly marked one-way traffic can help reduce cross contamination, while installation of hand sanitising stations can improve hygiene. Clear signage should be used to ensure compliance. As meeting room capacities may be reduced you could temporarily use these as offices to create additional space.
Tip 7 – Introduce thorough training
Clear communication is a vital part of the return to work process, and openly sharing new policies and practices across the business will help your employees know what to expect. An initial phase of remote training is recommended prior to reintroducing staff to the office. This should be followed up by an in-person induction or orientation when employees return to the workplace, which covers the changes within their specific environment and meets any training needs identified during the risk assessment. Encouraging questions or feedback on training and policies will help you see how employees are responding and continually improve the process. One-to-one meetings with all employees and their managers will help identify individual health and safety needs.
Tip 8 – Consider COVID-19 testing
Registration for the government scheme to order free lateral flow tests for employees ended on April 12th 2021, but there are still ways to introduce testing. Larger businesses may want to pay a provider to distribute tests, while smaller companies can encourage employees to order their own lateral flow tests to take at home. Regular symptom-free testing can provide reassurance to employees that are concerned about returning to the workplace. Employers must emphasise that if anyone experiences COVID-19 symptoms, they should stay at home and book a PCR test.
Tip 9 – Don’t forget home working
COVID-19 has forever changed the working dynamic, and many businesses will adopt a more flexible and agile approach. While some organisations will be going back to a full time office arrangement, others may retain remote work permanently, and many will adopt a hybrid model. If you have employees working from home, even if only in the short term, you need to support this and cover it in the risk assessment. Consider how you assess the health and wellbeing, as well as the performance of employees who work from home, and how you maintain team culture. Check out our article on homeworking, which addresses common questions around workstation setup, insurance implications and mental health.
Tip 10 – Monitor and review regularly
With the situation changing so rapidly, you will need to regularly monitor and review against your health and safety policy as you return to the workplace. Monitoring could take the form of inspections, audits, company town halls or health and safety meetings. To determine how your workforce is feeling you could develop surveys, introduce forums or establish regular catch ups. It’s important to include diversity and inclusion aspects in your reviews to ensure decisions don’t discriminate against certain groups of employees and that you foster a supportive and inclusive working environment.
We are continually evaluating changing government guidelines in order to ensure our insights are based on the newest available research and recommendations. We will continue to update our resources so that you have access to the most relevant information
Check out our COVID-19 support services for further information about working safely during the pandemic.