How can HR encourage staff to socially distance when back at work?

30 Jul 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

Experts offer tips on keeping employees safe when they return from 1 August, including on what to do if someone won’t follow the rules

From the beginning of August it will be the responsibility of employers to decide whether employees can safely return to the office. Social distancing will be an important part of keeping staff safe, but adhering to the rules can be difficult. Employees returning to the workplace may find themselves drifting back to old habits.

Carrying out a Covid-19 risk assessment is the first step to putting minds at ease, but how can organisations encourage workers to stick to the rules, and what actions can be taken against repeat offenders? People Management asked employment lawyers and HR professionals for their top tips on encouraging and enforcing social distancing in the workplace.

Clearly set out and communicate the rules

It might seem an obvious point, but if you don’t have a set of clear rules and communicate them, it is unlikely they will be followed – and some might overlook this first basic step. “Be really transparent and open about what the rules in the workplace are, and where they are derived from, whether from government guidance or from going over and above the guidance perhaps at organisational discretion,” says Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR. “If these rules have been developed in conjunction with employees, as they ought to be, then the vast majority will abide by them,” he adds. 

Set constant, but creative, reminders

Nudge theory could be a good tactic here, according to HR consultant and coach Gemma Bullivant. The idea is to create small visual cues and reminders to encourage positive decisions. “These cues might be visual, like arrows on the floor, stickers to show where to stand and/or highly visible hand sanitiser stations,” says Bullivant. “Or cues could take the form of regular informal messaging – reframing some of the requirements to be more 'fun' than required, so sharing socially distanced team selfies, for example, to reinforce that the rules are a necessary part of everyday life.”

Employers might also consider gamification to encourage compliance. Cookson suggests praise from managers and peers should be encouraged, to let staff know it is noticed when they do stick to the rules: “This approach may lend itself very well to some gamification in the workplace; for example, recognition for abiding by the rules gives points on a corporate leaderboard with eligibility for prizes, etc.” 

Have a consistent message that comes from the top

Crafting and sharing a consistent message that filters down from senior leaders through all managers and supervisors to their teams is essential, says Liz Beck, chief executive and coach at AspiringHR. “You should schedule ‘prompt’ messages at regular intervals. It might be wise to consider the use of automated alarms on PCs/iPads or tannoys in large logistics/manufacturing workspaces. Alternatively you could create group WhatsApp messages, or use group voicemail or collaboration tools such as Slack or Teams.”

Make sure your disciplinary policy is up to date

Given the serious implications for all parties, employers are within their rights to launch disciplinary proceedings against employees who break social distancing rules, reminds Barry Ross, director at Crossland Employment Solicitors. “As employers, it is important to ensure that all employees understand that disciplinary sanctions can and will be issued for breach of the rules and that, depending on the severity, it could be considered as seriously as gross misconduct and result in the termination of employment without notice,” he says.

As such it is wise to update your policy to cover whether certain breaches count as misconduct or gross misconduct, says Cookson: “You should also look at whether existing clauses in the policy are widely worded enough to cover this. But it's likely that one-offs, or first offences, are accidental and a quiet word may well suffice.”

Survey your staff to ensure no one is excluded

A risk assessment-style survey of your employees can help determine whether anyone is unable to abide by social distancing. Members of staff could have physical or mental health impairments that require assistance by way of adjustment. “In that instance, conduct a specific risk assessment where a dependant and a companion may be assessed in a ‘bubble’ and amend the process to accommodate the pairing,” says Beck.

Kirsty Rogers, employment partner at DWF, says a rota system could also help avoid feelings of exclusion, as long as proper communication is maintained by the employer. “It may be helpful to invite people who want, need or can suitably work from home, to confirm their preference,” says Rogers. “Regular reviews and offers to enable a return where possible should be held, but employers should remember that their duties in relation to care and a safe place of work extend to time at home and this includes the mental wellbeing of employees.” 

Be mindful of existing health and safety rules

Employers already have a general duty to protect their employees under existing legislation. “Employees have specific protection in relation to their health and safety under the Employment Rights Act. If employees do not comply with the rules, employers may be held liable for breaching these duties,” explains Rogers.

If an employer fails to ensure safety at work, Rogers adds, employees could lodge various employment tribunal claims, which could include accusations of discrimination, whistleblowing and constructive dismissal. Organisations that do not abide by the rules could also face an investigation and a prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive.

“Where breaches of standards are found to have caused an infection, up to and including death, potential criminal charges may also follow,” says Rogers. “Causation will be an issue in most cases but there is no doubt that failing to adopt proper systems and checks on social distancing is likely to lead to a significant variety of claims."

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