Real Employment Law Advice

Return to the office after lockdown

So, after 17 weeks working from home, I have returned to working in the office.

I loaded up my car with the files, folders, computer, pens, papers, staplers and my hole puncher I had brought home all those weeks ago, and after dropping my wife at work, instead of driving straight home for a coffee, I turned and headed to the office.

The lockdown is gradually easing, and many are returning to work. However, the Government have sent mixed messages about whether employers should be encouraging their staff to return to the office, or if working from home is still the preferred option to minimise a second wave. What is clearer is that employers are having more discretion to make decisions about how their staff can work safely.

As a business, we thought it would be helpful (all round) for staff to come back into the office and so I thought I would set out my experience of the first week back.

Day 1

I am reminded about going back to school after the long summer holidays, feeling a mix of apprehension and eagerness. I was interested to see what measures were in place and how this would impact my normal day to day tasks, and whether coming back to the office would just be more trouble than it was worth.

My employer had already circulated a video to describe how to see visitors in our office, while complying with the social distancing guidelines, and our weekly team meetings and daily phone calls while working remotely, had given me information about some of the obvious adjustments we would have in place at the office. For all employers, consistent communication is essential.

I got to the office and on the front door was a notice to visitors that we are open for business as usual, but that walk-in visitors were not currently being allowed. It is vital to remember that while you are working, there are still people who need your services and each one is a potential customer, which are even more priceless in these times. I have seen countless automatic email responses simply saying, ‘sorry we are closed due to a pandemic, thanks for your email’. This is not helpful or appropriate.

A bit of good old-fashioned health and safety awaited me as I walked in. We have posters on the front door, kitchen door, toilet door, and over the sinks about how to wash your hands correctly. I also had to sign a declaration regarding whether I had had any symptoms and helpfully, I was also asked if I understood the symptoms of the virus – which I think I do, or at least as much as everyone else!

There is also, printed off and signed, the Covid secure poster for all staff and visitors to see which is reassuring. This is available here:

We have moved our desks around and into different rooms so we can keep 1-2m apart and as we currently reside in an old building, we do not have double glazing so there is always a breeze of fresh air!

Dotted around every available workspace are tissues; wipes; hand gel and sanitiser, which is great, although you have to explain why the room smells of alcohol all day!

In the good old days, we would make a coffee or tea for each other or bring in treats; but no longer, as this is prohibited to minimise the risk of spreading the infection. I am sure my colleagues would not lick the mug or spoon on purpose, and I can just about make my own instant coffee.

Day 2

Today I had my first face to face, in person appointment with a customer in 17-weeks. It was at a country pub and I could see as I walked in the various measures, they had put in place to protect their staff and their own customers. It has been great to see them adapt and get on with reopening for business and thankfully, gaining the trust and confidence of their staff and customers that it is as safe as possible.

Upon returning to the office, I cleaned my hands using the sanitiser by the door, added my visit to the spreadsheet of 3rd party visitors that we have created.

This is essential for employers to do for any visitors to the office, or 3rd parties your staff might visit. This is essential to help any track and trace system should one develop symptoms and for many businesses such as pubs and restaurants, a requirement for opening.

Day 3

Today I visited another business customer and followed the same process as the day before when I returned. This business had imposed a one-way system around its premises, and I felt perfectly safe being there and visiting customers again.

I can already feel myself sliding back into the rhythm of things, getting the routine back, and importantly, that none of the measures in place really impact on my productivity, efficiency, or ability to provide the services we do.

Day 4

I have realised that I have gone out at lunch and purchased a sandwich everyday so far this week. I have failed to bring my own lunch which is a huge surprise as I had enjoyed being able to make something while working from home.

My wallet has not been impressed, neither has my waistline, but I think this is certainly part of what Boris Johnson wanted when he has asked for employers to get back into the office – to make sure the town centres will be busier at lunch times. 

Day 5

At the end of the week, I am still happy to be back in the office. Although it is strange seeing people in the office but not really interacting with them as we used to do in the staff kitchen or by going into their office, this first week back is another important step back to, at the very least something familiar.

It has been a successful week and as far as I am concerned, a safe one. I appreciated the flexibility that working from home can give, but I appreciate more not having to look at my dining table with my work computer, papers and phone on it, and being able to say “that’s the end of the day now” as I walk out of the office and back home.

With a bit of planning and empathy, the continued distancing guidelines can be worked around and can give the confidence for staff to return. I was not particularly concerned, but many people quite reasonably, are, but at this time, more than ever, every little can help rebuild that confidence and reduce the anxiety so your staff can return happy and efficient.

So, based on my experience this week, for employers who are looking at bringing staff back – what should you be doing?

  1. Make sure you keep up to date and review any automatic email responses, voice mail greetings, opening times and notices on your office entrances for customers.
  2. Make sure you have the covid secure poster visible to your staff (and not in the mangers desk drawer!)
  3. Produce a video to send to staff in advance showing a walk-through of the office for staff so that can see the measures you have implemented in practice. This is much easier and more understandable than a wordy policy.
  4. There is no prescribed form for notices/warnings/measures, so think creatively and specifically to your place of work.
  5. Make posters and notices simple and easy to understand – images are often better than words.
  6. Bring in flowers and plants to brighten the workplace and maybe improve air quality – positive energy and mood will be vital during this recovery time.
  7. Budget for cleaning products or the need to get 2 (or more) of office equipment so that people do not have to share
  8. If you are concerned about staff going into a busier town centre, think about arranging for a mobile sandwich van to visit, or invest in better kitchen equipment so that staff can bring their own food for lunch avoiding the need to go out.
  9. Sign up to cycle schemes to reduce public transport use.
  10. Keep flexibility and empathy at the heart of what you do.
  11. Only bring back the staff you need and prepare for some staff to stay at home.
  12. Ramp up your digital hygiene – focus on getting your company computers cleaned up.
  13. Manage expectations of those returning, and yours of them, and communicate this to your staff.
  14. Do not discard the methods of work you adopted while at home or during the lockdown entirely now you are back. Many will be helpful even if you return.
  15. Talk with your staff and do not stop communicating now you are in the same office as them – their confidence and trust that you take their safety seriously is perhaps more important than the actual measures.
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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

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