Return to Work Planning

With the government recently releasing a roadmap for the lifting of lockdown restrictions, businesses forced to shut by the coronavirus pandemic can now start thinking about reopening their doors. Although there are no hard dates, employers planning the return to work are facing a new wave of challenges and understandably, many employees are left feeling uncertain about returning to work.

All employers have a duty of care to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of all employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – stating that workplaces must be safe and should not pose a risk to workers, visitors, or members of the public. Since the global outbreak of coronavirus, employers that have remained operational have adapted to ensure workplaces are also COVID-secure by providing staff with PPE as well as enforcing new rules such as social distancing and the wearing of face masks. It is likely that workplaces will not return to ‘normal’ for some time, so there are some key areas for businesses to consider.

Risk assessment

Conducting a risk assessment should be the first step when planning your return to work, as this will help to identify potential threats to your business and help to determine if you have done everything reasonably possible to provide a safe working environment.

COVID-19 restrictions have changed the way that businesses will operate post lockdown, making an updated risk assessment and subsequent mitigation steps necessary to accommodate these changes while continuing to work safely. As always, organisations with more than 5 employees are required to record their risk assessment.

Having a covid-secure workplace will not only help to protect your employees but will help to assure your customers that they are safe to return to your business. Your risk assessment should therefore be thorough and for large companies, it is advisable to share your risk assessment with both your employees and customers.

Here are some points that your risk assessment should consider:

  • have cleaning and hygiene procedures in place that adhere to local guidance.
  • take reasonable steps to ensure that your employees can work comfortably.
  • take reasonable steps to ensure that social distancing is maintained in the workplace.
  • take reasonable steps to minimise the risk of transmission in the workplace.
  • detail the process to be followed if transmission occurs.
  • address any concerns raised to you by members of staff or customers.

Having a detailed risk assessment in place is not only key to limiting the impact of COVID-19 on your business, but it can also aid in employee performance and retention. Recent research has shown that businesses seen to rush into opening back up, without proper procedures in place, are more likely to experience high employee turnover.

If you’re unsure of where to start, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have created a risk assessment template as guidance.

Health and safety measures in the workplace

The health and safety risks around the pandemic primarily surround transmission via person-to-person contact, close proximity to those with the virus and surface transmission. This means that where working from home is not possible, it’s vital for employers to make every reasonable effort to comply with Government guidance. Where advice, such as keeping 2 meters apart cannot be followed employers should consider if this activity is essential to business operations.

Although many non-essential businesses were able to open up and operate under COVID-19 guidelines last summer, it’s worth taking any lessons learned and considering potential improvements that could be made. Where possible, the distance between workspaces should be increased to reduce the risk of transmission through airborne particles. If it is not possible to move workstations away from each other, acrylic screens can be fitted to provide a physical barrier between workers.

High standards of personal hygiene should be encouraged, and thorough cleaning should be introduced regularly. Encouraging good hygiene can be done through the addition of sanitation stations, including antibacterial spray and hand sanitiser, and by displaying signage reminding employees to wash their hands and keep their workspace clean. The NHS has created a ‘Catch it, bin it, kill it’ poster and the Public Health England COVID Resource Centre has additional downloadable posters available. It is also worth considering if touchpoints can be reduced, such as by leaving some internal doors propped open or by investing in motion detection bins.

Some workplaces may also choose to implement temperature checks for employees and visitors entering the business premises. Temperature check equipment can quickly scan the temperature of individuals using a thermal camera, providing guidance as to whether someone may be carrying the virus which is indicated by a temperature over 37.8°C.

For office workers, large in-person meetings should be restricted; businesses are encouraged to use video conferencing software such as Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams where meetings of up to 1,000 people can be held digitally. Socially distanced small meetings present low risk and can resume taking place in person.

Robert Half surveyed more than 1,000 office professionals about how they feel office life will change once workplaces re-open. 56% of respondents said that they were concerned about being in close proximity to others, so virtual meetings will help to minimise this risk.

Where possible, working from home should be the first option for employees, and staff coming back to the office should be a phased process, allowing for new protocols and procedures to be tested on a smaller scale. When figuring out which employees should go back to the office first, it may be useful to reverse the order that you sent employees home when lockdown started. This would mean bringing those who cannot complete their duties from home in first, while those who can fully complete their tasks remotely remain out of the office until your safety procedures are already established.

