With workplaces beginning to reopen following the nation-wide lockdown and employees starting to return to work, it’s vital that this return is managed in a safe and secure way. Returning to work post-lockdown is by no means a return to ‘normal’ and the workplace will be unable to function as it did before the pandemic.
However, this does not mean that returning to work needs to be a cause of concern for employers and employees getting back to work after the lockdown. As long as everyone is informed and plays their part, the transition back to the workplace can be smooth.
This guide should help you to plan your organisation’s return to the workplace and prepare you and your staff for work in a post-lockdown environment.
This guide has been created in line with and informed by the advice provided by the government. However, regularly checking the official government website is recommended to stay abreast of the latest updates.
The advice from the government is updated continuously as new information and developments come to light. Staying informed of the latest advice is essential to effectively managing the virus and working to bring it under control.
Table of contents
- Getting the workplace ready to return
- Before the workplace opens
- New cleaning procedures
- Adjustments to the workplace
- Social distancing measures and one-way systems
- Cleaning and sanitising stations
- Displaying essential information
- Getting staff ready to return
- Preparing the workforce
- Scheduling staff returns
- Reducing anxiety and communicating procedures
Getting the workplace ready
Whether you operate a showroom, office, retail space or any other workplace, if your workspace has been unused throughout the pandemic there are some adjustments you’ll need to make and enforce new protocols to ensure your workforce can return safely.
Before the workplace reopens
If your workplace has been empty since the lockdown was first implemented then there are some steps you need to take before staff can safely return to the workplace.
You may wish to have your workspace thoroughly and professionally deep-cleaned before your staff returns to work to be sure that the workplace is virus-free. Professional fogging services and other intensive deep cleaning procedures can work to disinfect large areas and eradicate traces of bacteria and viruses.
A deep clean can work not only to remove potential COVID-19 virus from the workplace but also to remove any dirt and grime that may have built up while the workplace wasn’t in use.
Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems
If your workplace uses any sort of heating, ventilation or air-conditioning (HVAC) system, it’s advisable to have this cleaned and serviced before returning to the workplace.
HVAC systems can accumulate dust, dirt and grime when they aren’t in use for periods of time which can be blown into the workplace when they are back in use.
To ensure the safety of your workforce, it’s essential that all fire detection and alarm systems are fully operational. Regular testing of these systems is recommended to ensure that alarm call points are in working order.
However, with workplaces sitting empty during the lockdown, it’s likely that your fire systems haven’t been checked as regularly as usual. Therefore, to ensure no faults have developed and that the system is functioning as it should, it’s essential that all fire systems are thoroughly tested before the workforce returns.
Where water systems have sat stagnant for long periods of time, especially during warm weather, it’s possible that waterborne bacteria, biofilm and viruses such as Legionnaires’ disease may have increased or developed.
Therefore, before your employees return to the workplace, it’s important to thoroughly check all water systems in use in your workplace and devise a strategy for ensuring the water is safe to use.
Depending on your building’s requirements, the water systems will need to be treated and reopened either by yourself or by a specialist water treatment firm. Therefore, before your staff return to work, you need to consider your system requirements and arrange for suitable services to be pre-arranged.
Water treatments should include:
- Evaporative cooling systems – existing procedures should exist for starting up and shutting down, these will need to be followed.
- Simple water systems e.g. mains fed with instantaneous / point of use water heaters flushed through with mains water (safe purge).
- Larger water systems e.g. cold water tanks and hot water generators. These systems will need to be cleaned, disinfected (chemical for cold water and thermal for hot water) with the systems flushed.
- The systems that are recommissioned need to be sampled 2-7 days post disinfection.
New cleaning procedures
Regular cleaning and disinfection of workspaces and surfaces are essential to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. No matter what existing cleaning procedures you had in place before the pandemic, it’s likely that you will need to adjust or increase your workplace’s cleaning schedule.
Increased cleaning schedules
Because COVID-19 is transmitted via respiratory droplets and contact with contaminated surfaces, increased cleaning is likely needed to keep your workplace and staff safe from the virus.
