Returning to the Office – What to Consider – Covid 19 Update
With the UK government’s step two of the roadmap out of lockdown now in place across England, we review considerations law firms should be looking at regarding a return to the office.
Although the data is awaited on the impact of the new variants and how far the easing of lockdown can be taken firms continue to debate and discuss the future and what is best for their firm, their staff and their clients.
This also takes in to consideration the most recent government guidance on COVID-19 secure workplaces (March 2021) and further guidance published by the Law Society.
Relevant points in the government guidance, as pointed out by the Law Society are:
- Office workers should continue to work from home where they can
- Offices, law firms and organisations can remain open (or re-open if they have been closed) provided they follow the government’s COVID-secure guidelines (as set out below)
- Calls or video conferences should be encouraged to avoid in-person meetings with external contacts or colleagues outside someone’s immediate team wherever possible
- Staff who have to go to the office should do so. If they need to use public transport, they should consult the government guidance on how to travel safely
- Staff who need to travel internationally for work are able to do so (quarantine restrictions may apply)
- Staff who need to stay in overnight accommodation for work purposes are allowed to do so
- If face-to-face business meetings are required, these can take place not limited to the rule of six, and indoors. This does not include social gatherings with work colleagues
- The government has committed to publishing new social distancing, face mask and other long-term measures ahead of step four (pencilled in for 21 June)
Whilst there have been no significant changes to the government’s COVID-secure office guidance since autumn 2020, it does include new provisions on ventilation of spaces and non-mandatory lateral flow tests.
It has been recommended that if your firm carried out a COVID risk assessment in 2020, that you review and update it and
cross-reference it with the guidance available to ensure you check the measures you have put in place are working and to identify any further improvements.
As Law firms start to return to the office or consider a return to the office there are additional requirements and responsibilities of employers to consider and failure to address these concerns could lead to issues arising.
The most pressing and immediate issue for firms to consider is operating in the office and fulfilling a firm’s obligations to keep their employees safe. Employers need to be aware of the regulations and under the Employment Rights Act 1996, employees have the right to leave the workplace or refuse to carry out any unsafe tasks if they feel they are in “serious imminent danger”.
Employees have a legal duty to consider health and safety and failure to do so, in extreme cases, can render an employer liable to prosecution and with the death rate in vulnerable people being much higher this could be more of a reality now than ever before for office based employers and employees.
The returning to the workplace has been widely debated and discussed and the issues that could arise are serious and potentially dangerous to employers including law firms. Whilst most law firms are set up in the same way, each office will be different in terms of the space that is available to allow for social distancing and ensuring staff are kept safe.
People will be nervous about a return to work and the steps a firm takes will be as much about providing confidence to return alongside keeping them protected. The last thing any employer wants is having to address staffing issues in such times and avoiding these will be possible through effective planning and communication.
Much of the below will require you to speak directly with your employees as some of the answers may not be immediately obvious or available to you, however, part of the process of engagement is to communicate and discuss options with the staff.
There remain various options available to employers which will include: –
- Maintaining home working for some staff
- Keeping appropriate staff on furlough
- Considering different working patterns to reduce people being in the office at the same time
Some of the questions and issues an employee should address as part of its risk assessment to satisfy legalisation and your staff are: –
- Identify vulnerable employees – do you have employees that are vulnerable (or have declined the vaccine) and if so, they will need to be given additional considerations. It may be that you and they simply cannot take the risk of returning to the work place and therefore homeworking or furlough may be the only options.
The classification of high risk is: –
- have had an organ transplant
- are having chemotherapy or antibody treatment for cancer, including immunotherapy
- are having an intense course of radiotherapy (radical radiotherapy) for lung cancer
- are having targeted cancer treatments that can affect the immune system (such as protein kinase inhibitors or PARP inhibitors)
- have blood or bone marrow cancer (such as leukaemia, lymphoma or myeloma)
- have had a bone marrow or stem cell transplant in the past 6 months, or are still taking immunosuppressant medicine
- have been told by a doctor they have a severe lung condition (such as cystic fibrosis, severe asthma or severe COPD)
- have a condition that means they have a very high risk of getting infections (such as SCID or sickle cell)
- are taking medicine that makes them much more likely to get infections (such as high doses of steroids)
- have a serious heart condition and are pregnant
Remember that you should also take into account if someone is living with a vulnerable person.
