Many businesses that had previously had to cease operating due to coronavirus - have been opening their doors following the government's timetable for reopening, announced on 17 July.
From 1 August, employers have also been given more discretion over how to keep their staff safe - whether that means continuing to enable employees to work from home where possible, or making workplaces COVID-secure. Returning to physical places of work is the only option for some businesses - which brings with it many challenges, in terms of ensuring employee safety is paramount, and ensuring everything is in line with government social distancing measures.
What works for one business may not work for another, so while it’s important to understand what others are doing, businesses should make decisions relevant to their own unique contexts.
Read our factsheet on returning to work safely to understand the latest government guidance, and to hear how other businesses are planning a safe restart.
What’s the latest information and insight?
The UK government announced its timelines for reopening on 17 July, with further details on when affected sectors can reopen set out in its COVID-19 recovery strategy.
Government has also issued practical guidance on working safely during coronavirus, including real examples, checklists, key safety considerations and steps to take. Alongside guidance that applies to all firms, government has set out more specific guidance for eight different categories of work:
- Construction and other outdoor work
- Factories, plants and warehouses
- Labs and research facilities
- Offices and contact centres
- Other people’s homes
- Restaurants offering takeaway and delivery
- Shops and branches
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the lead agency responsible for ensuring workplaces are ‘CV19-secure’, has also produced helpful guidance to supplement the government recommendations:
- Managing risks and risk assessment at work
- Working safely during the coronavirus outbreak
- Talking with your workers about preventing coronavirus
Considerations for businesses planning a restart
The government’s ‘5 steps to working safely’ guidance gives a good overview of the basic principles firms need to get right in order to reopen whilst protecting employees. It advises business to to carry out a specific COVID-19 risk assessment, to develop clear cleaning and hygiene procedures, to help people work from home, and to put in place practical measures to reduce transmission risk where that is not possible. Our guidance will dive into three areas: safety, people and communication.
1. Safety first: how can you adapt your processes to keep people safe?
Be clear on government and HSE guidance
Ensure you are familiar with the latest guidance from the UK government and HSE – links to which you can find above. Even firms that have remained open can use the new guidance as an opportunity to evaluate measures that have been in place up until now, especially those seeking to increase capacity.
Conduct your risk assessment in consultation with your workers and unions
Conduct an in-depth risk assessment with input from workers, employee groups and unions. This partnership approach will help to better identify any risks or concerns, and implement steps that will support employees to feel safe returning to work.
We’ve had positive accounts from a range of businesses who have involved employees in risk assessments:
- A print and packaging supplier asked its staff to come up with ways to avoid overcrowding in shared spaces such as canteens – one idea was to provide cooler bags so that people could avoid the canteen altogether
- A paint manufacturer now takes employees’ temperatures as they come into the workplace, having consulted with its people around their willingness to introduce the measures.
Publish a summary of your COVID-related risks
Businesses with 50 employees or more should publish their assessment of COVID-related risks on their public website, in line with government guidance. It does not need to contain the full details shared internally with workers and their representatives, should not include sensitive information, and will not be used for enforcement purposes by the regulator. Employers with many sites do not need to publish an assessment for each workplace. The published assessment should give a sense of the steps that the employer has taken to minimise the risk to workers when operating during coronavirus.
2. People focus: who needs to, and is able to, return to work?
Identify who needs to return and consider a phased approach
Wherever possible, employees should continue to work from home and avoid using public transport. Employers may need to make workplace adjustments for workers that have existing health conditions, dependents or live with extremely vulnerable individuals, in line with government guidance.
Where operations must take place on site, businesses may wish to consider a phased approach. For example, a provider of linen services has re-opened one site on a very small scale with plans to open two others the following week.
Understand how your people travel to work
With limited public transport across the country, many employees are having to rely on themselves to get to work – either walking, cycling or driving. It’s important for employers to understand how transport situations are affecting their workforces. Ensure you give people a chance to raise any concerns about the safety of their commute.