Alongside communal kitchen and toilet areas, there are some other high-risk touchpoints that will need particular attention including door handles, lift buttons, telephones, keypads and IT equipment.
Re-evaluate your existing cleaning schedule and increasing the frequency of cleaning or expanding cleaning procedures will help to keep your workplace clean and reduce the risk of transmission of the virus.
Response cleaning protocols
Alongside increased regular cleaning, your workplace will need to outline procedures for response cleaning if a staff member, contractor or visitor exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 on site.
Areas which have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 will need to be isolated until deep cleaning and disinfection of the area has taken place.
Increase stocks of cleaning supplies
With staff increasing cleaning of their own workspaces and more frequent cleaning of the entire workplace, it’s likely you’ll need to have more cleaning supplies in stock.
Alongside your regular cleaning supplies, you’ll need to invest in hand sanitiser (60% alcohol or higher) to be made available at all work stations, touchpoints and desk areas.
Calculating the reasonable amount of extra stock you’ll need with the new adjustments and communicating this with your suppliers will help to ensure you can return to work with all the required supplies.
However, be aware that every workplace will also be ordering increased levels of cleaning stock and your suppliers may be operating on limited staff so there may be delays or changes to your usual stock.
Adjustments to the workplace
Once you’ve cleaned and prepped the entire workspace for staff returning, you need to consider any adjustments needed to ensure that social distancing can be adhered to and your staff can return safely.
Reducing Touch Points
COVID-19 is largely transmitted by respiratory droplets and contact with contaminated surfaces, therefore reducing touchpoints is essential to try and limit the spread of the virus.
To reduce touchpoints in the workplace, a number of measures can be taken:
- Install low touch or no touch doors, switches and other fittings where possible
- Implement regular cleaning protocols to sanitise hands, disinfect door handles etc
- Eliminate ‘high touch’ tools and equipment such as shared marker pens, remote controls etc
- Install disinfection stations in prominent areas throughout the workplace such as entrances and exits, communal kitchen areas, desk areas, points of customer interaction and drop off and collection points
- Remove shared tools and equipment and supply staff with personal tools and equipment instead
- Enforce a desk cleaning and self-sanitising policy for staff, ensuring they are empowered to keep their own equipment clean
Social distancing measures and one-way systems
To avoid transmission of the virus through respiratory droplets generated through coughing and sneezing, a system of social distancing is necessary within the workplace.
The government advice is to stay at least 2 metres apart, or 1 metre with a face covering or other precautions in place. So, depending on the number of staff in the workplace and the size of the premises, you may need to make adjustments to allow for social distancing.
Creating a social distancing plan
Where possible, the government advice states that employees should work from home if able. However, this won’t be possible for every business and employee, so it’s important to have a clearly defined social distancing plan for staff returning to work.
The specifics of your business’s social distancing plan will vary depending on the size of your workplace and the number of employees expected to work there.
But there are some essential factors to consider including:
- Ensuring a minimum 2-metre distance can be kept between employees
- Avoiding small and large gatherings by hosting meetings over the phone or with video conferencing platforms
- Staggering breaks and work patterns if you have a large workforce to avoid your workforce crowding at entrances, exits and communal areas
- Limiting the number of customers inside the workplace at any time
- Eliminating ‘hot-desking’ and allocating desk space to staff to ensure minimum cross-contamination of workspaces
- Rearranging desk areas and workspaces to ensure 2-metre distances are maintained
- Transferring paperwork including invoices and delivery notes via digital methods to avoid contact
- Facilitating contactless payment methods such as contactless card terminals or pre-payment via online banking where possible
Social distancing within offices
Where staff are likely to spend long periods of time in close proximity to one another, such as the desk areas of an office, social distancing measures will need to be implemented to reduce the possibility of transmission of the virus.
