Lockdown restrictions in England are easing throughout the Spring and Summer months, giving non-essential services the first opportunity to reopen their premises in 2021.
The easing is phased, and each step is subject to meeting ‘four tests’ that assess the latest health data. All retail, outdoor hospitality, personal care services like hairdressers and indoor leisure premises (including gyms) reopened on 12 April. Tourism and entertainment premises can reopen from 17 May, and nightclubs and live events are now expected to reopen from 19 July given the government's delaying of stage four lockdown easing.
As part of reopening, employers must ensure that physical workplaces are COVID-secure. Employers should continue to ask staff who can work at home to do so, unless homeworking is seriously affecting their physical or mental health. This advice is expected to remain in place until a least 19 July.
Returning to physical places of work brings many considerations, like ensuring employee safety and ensuring that operations are in line with government social distancing measures, for employers.
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 set out its timelines for easing lockdown restrictions in England on 22 February in its COVID-19 roadmap.
The government has regularly updated practical COVID-secure 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 fourteen different types of work. Given many businesses operate across more than one type of workplace it is likely that more than one guide will need to be used to ensure you are doing everything needed to keep staff, customers, and visitors safe.
- 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:
- Making your workplace COVID-secure
- Managing risks and risk assessment at work
- Talking with your workers about preventing coronavirus
- Ventilation and air conditioning during the coronavirus pandemic
- Keeping workplaces safe as coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions are eased
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 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. You must share the results of your risk assessment with your workforce, so consider how to present in a clear and accessible manner.
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 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. Employers may need to make flexible working adjustments for workers that have existing health conditions, dependents or live with extremely vulnerable individuals, in line with government guidance.
Where operations are reopening on site, businesses may wish to consider a phased approach. For example, re-opening one site to identify and mitigate any risks before re-opening others.
Understand how your people travel to work
Public transport companies have maintained operating capacity to help keep people safe. But safety while commuting continues to be a concern for employees, particularly if they haven’t left their homes for most of the past year. It’s important for employers to understand how transport situations are affecting their workforces.
People using public transport for their commutes should, in line with government advice, plan ahead and consider staggering their journeys to avoid busy times if possible.
There are three principal documents that the UK government has produced to help businesses and commuters.
1) Safer transport guidance for transport operators and organisations - Safer working principles and risk assessment for transport operators and organisations’
2) Safer travel guidance for passengers - Walking, cycling, and travelling in vehicles or on public transport during the coronavirus outbreak'
Advice regarding travelling to work remains to only travel where you cannot reasonably work from home. While this remains in place until at least 21 June, it is important for businesses to start thinking about how their employees can commute safely into work as more restrictions are lifted.
3) Travel guidance for employers - As part of the wider Safer Transport Campaign the government have previously also produced resources for employers to communicate the guidance with employees and partners.
The key messages are:
- Enable workers to continue to work from home where possible
- Help your workers to walk and cycle as much as they can
- Encourage travel outside of peak hours
- Help workers to plan their route
Note that there are differences between the specific guidance for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland although the main threads are similar.
Consider vulnerable workers, and those with caring responsibilities
People with existing health conditions, disabilities, caring responsibilities or those who are pregnant may be anxious about what returning to workplaces will mean for them. In these cases, it is 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.
Employers should be aware that the government’s guidance for clinically vulnerable individuals to shield ended in England on 1 April. While this means that ‘shielders’ are no longer advised not attend their workplace, many will be anxious about returning. As well as discussing this with affected staff, employers could consider continuing reasonable adjustments where appropriate. These include altering roles to be work from home or to reduce customer-facing contact. Employees could remain eligible for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (extended until 30 September), despite shielding ending.
3. Working together: how can you bring your employees with you?
Clarity and communication are vital
With so many sources of 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 induction briefings.
Firms should make it clear who to approach if they have safety concerns – designate people to collect feedback and ensure it’s fed into organisational decisions, and consider opening up new communications channels if they don’t exist.
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.
Having open dialogues with staff tends to result in positive outcomes – you could consider asking managers to have conversations with their teams or surveying staff about their experiences of returning to the workplace so that any concerns can be addressed. You could also consider running regular calls with senior managers to get a sense of health and wellbeing in organisation and how people feel about returning to work.
Focusing on mental health is vital for a restart
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to impact staff’s mental health. Some have really suffered in isolation and are keen to return to workplaces, even if their interactions are socially distant. Others want to continue working from home as a way to support their mental health. Understanding staff’s preferences can help companies achieve a phased return that’s good for everyone.
For more advice on setting your organisation’s health and wellbeing strategy and having open conversations with staff, see the CBI’s factsheet on supporting staff’s mental health at this time.
Let your employees help define your new normal
COVID-19 has created much uncertainty. But it’s also highlighted how operations can be done differently and created an opportunity to reflect on what can be done better. Work with employees to decide which new approaches and ways of working to take forward, to create your new normal together.
Whether you are reopening sites as part of the latest easing of restrictions or considering the long-term future of your workplace, the vast scale of businesses looking to make a long-term shift away from the ‘in-office 9-5’ model of working is unprecedented. Most employers are considering a hybrid working model – finding the right balance between home and the workplace to make a sustainable shift that works for both the business and employees long-term is key. Look at the CBI’s guide on how other businesses are approaching this question and for what you should consider along the journey.
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 make every reasonable effort to ensure staff are one metre away from each other, with risk mitigation measures in place. They include increasing handwashing, erecting screens or barriers, avoiding rotation and asking people to work side by side or back-to-back.
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.
How far can employers go with regards to vaccine requirements and promotion?
This question is being considered by the government’s forthcoming COVID-Status Certification Review. In general, employers cannot make having a vaccine a condition of work, and simplistic ‘no jab, no job’ policies will almost certainly be illegal. Requiring staff to have a vaccine on health and safety grounds could be permissible, but only in certain sectors or jobs, and in parallel with other legal obligations. Employers should make reasonable adjustments so that staff can continue to safely perform their role if they are unable or unwilling to be vaccinated.
ACAS recommends that employers support staff in getting the coronavirus vaccine, for example by giving them time off work to attend a vaccination appointment. Employers can play a role sharing the benefits of the vaccine with their employees. They should speak with staff about their approach and any employee concerns where appropriate. For the latest guidance on this topic, visit the ACAS website.
- 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
- Factsheet: mental health and wellbeing in a crisis
- The CBI’s guidance on adapting to hybrid working: how businesses can transition effectively
- CBI@10am webinar: hybrid working: preparing your business for the 'new normal'
- CBI @10am webinar: Ready for re-opening? Spotlight on hospitality and retail
- 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.