Many people and businesses are finding themselves involved in aspects of working life that they’ve never had to before. Six months ago, I’d never have imagined I’d be spending time looking at the safest ways to open a door or use the washrooms! For many office-based organisations, health and safety concerns have suddenly leapt up their risk registers. Nevertheless, if you use common sense, refer to government guidance and follow a standard approach to health and safety (identify hazards, assess risks, implement control measures) then you’ll be well placed for your return to work.
At this point I should say that for the CBI, working remotely is working well for us so far. And we’re lucky that the work we do can be done from home. Only a handful of staff are currently using our offices, but more and more staff want to return – for a variety of reasons – and we’re doing our best to balance these individuals’ needs with health and safety considerations.
Our core principles
As this situation is both unprecedented and changing over time, it’s important to have a set of underlying principles to reference each individual decision against and ensure consistency. It’s also important for senior managers to buy into these and hence set the tone, so the rest of the organisation is clear on what needs to be done.
Our core principles have been:
- The CBI should be seen to provide an excellent example of compliance with government guidelines, showing appropriate restraint and being considerate of our impact on others around us (especially key workers)
- We should support individual members of staff where possible, while also recognising the organisation can operate remotely
- Given the above, working from home remains our standard approach; if staff can work from home then they should continue to do so
- While this remains the case, no-one will be required to go back to the office if they feel uncomfortable about doing so
- For those who cannot work effectively from home and wish to return to the office, we will do what we can to support them to do so in a safe and proportionate way
- Our policies will apply to all CBI offices unless they go against local (devolved UK nations or international) guidance. We’ll maintain a formal risk assessment and work in close liaison with staff representatives throughout.
Communicating well with staff, both when developing policies and when administering them, is the key to success. Involving staff representatives helped us pick up details we may have missed at first. In this context, consulting some of our specific employee groups – such as our BAME Network and Working Families Network – proved very useful. Staff realise this is a difficult situation and want to help to make sure their employer is doing everything it can. Once you’ve made the decisions, ensure you communicate all processes to staff. You must publish your risk assessment, but it’s also useful to have a more accessible way for staff to digest the information (such as a video or guide). We summarised the key points in some ‘Golden Rules’ that are relevant for the CBI context:
- Only go into the office if you cannot work from home and can travel without using public transport (see further comments on this below)
- Stay alert to the symptoms of COVID-19 in ourselves and others
- You must not go into the office if you have any symptoms of COVID-19 or have been told to self-isolate
- If you test positive for COVID-19 and have been into the office in the last 14 days immediately let HR know
- Follow the social distancing and hygiene measures put in place in the office
- Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly
- Maintain social distancing, always keeping 2m apart from others
- Do not share personal items and equipment, using only the desk and equipment allocated to you
- Make sure you are familiar with fire, first aid and lone working safety practices
- Keep things clean and your desk clear.
Travelling to and from the office
Ordinarily, travelling to and from the office is not within the remit of health and safety. But employers need to consider this now given the risk of exposing staff to the virus and them bringing it into the office. Our approach to date, in line with government guidance, has been that staff should not use public transport to come to work. However, recently this guidance has changed requiring us to look at this aspect of the policy again. Is it right for an organisation who wants to support staff to say that individuals who want to come to the office cannot do so? Maybe not, but there are other factors to consider as well – including the duty of care to those individuals and their colleagues, employees’ needs and concerns, and wider public policy considerations. It’s a complex decision and one we’ll keep reviewing in consultation with our staff to understand their needs and how we can enable them to use public transport should they want to use it to come to work. We’ll look at a range of solutions – such as flexible hours so staff don’t have to travel at peak hours.
Inside the office
When it comes to being inside the office, two metres is a long way! It greatly reduces office capacity when you stick to it rigidly and ensure no-one walks past each other within that distance. How can you avoid people bumping into each other in corridors or at doors? It’s easy enough to prevent this when you’re just starting to return to the office with only a handful of staff, but it’ll become more difficult as numbers increase. For this reason, I suspect that mask wearing within offices may become more common in the future.
Some of the key points we’ve implemented to date are:
- One-way systems for all entrances and exits, lobbies, escalators, and lifts
- When using lifts, ensure no more than two people are in the lift at one time, and use face coverings/gloves
- Implementing social distancing measures in all toilets, changing rooms and shower facilities
- When inside the working area staff will be assigned a desk, two metres away from other occupied desks, and must minimise walking around the office
- Staff must sanitise shared equipment such as printers after use
- Staff should bring in their own lunches and milk for tea/coffee, as we’ve closed catering services for the foreseeable future
- Meeting room use is currently not permitted.
Provisions for less well-staffed offices, e.g. lone working
One benefit of using a standard approach to health and safety is that you have to go back and look at the full range of risks. Therefore, you’re more likely to pick up implications of COVID-19 that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of before – especially non-health related ones. For example, it’s important businesses think about what happens when offices are less well-staffed than usual. If there’s only a handful of people in, what happens if someone needs first aid and there are no first aiders in the office? Or there’s a fire and there are no fire wardens? What if a member of staff is in the office alone? Lone working policies may not have been relevant in larger offices before but are suddenly important to have in place.
Some of the key actions we’re implementing are:
- Anyone who finds themselves alone in the office must inform either their line manager or the facilities department
- We’ll take reasonable steps to check on lone workers, such as via telephone, email or periodic visits from security or cleaners
- We’ll provide information and guidance, so staff understand the risks and the safe working procedures for working alone, especially emergency procedures
- Staff must always keep a charged mobile telephone with them
- Staff must inform HR of any health matters which impact lone working, such as if they’re a new or expectant mother, or if they have any medical issues.
You have legal responsibilities as an employer. But ultimately, this is about people and prioritising their safety and wellbeing. I fully appreciate this is easier in an office-based organisation where it’s possible to work remotely. But if your staff have confidence that you’re doing your best to provide for them, this will serve you well – both during the pandemic and afterwards.