Specific office-based social distancing adjustments can include:
- Reducing the number of staff present
- Designating a one-way system for foot traffic
- Installing shields or screens where appropriate e.g. at reception areas
- Varying start and finish times to avoid congestion at entrances and exits
- Prohibiting shared use of small spaces
- Hosting meetings via digital methods e.g. video conferencing
- Minimising face-to-face meetings
- Eliminating shared desks and specifying seating arrangements for employees
- Re-designing spaces to increase the distance between desks
- Adding panels between desks where necessary
- Enforcing stringent cleaning protocols for shared spaces
- Reducing the capacity of spaces e.g. removing chairs from large conference rooms
Cleaning and sanitising stations
Alongside social distancing measures, it’s important to provide access to cleaning and sanitising facilities at regular points throughout the workplace.
It’s essential that employees are able to have access to disinfectant materials such as disinfectant spray and disposable cloths for cleaning workspaces, touchpoints and other surfaces as and when needed.
As well as this, hand washing or sanitising stations need to be made available to staff and visitors throughout the workplace. Hand sanitiser should contain a minimum of 60% alcohol to be effective at killing the virus and other bacteria.
Cleaning and hand sanitising stations should be positioned near:
- Entrances and exits
- Desk areas
- Communal spaces such as kitchens
- Toilets and locker rooms
Controlling access to the workplace
Whether you operate an office, warehouse or other workplace, you’re likely to have visitors coming to your place of work regularly.
But, during COVID-19, to reduce the risk of your staff being exposed to the virus, you should try to limit the number of people coming to your premises by only allowing business-critical visitors and contractors access.
Business-critical visitors may include:
- People delivering or collecting goods necessary for the business to function
- Contractors undertaking statutory repairs and services such as fire systems maintenance, LOLER (Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998) Thorough Examination and inspections
- Contractors completing emergency maintenance works
- Customers purchasing goods in a retail environment
Where business-essential visitors must enter the workplace, additional measures may need to be implemented such as rearranging lobby and reception areas to allow for social distancing.
Where workplaces regularly receive deliveries and collections, additional measures must be implemented to ensure that staff and visitors are safe. Increased regular cleaning of drop off and pick up points as well as disinfecting equipment will help to reduce potential virus transmission.
Further safety measures can also be implemented such as using protective gloves and masks and reducing direct contact with the delivery vehicle drivers.
For Public-Facing Employees
If you operate a retail business or another public-facing workplace, additional measures will be required to protect your public-facing employees and customers.
To ensure social distancing can be adhered to, you may need to limit the number of customers allowed to enter the premisses at any one time. Alongside this, it may be necessary to create a one-way system throughout the premises and use floor markings to outline social distancing markers around high traffic areas such as checkouts.
To reduce employee exposure to the virus, it is recommended businesses install transparent plexiglass or plastic shielding screens at points of contact with customers such as kiosks.
Getting staff ready
Whether staff have been furloughed or have been working from home during the pandemic, it’s natural that they may experience some anxiety or unease about returning to the workplace.
The best way to ensure everyone feels comfortable and confident to return to work following the lockdown is to have clearly defined procedures and protocols in place and to communicate these effectively.
Preparing The Workforce
Once you have prepared your business’s premises and created procedures and protocols for staff returning to the workplace, you need to prepare your staff and inform them of their responsibilities when returning to work.
Where possible, the government advice is still to work from home, however, that isn’t always practical. So, one of the first things you need to do when preparing your employees for a return to work is to decide who will return and when.
Exactly how you do this will depend on your business’s needs, but you should consider the following when deciding:
- Your business’s needs regarding who needs to return first e.g. managers first, employees second etc
- Which employees, if any, are considered vulnerable or extremely vulnerable, including considering any individuals they live with
- Which employees are able to continue working at home and which need to return to the workplace
The outcomes of these considerations will form the basis of your return to work plan. This plan needs to be communicated to all staff members even if they are not yet included in the employees returning to the workplace. You should document your plan and make it accessible to all employees either physically in the workplace or as a digital document.
For employees continuing to shield from COVID-19 or work from home for any other reason, continued support should be provided to ensure their ongoing wellbeing.