2.3. Employee questionnaire – Consider giving to each employee a questionnaire to gather information and intelligence about them and their feelings towards returning to work. Once you have collated information you can start to address issues and discuss and liaise with your staff and set rules and boundaries to protect them. When you have new answers this will provide you with the necessary intelligence to make decisions and help make decisions for individuals in terms of whether they should return to the office and work, continue to work from home or continue on furlough.
Attached to this article is a questionnaire that your firm can develop to fit your environment. Contact us for an editable version – firstname.lastname@example.org.
2.4. Identification – Identify the interaction in the office that could result in the passing of the virus through contact. Is it possible to keep the Governments guidelines of keeping 2 meters apart?
Issues to consider: –
- Is it possible to have 1 entrance for entering the office and another for existing only so that people are not coming in and out of the same office?
- Do you have shared facilities such as a breakout room or kitchen? If people will be allowed to use them how will or can you control transmission. If that is simply not possible, do they remain closed
- How will you control meeting rooms and their use?
- Do you have open plan areas where staff work and if so, can adjustments be made to ensure a safe distance is maintained at all times?
- Can you make physical changes such as putting up screens between desks and at reception and what is the cost?
As you undertake your risk assessment it is essential that you record and document the activity you have undertaken to actively demonstrate the steps you have taken to protect the employees of the firm.
We have provided an outline risk assessment that you can use as a template. Contact us for an editable version – email@example.com.
- Staggered Hours – How practical is it to stagger start and leave times for employees and how can the office stay open for extended hours. Consider the implications of lone workers and how that will be managed if you will allow this.
- Physical Demarcation – Are you able to use tape to assist people with keeping 2 metre distancing. This will help to demonstrate how practical this is. With smaller offices and areas can you assign one person to each area or desk share on different days or times (ensuring the person that leaves cleans the work space)
- Necessity – is it necessary to return to work and what is the reason for requiring a return? Can the employee work effectively from home and have they been able to demonstrate this through the lock down period? If so, do they need to return now?
- Travel – how do your staff get to work, and will they need to rely on public transport and if so what is the risk of them bringing the virus into the office through contact out of the work place.
- Clients – Will you allow client meetings and if so, what will be the process of bringing them into the office and meeting with them. Is it possible to keep distance? Will you ask clients to complete a questionnaire before attending the office to ensure you are happy for them to attend?
2.10. Equipment & Facilities – What equipment can you provide for the staff to use when they are in the office, for example: –
- Do you have access to PPE, or will you require employees to bring their own? When will they be expected to wear items such as face masks?
- Cleaning wipe or sprays – leave cleaning facilities in common areas such as meeting rooms and near exits and doors where people will use the door handles.
- Can you obtain and distribute hand sanitisation either individually or at strategic locations around the office?
2.11. Cleaning – Give guidance to your staff on how often to clean and importantly review your professional cleaning contract. Do you need to increase the number of professional cleans or do your cleaners have the resource to do this?
2.12. Signs – Acquire or make signs reminding people of the rules you have applied.
- Washing hand regularly
- Cleaning surfaces they have touched (including workstations)
- Using hand sanitisers
- Which entrances and exits to use
- How many people are allowed in a lift at one time?
2.13. Movements – Staff should be encouraged to reduce their movements around the office and keep these to a minimum. Think about whether they need to leave the space allocated to them and how they can reduce or minimise the number of trips they make around the office.
2.14. Notifications and Action – How will the staff be able to inform you of any issues they may have and in particular if they are unable to attend the office due to the need to self isolate or notify others that they have contracted COVID 19. What action will you take on receipt of notification?
By the time you have read this article you may have been put off the prospect of reopening the office and bringing employees back to work, however, reengaging with industry is an important step for all businesses. The focus here is to be sympathetic to the crisis and protect your firm, its employees, and clients by taking additional necessary precautions that encourages industry and society to re-engage.
The following employee questionnaire and risk assessment is meant as a guide only and needs to be considered by the firm, if used, and adapted, as necessary.
Download the employee questionnaire and risk assessment here:
You can download this article as a PDF by clicking on the link below:
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