With organisations preparing to see more and more staff returning to their places of work over the coming weeks, many questions have been raised about how to make offices, shops, factories, and construction sites safer from the threat of an invisible virus.
Leadership teams, HR, Health & Safety, and FM teams will need to work closely together to prepare buildings ready for reoccupation within the limits set by social distancing imperatives and help their organisations adjust, at pace, to a new set of operating norms. This kind of change programme requires professional leadership and represents a great opportunity for HR and FM to demonstrate the ‘added value’ they offer in bringing together the space, culture and technology aspects of workplace into a workplace strategy which can enable organisations and individuals to remain productive.
The immediate concern is the return of people to the building and this first stage may require several iterations, very likely in parallel with evolving social distancing measures, before you can plan for longer term ‘normality’. However, it is key to understand that you will need to plan for change over time.
In recent press and TV interviews with several CEOs it was clear that their biggest concern was the health and wellbeing of their staff, and their families, in relation to COVID-19. They didn’t want their employees back at work until they could guarantee this.
This, I’m sure, will resonate strongly with other business leaders. We need to be able to work to sustain a business, and for many, this will require a return to the workplace. However, before going back we need to consider managing risk, uncertainty and ensure a safe and healthy environment.
Each business will need to consider how they will return to work, and we should consider the following model to help us manage uncertainty and minimise harm.
You must make sure that your risk assessment for your business addresses the risks of COVID-19. It is about identifying sensible measures to control the risks in your workplace. Your risk assessment will help you decide whether you have done everything you need to. This is a 5-step process to safer working together:
- You have carried out a COVID-19 Risk Assessment and have shared the results with the people who work in your organisation. You have also ensured as a leadership team you have budgeted for the additional activities arising from this risk assessment:
- You have cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures in line with government/NHS guidance;
- You have taken all reasonable steps to help people work from home;
- You have taken all reasonable steps to maintain a 2m distance in the workplace; and
- Where people cannot be 2m apart, you have done everything practical to manage the transmission risk.
The guidance below will provide a useful framework for bringing your staff back to work safely.
The return to work protocol recommended is based on a “Prepare, Inform, Prevent, Recover (PIPR) Approach”. To assist you in your planning we have developed the following guidance using this PIPR framework.
Get ready to return to work and identify your return to work plan. This should include the following:
- Leadership team discuss and agree the business return to work programme and the budgets needed to deliver this programme;
- Plan to prepare your building for occupancy;
- Arrange to conduct a preoccupancy inspection and arrange a pre-occupancy deep cleaning programme;
- Train your FM and cleaning teams on good hygiene matters and establish a daily cleaning schedule;
- Review any service which may present a health issue and establish how you can minimise risk; and
- Test all emergency and life safety systems.
Consulting with staff to seek their thoughts and ideas. By having an input from them from the beginning staff will feel valued and they will be more likely to buy-in to any changes that the business decides to implement. Jointly agree who will return to work and consider the following:
- Workplace distancing and space availability;
- Work routines to achieve workplace distancing;
- Vulnerable or at-risk staff;
- Staff who have child or care responsibilities; and
- Travel arrangements to, where possible, reduce the need for public transport.
Establish workspace distancing protocols based on Government advice. This should be considered for the following:
- Staggered arrival and departure;
- Building entrance and/or exit protocols;
- Pantries and any space where food is prepared and eaten;
- Meetings internal;
- Meetings with clients; and
- Security and Emergency arrangements.
You also need to consider the consequences of increased anxiety caused by the return to work which may lead to people behaving out of character in the workplace. Consider what resources you have available for people to access to support their mental and physical wellbeing to support them with managing the pressures that they may feel at different points.
And importantly, establish a protocol to respond to expected spikes in the outbreak. This will ensure a quick response if you need to send your team home, you can do this effectively without disruption to service.
Establish a return to work program and establish who will communicate with staff. The more senior the person, the better.
Arrange a welcome back to work program for staff and managers, to inform them of the ‘new’ workplace protocols. This includes:
- Workplace distancing protocol and building cleaning arrangements;
- Travel and arrival arrangements;
- This is particularly important for those who cycle to work or use changing facilities;
- Relaxation of car share program, if in place;
- Follow Government advice on use of public transport;
- Working arrangements including breaks;
- Seating arrangements;
- Workstation health and hygiene requirements;
- Eating and drinking and use of fridges for personal food;
- Ill-health reporting and staff support program;
- End of day protocols, where an alternative team may be working on site;
- Travel to and from client sites or meetings; and
- Vehicle hygiene requirements and checks.
And keep reinforcing your health and hygiene messages as ultimately, they will keep people healthy and safe. A simple way to do this is to utilise e-learning.
Ensure that health and hygiene is managed and maintained by:
- Identifying key touch points in the workplace and providing appropriate sanitation stations to allow hands to be cleaned;
- Washroom cleanliness;
- Determining cleaning frequencies which need to consider an initial clean of surfaces and HVAC system;
- Cleaning to consider core activities and staff provided with appropriate PPE and be visible to staff during the working day;
- Ensuring statutory testing is undertaken safely;
- Food preparation and server areas to ensure workspace distancing can be maintained;
- Waste Arrangements included specific arrangements for PPE worn by cleaners and FM Staff;
- Cycle to work arrangements and changing facilities where provided; and
- Reinforcement of workplace distancing protocols.
The business recovery is a key stage. Leaders should monitor the effectiveness of the return to work program to ensure that it remains effective and is supporting those who have returned to work. It can also be used to restore confidence in the business.
Review lessons learnt from the outbreak and ask for feedback. Critique what you’ve learnt and use this to improve.
Review and update your Business Continuity Plan. Most organisations will have had their plan activated by the outbreak so we would encourage you to learn from this.
Finally, review what you’ve learnt from the period people have been working from home. Are there positives to be had? We believe that lockdown has reconnected families and given people time look at what’s important to them, so it might be time to look at how teams work in a different way!
The importance of getting the return to work right after lockdown simply cannot be underestimated. The consequences of getting it wrong could cause major legal and reputational issues for business leaders.
Remember any changes that you decide to make are likely to require consultation and may involve a change to terms and conditions. Use the opportunity to speak to staff and listen to their ideas before making any final decisions. Approach any changes carefully and seek input from HR about the risks and implications.
In terms of enforcement, the HSE previously announced that it will continue to investigate reported concerns from the workforce or the public where people are being exposed to risks from work activities.
Infringement is a criminal offence and a successful prosecution may result in an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment. Directors are personally liable, and can be disqualified, for the health and safety failures of their company where the failures occur through the director’s consent or neglect. This is the case even where no harm results from the offence – there only needs to be a risk of harm.
In addition to criminal sanctions, breaches of health and safety law also expose employers to negligence claims brought by employees or other affected third parties. While such claims may be difficult for employees to bring given the difficulties that surround causation (i.e. showing that they caught the virus at work), the reputational damage associated with defending such a claim is likely to be significant.
However, by meeting your responsibilities under health and safety laws by putting such a PIPR-type plan into place will have made significant steps to protect the health and wellbeing of your employees, and considerably reduce the risk of being found negligent in any civil action.
The following additional links provide useful information in several key areas:
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)
Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM)
Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)
Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
UK Government (GOV.UK)
This Article was jointly prepared by Neil Niblock at Icon, and also Rachael Norrington at Face3face HR
firstname.lastname@example.org / 07568 336341 / www.face2faceHR.com