Returning to work: How business owners can prepare

13 August 2020

Although we've seen a relaxation of the restrictions placed on us at the beginning of the pandemic, and a degree of normality returning, a large question mark still hangs over the issue of working in the office once again. There are seemingly two camps: those who are keen on returning to their original place of work, and those who are wary of the ongoing pandemic.

For those returning to work, things likely won't be the same – at least for the foreseeable. The protective measures we've been used to for the past few months – social distancing, prolonged washing of hands, and face masks – will likely continue across a range of businesses and sectors.

For businesses who'll be reopening soon, you'll find an array of guidance on how to help get used to the "new normal" as soon as possible below. From briefing employees and those on furlough to readying the workplace in the appropriate manner, here's everything you need to prepare ahead of your reopening.



Be clear from the outset

Before you bring people back or make changes to your office, planning and preparation are key. Things are likely going to take the form of a staged return to the workplace across many different industry sectors, and it could well be for a longer period of time than is desirable.

Many of your staff – and customers too – will be concerned about returning to the workplace, or even travelling to your place of business. Therefore, there must be some guiding principles to reassure your people you have the right measures in place.

As a result, they'll want to know of your continued support for their physical and mental health, along with any information regarding the following areas:

  • Communicating clearly with staff about how you will support and manage their return to the workplace
  • Ensuring your policies for managing holidays, sickness and other absences are up to date.

Crucially, you must bear in mind that the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of the workforce underpins this.



Assessing who will return and when

There's a chance that you might not need every member of staff in your place of business straight away, whether this is because the business can function well enough with staff working from home, or simply because there is a slow return to business.

In any event, it may be worth exploring who is initially willing to come back in. If you go with a voluntary system of return, then you should consider the following issues:

  • If there are more volunteers than required, consider selecting from the available pool based on things such as their travel distance to the workplace.
  • You may need to impose a limit on the number of people allowed in the building. Consider making employees give advance notice of when they intend to come in.
  • Is there a sufficient spread of volunteers to enable the business to function properly, i.e. those in the workplace are across different teams with varying degrees of seniority.
  • Consider implementing a rota for who comes in and when to maintain social-distancing guidelines.



If, however, you opt for a mandatory return to work, then you'll have to weigh up the following:

    • The minimum number of people may be required in each role for your business to operate.
    • Be mindful of your employee selections. Allow employees to stay at home if they are vulnerable, have caring responsibilities, or their commute puts them at particular risk.
    • How will you select employees to come off furlough? Bear in mind any potential discrimination or procedural/ fairness issues – especially with regards to consequences for pay or long-term employment prospects.

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With the furlough scheme ending in October, employers have a few issues to consider, including the following:

      • If an employer needs staff to come off furlough but does not have full-time work for them (a restaurant is only opening at the weekend, for instance), it could mean placing staff at a financial disadvantage by being asked to work.
      • Consider whether rotational furlough could be used, in three-week blocks.



Consider your working hours

You might want to think about staggering individual start and end times to minimise staff commuting at peak travel hours. Encourage staff to use modes of transport that reduce exposure to others, such as walking or cycling.

For those members of staff with long, unavoidable commutes, then it might be worth having them continue to work from home. Prohibiting non-essential work travel is a way of cutting down exposure in an easily avoidable way.


Maintaining safety procedures

The health and safety of your staff should be your top priority. Therefore, employers must think about detailed risk management approaches to safeguard their health and minimise the risk of infection.

It's imperative that your employees are aware of procedures they should follow if they start to feel unwell (in the workplace and at home), and business owners/managers should know their role in managing things should such scenarios arise.



In your review of the workplace, consider the following:

      • Can staff maintain a physical distance between each other? In an office environment, desks should be at least 2 metres apart, rather than face-to-face. This will require an assessment of how it impacts the maximum number of people that the workplace can accommodate. For retail businesses, possible options include imposing a limit on the number of staff working at a till or cash-desk, entering the stock room, or restricting employees to one area or floor.
      • How will you manage meetings, interviews and other interactions? How should the room be arranged to minimise risks? This also calls into question your obligation to third parties entering your workplace. If you work in an office environment, agree on safety protocols such as hygiene requirements, travel arrangements and the shaking of hands. In a retail environment, ensure customers sanitise their hands upon entry.
      • How will communal areas such as canteens or kitchen areas be affected? You might want to stagger lunch times and prohibit the use of company crockery and cutlery while also encouraging employees to bring their own too.
      • Can strategies that support physical distancing be implemented, such as keeping teams of workers working together in smaller groups?


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