Due to the economic pressures caused by the lockdowns over the last year, many companies have been forced to make redundancies and operate with fewer members of staff. As restrictions ease, demand is likely to increase which could leave some employees working alone. Lone working can be beneficial by being more economical, allowing a higher demand to be met with fewer resources, as well as allowing for easier social distancing. However, there are also additional risks that should be considered if employees are working alone, such as implementing a buddy system or a lone worker safety service. If you’re unsure of where to start, our Introduction to Lone Worker Safety System Guide may be able to help.

It is important to note that even if you implement all of these measures, no one should be obligated to work in an environment where they feel unsafe, and dismissal on the grounds of an employee refusing to attend work for this reason could be deemed as unfair and a claim could be submitted to the employment tribunal. Instead, if you have taken all reasonable measures to protect employees and someone is still uncomfortable with returning to work, a conversation should be had for the employee to use their holiday entitlement or unpaid leave.

Communication and training

Having an open line of communication with your employees is key to ensuring they feel comfortable about the return to work, but also in ensuring that they are aware of the safety steps they should be following when they return. Additionally, opening a conversation about workplace risks and the steps you will be taking may help to identify any hazards you may have missed, as those who complete the tasks are often the best people to understand the dangers.

Employers have a statutory obligation to communicate and consult with staff about the risks they are proposing. If you have designated health and safety representatives then you must consult with them, if not, you should consult with a representative selected by your staff. In smaller organisations, it may be enough to have one or two health and safety representatives to discuss the new measures, but in larger companies, it may be appropriate to appoint one person from each team/department. Staff should be made aware of:

  • the dates they are expected to return to work, including who else will be returning to work at the same time if you are implementing staggered start dates,
  • the hours they will be working, and
  • when their COVID-19 health and safety training will be taking place.

Before returning to work, employees should be provided with training and guidance on the new working measures in place. Where possible, training materials should be recorded and guidance should be sent out, allowing workers to refresh themselves on the correct procedures when necessary. It may be beneficial to create updated health and safety checklists, and display reminders within the workplace about procedures such as what PPE should be worn and when.

Lastly, in order to keep your business COVID safe, employees should be provided with a means to report if they are experiencing symptoms or have come into contact with anyone who has tested positive for the virus. Asking questions on this topic is deemed as personally sensitive data and so it is recommended that you carry out a Data Impact Assessment and update your privacy notice to include the new data that you wish to collect. Once a process is in place for employees to raise concerns, this must be communicated throughout the business to ensure all employees are made aware.

Mental health

When making your return to work plans, you should consider the implications that the last year has had on the mental health of your employees. It is likely that many individuals could feel anxious or apprehensive about coming back into the workplace, but there are steps you can take to make them feel more at ease.

You should bear in mind that some employees are more vulnerable to COVID than others, and so those who are vulnerable themselves or live with someone who is at increased risk may be more reluctant to come back to work. To help understand the feelings about coming back to work within your organisation and plan accordingly, it is worth considering conducting a ‘Return to Work Questionnaire’.

This should include questions indicating how comfortable employees are with returning to work if they are (or have previously been) shielding, how they are coping mentally, and comment boxes for them to raise any concerns. Conducting this questionnaire will provide an opportunity to address the concerns of your employees in your return to work plan and become aware of those who may be more comfortable continuing to work from home.

Furthermore, by asking questions regarding the wellbeing of your employees, you will help them to feel valued and more comfortable coming to you with concerns they may have in the future. If any employees indicate that they are feeling particularly anxious about the return to work, you should refer them to your HR team to discuss any support that can be provided or how to move forwards.

You should also be aware that some employees may have lost a loved one to COVID, making the return to work a sensitive time. If you know that this is the case for any of your employees, you should consider reaching out to them individually to discuss how they are feeling about the return to work and if there is any support that can be offered by your HR team.

We have created some additional guidance on looking after employee’s mental health post lockdown, which can be found here.

Ongoing measures

It is essential to remember that your risk assessments and corresponding measures should be regularly reviewed and updated, especially as government guidance continues to change.  We recommend completing a review whenever restrictions are further lifted or new guidance is published, each time communicating any changes to staff members.

We also recommend keeping an open line of communication with employees where they are able to suggest improvements to the measures you have in place, and continuing to monitor the effectiveness of these measures, adapting them if necessary.

Peoplesafe continue to adhere to government guidelines with only essential staff, including our ARC Controllers and Stock team, coming into the office. During the first lockdown in March 2020, we mobilised our entire workforce to work from home where possible. For more information about our return to work program, contact us here.