Your return to work plan
The COVID-19 situation is constantly developing and evolving, therefore your business’s approach to working must be flexible to accommodate any changes to government guidance. The best way to work safely during COVID-19 is to continually stay informed of developments and changes to the government advice and adjust your business’s approach in response.
Creating a long-term, mid-term and short-term plan that can be amended and adjusted as needed is the best way to prepare to safely bring staff back to the workplace during COVID-19.
Short-term, immediate changes
When you decide to reopen your workplace, before you bring staff back in, you need to review and prepare your workplace’s facilities to make it COVID-19 safe for staff and visitors.
On day one of your staff returning to work, you need to outline the procedures and protocols that will form their new working habits. This will be a challenging time for your employees as they learn new routines and adjust to the ‘new normal’.
Clear signage and communication of the new procedures will make these changes easier to remember and enforce.
When staff have returned to the workplace and adjusted to the new ways of working, it’s important to take time to objectively review the systems in place.
Regularly testing and re-evaluating your plans to ensure they are effective and are being followed will ensure that your staff are continually working in the most COVID-safe way possible.
Take time to plan for the long-term, no one knows how long COVID-19 will be a part of our lives and it’s important to be prepared for all eventualities.
Think about the provisions and protocols you’ve put in place in your business, assess things such as:
- Are systems sustainable if all employees return to work?
- What happens if you begin to accept visitors back into the workplace?
- What will happen if the workplace is contaminated?
- What will the business do if several waves of infection occur?
Reducing anxiety and communicating essential information
This is an unsettling and unprecedented time for everyone, therefore some level of anxiety from your employees about returning to work is to be expected.
It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that all staff are comfortable and feel supported to return to work. The best way to reduce anxiety about coming back into the workplace is to clearly and effectively communicate your business’s protocols and plans surrounding the workplace during COVID-19.
All staff should be made aware of the changes to the workplace before they return to work. Holding a virtual staff meeting or speaking to employees individually to inform them of the new protocols and procedures for staying safe in the workplace during COVID-19 will ensure that everyone has all the information they need.
Once your employees have returned to work, it’s important that they have access to the information about your workplace’s cleaning procedures and social distancing plans as and when they need it.
Creating posters and other visual reminders of your business’s policies and placing these throughout the workplace will ensure that all staff are regularly reminded of the systems they need to follow.
The information displayed should include:
- Handwashing guidelines
- Social distancing protocols
- How to spot the symptoms of COVID-19
Where you have enforced a one-way system or other measures on foot-traffic, this should be outlined with signage and clearly visible tape on floors.
A breakthrough is being made regarding lighting that could potentially kill the coronavirus off in mere seconds.
Lamps are being tested and produced by a company called Signify. While it is still early days, these UV-C lamps are undergoing testing and have been since July 2020.
UV-C is one of three types of UV ray that we get from the sun. It is usually harmful to humans, but thankfully, we have an ozone layer to protect us from it.
Although lamps are already available on the market, they are of a very low dose and may take considerably longer to inactivate the virus. Other factors may also cause an issue with killing off the virus, such as dust, soil or any other form of covering.
The FDA produced an article in Feb 2021 outlining the issues.
- Direct exposure: UVC radiation can only inactivate a virus if it is directly exposed to the radiation. Therefore, the inactivation of viruses on surfaces may not be effective due to blocking of the UV radiation by soil, such as dust, or other contaminants such as bodily fluids.
- Dose and duration: Many of the UVC lamps sold for home use are of low dose, so it may take longer exposure to a given surface area to potentially provide effective inactivation of a bacteria or virus.
However, the idea that there could potentially be a way to simply use a regular lighting system to inactivate the virus is inspiring indeed. Keep your eyes peeled for updates.
Staying safe and slowing the spread of COVID-19 is everybody’s responsibility at all levels of the workforce. Everyone has their role to play within the work environment and outside of it to keep each other safe from the virus.
Having clear protocols in place and communicating these calmly and effectively is the best way to ensure that your workplace reopens in a safe and COVID-secure manner. If you are in doubt about anything to do with reopening your workplace, consult the latest government advice.