Consider vulnerable workers, and those with caring responsibilities
ACAS has received many enquiries from those with existing health conditions, disabilities, childcare responsibilities or pregnancies who are anxious about what returning to work will mean for them. In these cases, it is very important for employers to provide clear channels where those employees can raise concerns, without fear of judgement, and have open and honest conversations about their situation.
3. Working together: how can you bring your employees with you?
Clarity and communication are vital
With so many sources of conflicting information available, it’s important to clearly brief employees on what’s expected as they return to work – particularly for those who are on site, in others’ households, or in the field. Employees should be able to find all the latest information in one place, and should receive clear back-to-work briefings.
Firms should make it clear who to approach if they have concerns – designate people to collect feedback and ensure it’s fed into organisational decisions, and consider opening up new comms channels if they don’t exist.
Here are some of the ways other businesses are ensuring their employees have the information they need:
- A linen services provider is giving its staff a return-to-work induction, covering the new social distancing measures, where to go if they have concerns, advice about mental health and reminders to speak to managers / HR / their EAP if they have worries
- A manufacturer of construction materials is focusing on changing people’s behaviour by producing a welcome back video, to highlight the physical changes made to the site, as well as how workers need to adapt too.
Create an open dialogue and take feedback on board
Making workplaces safe is only the first step. Helping employees to feel safe at work is just as important. Employees need to trust that employers have their safety at heart in order to return to work with confidence:
- An engineering company has addressed employee concerns over safety by reaching out to have individual discussions about their worries; in most cases, this open dialogue resulted in positive outcomes
- A print and packaging supplier is running daily calls with leads and senior managers to get a sense of the organisation’s health, wellbeing and how people feel about returning to work.
Focusing on mental health is vital for a restart
Firms are finding that some people’s mental health is suffering in isolation – those people would prefer to return to work more quickly, even if their interactions are socially distant. There are others who would be much happier to continue working from home – so understanding this can help companies achieve a phased return that’s good for everyone.
Let your employees help define your new normal
While COVID-19 has created much uncertainty – for people, their families and for business – it hasn’t come without its share of learning experiences. Work with employees to decide which new approaches and ways of working to take forward, to create your new normal together. For example, a global electronics brand has learnt from the way coronavirus has challenged its established culture – with home-working actually boosting productivity in some areas.
Frequently asked questions
What if it is not possible to maintain two metre distancing at all times?
Government guidance is clear that employers should take all reasonable steps to ensure that workers stay two metres away from each other in the workplace, but recognises that this is not always possible. Where it is not possible, employers should think about whether the activity is essential to operations. If so, employers should look to adapt working practices to minimise the time that workers spend in close proximity and consider other steps that could be taken, such as protective equipment.
How can I manage difficult conversations with my workers around workplace risks?
Change can be challenging for workers and employers at the best of times, but during coronavirus it is essential that employers approach discussions openly, and are willing to be flexible where concerns are raised. For particularly difficult conversations, employers could consider engaging a union, where recognised, or mediator to help come to a resolution.
What happens if my people can’t get to work because of transport problems?
Employers are used to dealing with similar situations when there are travel strikes or bad weather, so we would encourage a similar approach. Employers will need to be patient, understanding and flexible, particularly during the early restart phase where concerns about returning to work are likely to be heightened.
- Factsheet: travelling ‘safely’ from home, to work, and back again
- The CBI's reflections on returning to the office - the CBI's own Corporate Services Director on the CBI's approach and considerations for business
- The future of home working - even the most reluctant firms and staff have had to make home working a reality – have attitudes changed as a result?
- Daily Coronavirus Webinar (29 July): Navigating the return to the workplace
- ACAS has created key guidance for employers and workers, as well as useful advice on how to handle employee relations
- The CIPD has a range of tools and guidance that supports employers to manage their people
- Be the Business has brought together the latest government support with key advice for businesses on a range of themes
- Government has also published a set of guidance around travelling safely during coronavirus which employers may wish to share with their workers
- BSI has released new guidance on safe working during the COVID-19 pandemic, to help organisations adjust the way they work, building on formal government guidance.