How to manage reopening the workplace

To counteract the spread of COVID-19, the UK government initialised country-wide lockdown in March 2020, which will be subject to review going forward. In short, the UK lockdown will eventually come to an end and it is important that you plan for a return to normal that helps to better protect the safety of your staff.

Defending against spread of Covid-19

Although specific guidelines on how to reopen workplaces are still awaited, plans for a return to the workplace should now be considered. You should continually refer to the latest public health advice issued by the government as the situation evolves. The public health advice is updated regularly and organisations will need to continue to stay up to date with the government advice.  

It is likely that plans put into place now may need to continue for some time. Although vaccine trials are currently taking place across the world, it is expected that it will take some time, perhaps months, before a vaccine is available to the public.

Remaining vigilant for the symptoms of Covid-19

As staff return to work, the first thing to be aware of is the signs that any of them could potentially be infected or have been exposed to the coronavirus. The following symptoms may develop in the 14 days after exposure to someone who has COVID-19 infection:

  • cough
  • difficulty in breathing
  • fever (38.0° C [100.4° F] or greater using an oral thermometer).

If any member of staff feels they are starting to display these symptoms, they should be encouraged to disclose this as soon as possible.

Minimising close contact

From what is known about other coronaviruses, the spread of COVID-19 is most likely to happen when there is close contact with an infected person. It is likely that the risk increases the longer someone has close contact with an infected person. Respiratory secretions produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes containing the virus are most likely to be the main means of transmission.

There are two main routes by which people can spread COVID-19:

  • infection can be spread to people who are nearby (within 2 metres) or possibly could be inhaled into the lungs
  • it is also possible that someone may become infected by touching a surface, object or the hand of an infected person that has been contaminated with respiratory secretions and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes (such as touching contaminated surfaces (e.g. door knob) or shaking hands then touching own face).

Minimising risk to staff

As staff return, you should aim to have a process for identifying and delivering COVID-19 training requirements.

This can include the following:

  • determine the necessity of COVID-19 competence and training of person(s) doing work under your control
  • ensure that the necessary person(s) receive appropriate COVID-19 training
  • retain appropriate documented information as evidence of competence.

Depending on the skills that exist in your organisation, you may have to provide training to an existing member of staff or hire or contract competent contractors.

Information and training for employees

Employees should receive training on the following:

  • signs and symptoms of COVID-19
  • how COVID-19 is spread
  • cleaning routines and hygiene controls (including respiratory hygiene, cough etiquette
    and handwashing and physical distancing)
  • what to do if an employee or a member of the public becomes unwell and believe they have been exposed to COVID-19
  • when individuals in the workplace have had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19
  • cleaning offices and public spaces where there are suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19
  • rubbish disposal, including tissues
  • travel restrictions
  • restricted movement advice
  • familiarising key staff with the COVID-19 plan
  • cross-training workers and establish covering arrangements to minimise disruptions.

Managing employees who are unwell

Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home if they are well enough to do so or contact the health service if they are acutely unwell. For current information on how long they should self-isolate, and therefore stay away from the workplace, please refer to NHS guidance, which can be found at this link.

Managing employee hygiene

Employee hygiene practices are important to prevent spread of COVID-19. You should put up appropriate signage on your premises and generally communicate government and NHS recommendations to prevent infection spread.

Please note that the below is based on best-practice advice. It may be subject to change when official guidance from the government is released. 

Hand washing: Wash hands properly and regularly and especially:

  • after coughing or sneezing and after toilet use
  • before eating
  • if in contact with a sick person, especially those with respiratory symptoms.

It is important to follow good practices for hand washing which include using soap and water and washing for over 20 seconds. Touching of the face should be avoided. Regular hand washing with soap and water is effective for the removal of COVID-19. Between washing use of hand sanitisers (70 per cent alcohol base) is recommended.

Mouth covering: Employees should cover their mouths when coughing and sneezing and clean the nose and mouth with disposable tissues. If they don’t have a tissue, they should cough or sneeze into their arm or sleeve (not hand), put used tissues into a sealed bin and then wash their hands.

Physical distancing: Introduction of physical distancing measures should be considered across all business types.

This can be achieved in a number of ways and include:

  • keeping a distance of 2 metres (6.5 feet) between employees
  • avoiding making close contact with people (i.e. do not shake hands)
  • setting up screens/barriers at checkouts/desks where possible
  • implementing a queue management system with correct distance markings
  • encouraging use of card payment methods
  • allocating times for collections/appointments/deliveries
  • restricting/staggering the use of canteen facilities (bringing food/drinks to people)
  • removing tables/chairs from the canteen and restricting the number of staff per table
  • ceasing all self-service activities and providing food that is pre-wrapped
  • reducing office density/support staff through working from home or split shift arrangements
  • use of technology for video/virtual meetings
  • limiting the number of meetings including length and proximity of gatherings between employees/others
  • shift handover arrangements should be altered to ensure the appropriate routines are followed for social distancing (maintaining 2 metre distance)
  • altering shift patterns to reduce worker numbers
  • isolating individual buildings (e.g. no travel permitted between manufacturing and design buildings).

