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As the country moves out of lockdown, more and more businesses are reintroducing their staff to the workplace – this guide covers all the things you need to consider when doing so.

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted businesses all over the world.

In the UK unprecedented numbers of workers have been furloughed and entire workforces have had to carry out their jobs from their own homes.

As we slowly ease out of lockdown and adapt to the new normal, business owners have a duty of care for their employees and must take every necessary precaution to ensure they reintroduce staff to the workplace safely and considerately. Here are some things to consider when you reintroduce your employees into the workplace.

Risk assessment

It is your legal duty as an employer to protect your staff at all times. Before you can begin reintroducing your staff to the workplace, it’s important that you carry out a thorough COVID-19 risk assessment.

Begin by identifying which tasks or activities could present a risk of the virus being transmitted, for example, in a situation where it is impossible for workers to carry out their jobs whilst social distancing.

Next, record all the people this might affect, i.e. the workers who might need to work in close proximity for a period of time.

Now, work out the likelihood of the virus being transmitted in the situation you have identified.

Finally, eliminate or mitigate the risk as much as possible. This might mean you conduct business without carrying out the task that presents a risk, or, if this isn’t possible, putting measures in place to reduce the risk.

For example, you might arrange shift patterns or seat your team differently to avoid them facing each other. It’s important that you record all of this information for each of the potential risks you identify.

To make things easier, use this free risk assessment template.

Communication

Communication is key to great leadership, and this has never been more important than during the coronavirus pandemic. With huge proportions of workers furloughed and entire workforces conducting their jobs from home, the need for meaningful and regular communication cannot be underestimated.

But now the time is coming to start reintroducing workers to their usual roles, it is crucial that as an employer you communicate with your staff each step of the way.

It’s a good idea to send out a survey or questionnaire to your employees that gives them a chance to voice their opinion and raise any concerns before they return to the workplace.

It’s unlikely that all of your staff will be able to return to work as usual immediately, so communicate and see which staff would be happy returning to work, who needs to stay at home (for reasons such as childcare), and what hours people are able to work.

Lockdown was a very sudden change for everyone, but easing out of it won’t be. The ability to social distance safely within your workplace will be a challenge for a lot of businesses. It might mean you have to adapt where and when people work.

Not only will communication make your staff feel valued, but it will also give you a good idea about how you need to adapt your workplace for the reintroduction of your staff.

Communication is also important for managing the expectations of your returning workforce. Whatever plans you have in place, share them with your employees.

Preparing your workplace

Before you bring your staff back to the workplace, it is essential that you deep clean the premises.

Thoroughly clean all work surfaces, handles, doors, utensils, and anything your staff are likely to touch. This isn’t something that should be a one-time task. Thorough workplace cleaning should be completed daily, to reduce the risk to your staff.

You can appoint people within your team to carry out deep cleaning tasks, or make it a company-wide effort. If you are unable to do either, you can hire professional cleaning companies.

Going forward, if you haven’t already, it is essential that your workplace is equipped with the appropriate handwashing and hygiene facilities.

Entrances and exits need to have hand sanitiser, clearly displayed and ready to use for anyone coming in or out. It’s also a good idea to display signage around the office reminding staff of the importance of handwashing and hygiene practice.

Whilst personal protective equipment (PPE) has become synonymous with the COVID-19 outbreak, the government’s current advice is that PPE is not essential for workers outside of healthcare settings.

Of course, if your staff already used PPE to carry out their roles before the pandemic to protect from risks already present in their day to day, this has not changed. But, in regard to COVID-19, if you do not operate in a healthcare setting, there is no requirement for staff to use PPE.

Face coverings (which don’t officially classify as PPE) are not a legal requirement in the workplace, but some workers may feel more comfortable wearing them. The same goes for protective partitions between desks.

Choosing to implement these measures within your workplace will be dependent on the results of your risk assessment and how you believe your staff will best adjust to the new norm of your workplace. PPE might seem like a quick win to protect your staff, but current guidelines emphasise that cleanliness, personal hygiene, and social distancing are the best ways to keep your staff safe.

Issue a new working guide

It’s likely to be a long time until things are the same as they were pre-pandemic, so as we navigate our way through these uncharted waters, each business needs to adapt appropriately.

A great way to mitigate risk when bringing employees back to the workplace is to issue everyone with a new working guide, outlining everything they need to know in order to keep themselves and their colleagues safe.

A new working guide is likely to include things like:

  • A labelled floorplan of your office or workspace, identifying the location of things like handwashing facilities, restricted areas, or one-way systems
  • Any risks that have been identified in the risk assessment and practices in place to mitigate them
  • Cleaning obligations
  • Social distancing measures in place
  • New rules regarding staff facilities such as kitchens, canteens, breakrooms and lockers
  • How lifts will be used and who will have access to them
  • How to minimise person-to-person contact (working side by side or back to back)
  • Travel considerations (how can staff get to work with as little contact with others as possible)
  • Uniform procedures

Of course, these will differ depending on the nature of your business, but make sure your new working guide covers as much as possible, so staff have all the information they need upon their return to work.

Mental health

As well as making sure your staff are physically safe upon their return to work, it is your responsibility to ensure their mental health and wellbeing is fully supported as well.

Coronavirus has had a huge impact of people’s mental health, and the return to work is likely to present a lot of new challenges for people.

Again, this is where communication is so important. Make sure you listen to your employees and consider their opinions and feelings.

For staff who will continue to work from home, it might be a good idea to implement a buddy system, pairing up more experienced members of staff with ones who are newer to their role or to the business as a whole.

‘Buddies’ can act as a point of contact for staff who are homeworking and have job-related questions that they might not want to bother people with otherwise. This can help tackle the isolation people working from home might face and build meaningful relationships within your teams.

For employees who are returning to the office, make sure they know they can speak to someone if they are having any problems. This could be a nominated individual in the company or line managers and supervisors. Either way, it is important to promote a culture of openness and support when it comes to mental health.

Some ways employers can do this are:

  • Including a ‘mental health protocol’ in the ‘new working guide’
  • Training up nominated members of staff on how to spot and support somebody having issues with their mental health
  • Issuing employees with tips to look after their mental health
  • Displaying signage around your workplace reassuring employees it’s okay to talk about mental health and pointing them in the direction of someone they can talk to

Future planning

As we move forward, we should remember these are still unprecedented times. It has never been more important to plan ahead and attempt to future-proof your business as much as possible.

We do not know what the future holds or how the pandemic will play out. Action plans need to be in place to cover a variety of possible scenarios.

Start by asking yourself, how prepared would I be if:

  • A member of staff contracts the virus
  • Another lockdown is imposed
  • Guidelines change and I need to re-adjust the workplace again

From there, work through the different measures you would need to have in place and implement them as quickly and efficiently as possible.

This will help you feel a greater sense of control. In March, businesses had to adapt almost overnight, but now you could be more prepared to guard against becoming complacent. We are still working out what the new normal looks like, so it’s essential to work together with employees to navigate through these truly exceptional times.

Next Steps

  1. Carry out a thorough risk assessment
  2. Install appropriate hygiene facilities
  3. Issue a new working guide to all employees
  4. Put action plans in place to cover possible scenarios

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Abi Bentley-Cottam
Article by Abi Bentley-Cottam
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