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When will you be able to return to your workplace?

21 May 2020

The UK government has now published its strategy to exit from the current lockdown status, imposed in order to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Guidance at present remains that workers should continue to work from home if they can. Employers are still asked to make every effort to support working from home.

Many practices are now considering how they will manage a return to their offices when the lockdown guidance changes. Government health and safety guidelines have been published for different industry sectors, including ‘construction and other outdoor work’ and ‘offices and contact centres’.

In order for an office to reopen when the time comes, employers must comply with the published COVID-19 Secure rules ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’. As a first step, employers are required to carry out an appropriate COVID-19 risk assessment with reference to the appropriate guidelines.

The Health and Safety at Work Act continues and will continue to apply as normal, with the principle that the safety, health and welfare of employees must be ensured ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’.

Who should return to the workplace when lockdown rules relax?

There is statutory guidance endorsed by the government that businesses consult with employees on any return to work; this consultation should include an explanation of the measures in place to ensure their welfare.

Directors and Associates from numerous practices, including Scott Brownrigg, Allies and Morrison, Grimshaw and Weston Williamson + Partners, are conducting surveys of employees to assess individual staff circumstances.

Such surveys can raise issues with an employee’s personal situation – their health and any at-risk status, their childcare needs and transport concerns – and their overall willingness to return to the work on a voluntary basis. No employee should feel compelled to work in a place where they feel unsafe.

Responses can be used by employers to inform plans for a gradual, phased return to the workplace, although for now the expectation remains that people should continue to work from home if they can.

A consensual return

David Coles, Director at 20-strong Buckinghamshire-based David Coles Architects, is planning to implement a phased return of staff to the office – a converted bank – when the guidance suggests it is appropriate, although decisions will be taken after staff consultation and will be fully consensual.

“Staff will return a questionnaire privately to us,” he states. “We will use that questionnaire as an endorsement that a staff member is returning on a voluntary basis, that they are content to do so – provided of course that is what they say."

"The key legislative position is you cannot force someone to work somewhere they would feel unsafe. Staff must be confident that we have made all reasonable provisions, and it is crucial that they inform management if they spot anything that does not feel right.”

Risk assessing your workplace

The HSE’s Working safely during the coronavirus outbreak underlines the need for risk assessment as the basis for any return to work strategy. Employers are instructed that they must act to remove activities or situations that might cause virus transmission, or if this is not possible, control the risk. They should:

  • Consider whether jobs or tasks can be changed to reduce risk
  • Identify everyone who can work at home – if they can they should
  • Identify where people can travel safely to and from work while maintaining social distancing
  • Stagger arrival and departure times at work
  • Consider how people move through work environments and reduce the number of people in high traffic areas
  • Consider how common areas can be reconfigured to allow two-metre distancing
  • Provide employees with information and guidance on safe working arrangements, have conversations with staff, and act on concerns.

Government guidance is, at date of publication, unchanged: in that employees should continue to work from home if they can. However, businesses are taking note of government guidance on what should be in place for staff to return should the rules relax.

A thorough assessment

David Coles has developed a comprehensive, interactive ‘smartsheet’ to assess any risks at his practice. This addresses all the functions and processes of their office, assessing the risks associated with each. The vertical column contains elements such as workstations, desks and surfaces, while the horizontal top row contains the risks.

Coles is assessing factors in three ways:

  1. Policy: how the practice might alter its policies in terms of staffing and office behaviour
  2. Design and layout solutions: such as separation of routes around the office or partitioning of lifts
  3. Technological solutions: such as use of sensors, physical trackers, proximity alerts

As a medium-sized practice they would not necessarily be employing all of the latter technologies, but they remain valuable considerations. Coles’ spreadsheet contains an ‘action’ column: actions are set up and distributed across staff, with start and finish times that can be tracked and alerts sent.

Staff numbers, hygiene and social distancing

Some practices may occupy offices where social distancing can be accommodated relatively easily. Others may need to restrict the number of people in the office at any one time. The HSE guidance suggests assigning one person per work area, using screens to create physical barriers, and avoiding face-to-face working arrangements.

Employers will also need to consider how frequently work areas, equipment and surfaces in common areas will need to be cleaned to prevent virus transmission.

A Director at one of the UK’s largest practices reveals that it is considering opening one office shortly for one or two staff to fulfil certain specific tasks that they are unable to do from home, such as those in the model shop.

His assessment is that two-metre social distancing will be possible by halving office capacity. Taking this as the starting point for its returning strategy, the office will be spilt into two halves, with each project team allocated as a unit to one half or the other.

“We are currently discussing alternating weeks in the office with a deep clean in between,” he reveals. “We may look at a transition where we do not have project teams in for the entire week. There will only be one single day of collaborative workshops with appropriate distancing.”

“One of the likely beneficial impacts of this whole situation will be a dramatically enhanced understanding of the realities of remote working,” he notes. “That is a great opportunity for all of us.”

Croner – the business support service available to RIBA Chartered Practices – has also published a Back to Work Toolkit which includes comprehensive Guidance and FAQs on reopening your workplace after lockdown.

Thanks to David Coles, Director, David Coles Architects (DCa).

Text by Neal Morris and Matt Milton. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

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