Restriction of visitors: A restriction on visitors to your organisation should be put in place. However, where business critical visitors are required to attend the site, a controlled access process should be in place including adherence to sanitisation processes and full personal contact details (e.g. telephone number, last place visited should be collected to assist with contact tracing).

Continuing with remote working

Many organisations across the UK will have put into place temporary homeworking arrangements during this period of time. In order to keep contact between staff down, you should consider if such arrangements could continue for a more long-term/permanent basis. If this is something you wish to consider, a working from home policy and provision of ICT infrastructure/facilities to support working from home should be put in place where practicable.

Restructuring and splitting teams/shifts

The following action will allow your organisation to comply with physical distancing where it is practicable to do so:

  • revision of staffing rosters and splitting of teams to ensure separation of critical personnel in order to limit joint exposure and protecting the business function
  • cross-train, and identify alternative sources of labour to facilitate a full complement of the required skills needed on each team/shift
  • avoid switching of employees from one shift to another
  • implement an ‘air gap’ or delayed shift changeover to accommodate a full cleaning/disinfection of all shared equipment, and reduce unnecessary interactions between different shift personnel
  • minimise the sharing of equipment and/or tools, and
  • identify and suspend all non-essential operations which do not directly impact business functionality.

Communicating with suppliers, customers and other stakeholders

Identify essential suppliers and service providers and discuss continuity issues with them such as understanding their business continuity plans. Identify essential customers and ensure that plans are in place to meet customer needs. Develop a plan on how and when to activate alternative suppliers and/or alternative delivery means to customers. Identify stakeholders in your local network and share best practice concerning defence against COVID-19.

Communicating with employees

You should ensure all managers and staff are familiar with company policies and relevant legislation including:

  • absence
  • sick leave
  • lay-off and short time working
  • discipline.

Managers must be prepared to deal with these issues as they arise, and employees need to be clear about what is required.

Business analysis and risk assessment

Business analysis enables the organisation to assess the impact that disruption of activities would have on the delivery of its products and services. This enables the organisation to prioritise the resumption of activities.

A risk assessment enables the organisation to assess the risks of prioritised activities being disrupted so that it can take appropriate action to address these risks. Understanding the risks of disruption to these prioritised activities enables the organisation to manage them.

It is for the you to determine the thresholds of impact that are unacceptable to the organisation, i.e. number of confirmed cases as a proportion of the total number of employees and how it will impact the business continuity of the organisation.

Ongoing government advice and directives should be closely monitored, which will ultimately have an impact on the organisation’s continuity plan. In the event of one or more cases, NHS advice should also be taken into account during the decision making.

Managing absence management

It is important to review, communicate and formally implement the absence and sick leave policies in place in the organisation. In advance of any potential increase in absence, it is essential that all employees are fully familiar with policy requirements, particularly around what constitutes acceptable reasons for absence, the notification and certification requirements and the social welfare procedures.

It is important that you follow through with your policies and are consistent. The first absence in an unusual situation such as the potential exposure to COVID-19, may initially be dealt with on an ad hoc basis which may set an undesirable or unsustainable precedent should absence levels suddenly escalate.

You need to consider the effect that significant employee absences would have on your workplace.

Various types of absence need to be considered as it is possible that:

  • several employees may contract a virus
  • employees may have family members who require care
  • there may be a fear factor, where employees consider absenting themselves for fear of contracting a virus.

Employees who have travelled to areas affected by COVID-19 and employees who have been in contact with individuals who have COVID-19 or indeed any virus of special concern should follow NHS guidance for advice in the first instance and then notify the organisation before attending for work.

Check on employees’ health by phone or email during their absence from work.

If an employee is absent due to a fear of contracting the virus you must consider the risks and consider whether the employee is a vulnerable employee. Where there is no increased risk for the employee, you can request them to attend work. An employee who continues to be absent from work in these circumstances may be subject to disciplinary action for unauthorised absence.

At some point, based on public health advice, certain aspects of company policy and procedure may require adjustment in accordance with the situation as it evolves. Therefore, it is important to keep the policy under review and to communicate clearly any changes.

Cleaning of communal areas

If an employee who has tested positive has spent time in a communal area or they used the toilet or bathroom facilities, then these areas should be cleaned with household detergent followed by a disinfectant (as outlined above) as soon as is practicably possible.

Pay special attention to frequently touched sites including door handles, backs of chairs, taps of washbasins, toilet handles. Once cleaning and disinfection have been completed and all surfaces are completely dry, the area can be put back into use.

Current evidence suggests that novel coronavirus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials. Cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in community settings.

Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas and follow the directions on the label.

No additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning is recommended at this time.

Safety and welfare during recovery

Special attention should be paid to any groups with physical and learning disabilities or other specific needs (e.g. pregnancy, temporary disability due to injury). Planning in advance to meet these requirements can reduce risk and reassure those affected. The long-term impacts of incidents should not be underestimated.

You should develop appropriate solutions, including consideration of relevant social and cultural issues, to promote employee safety and wellbeing within the organisation.

« Back to News