What are the government's new rules for reopening workplaces – and will they work?

4 May 2020 By Siobhan Palmer

People Management asks HR and employment law experts about the feasibility of draft proposals for keeping staff safe as they return

The government has drafted initial guidance on how UK companies can reopen their workplaces and gradually exit lockdown. A draft document seen by the BBC includes a range of guidelines for businesses to follow, covering additional health and safety and wellbeing requirements. 

Michael Gove, cabinet office secretary, said on Sunday (3 May) that any exit of lockdown measures would be “staged” and not a single “flick of the switch”. The government has circulated the draft guidance to business groups and unions before publishing its official final set of guidelines. 

So what do HR and employment experts make of the proposed guidelines and how feasible they’re likely to be in practice?

Maintaining social distancing where possible

The guidance states workplaces should keep employees socially distanced – and so two metres apart – from each other wherever possible. But it noted that where this isn’t possible, other measures should be taken to minimise risk, including additional hygiene procedures, physical screens and the use of protective equipment. This is similar to the guidance currently in place for workplaces remaining open during lockdown. Other measures could include curtailing hot desking, keeping staff canteens closed and limiting the number of workers allowed in lifts at any one time. 

Following unions and business groups being sent the draft guidance to review, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, has written to business secretary Alok Sharma criticising the lack of clarity in the guidelines – in particular, the fact they leave appropriate distancing of workers to employers’ discretion. “At present, this guidance fails to provide clear direction to those employers who want to act responsibly, and is an open goal to the worst of employers who want to return to business at usual,” the letter, seen by the Guardian, said. 

Regarding extra hygiene and cleaning measures where sufficient physical separation is not possible, Gary Cookson, director at Epic HR, pointed out these had already been rolled out at many workplaces. “Many organisations implemented additional hygiene and deep cleaning measures in the weeks leading up to lockdown,” he noted. “It didn’t stop the virus from spreading at that time, and it’s difficult to see that it would, on its own, do that again.

“However it is a sensible measure to use in conjunction with others and is reasonably practical to do for most organisations,” he added. 

Greater use of PPE

Despite use of protective equipment being cited as an alternative to two-metre distancing where this is not possible, the section in the guidance on personal protective equipment (PPE) is currently empty and awaiting “more detail”, which the government promised would follow. Julian Cox, head of the London employment team at law firm BLM, said this raised a number of questions. “The first thing we need is some clarification as to the use of masks,” he said, noting that the government currently does not state that masks and gloves are necessary in particular workplaces. 

“There's going to be a cost,” he added. “Where does responsibility lie? Are we asking employees to provide this? If it's going to be the employer responsible for providing masks and gloves where appropriate, then there's going to be a cost to them”. 

Cox also said any requirements around PPE carried an “inherent tension” between different sectors. “Obviously the healthcare sector needs [protective equipment] and we don't want to fight for resources when everyone is under resourced,” he said. 

Putting vulnerable workers in the ‘safest possible roles’

The draft guidance says employees considered at heightened risk from Covid-19, such as pregnant women, those over 70 and people with certain underlying health conditions, should be placed in the “safest possible roles” if they can’t work from home. 

This suggested “there is an obligation on employers not just to put them back into the same role, but [to look] within the organisation for an alternative role,” said Cox. “If there's any change in their role then that's going to require consultation with the employee,” he added. 

Cox said in such circumstances employers would need to be mindful of their employees’ rights – both in terms of health and safety legislation, and under their employment contracts and the Equality Act. Any changes to a worker’s salary, working hours or status as a result of this measure would need prior consultation and agreement before the changes were enforced, he warned. 

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, agreed employers would need to tread carefully when implementing such a measure. “Employers will still need to be acting reasonably and also meeting their duty of care to their employees, so that balance is going to be a critical one,” he said. 

Reducing pressure on public transport

The plans included a range of measures for workplaces to adopt that would support the safe use of public transport. These included staggering shift times to avoid rush hour peaks; encouraging employees to walk or cycle to work where possible; and even increasing parking capacity to discourage staff from lift sharing.

But this would only be possible in certain workplaces and would depend on the parking space and restrictions of each individual employer, Willmott noted. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach,” he said. “Employers’ responses will have to be sector, size and context specific. One of the challenges is that employers will have to look at how they will apply these guidelines in their particular context.”

Cookson also said staggered shifts would be an essential measure to prevent too many staff being in the workplace at once, but that it should be used alongside, not instead of, remote working. 

He added that a lot of coordination would be needed, particularly in relation to workers with caring responsibilities. “What if your workplace’s staggered shifts and your child’s school’s staggered hours are completely incompatible?” he asked. “Allowing people to ‘book’ time in the office, and limiting numbers who can, may be the way forward here where practical.”

Producing a coronavirus risk assessment

According to the draft plans, all employers will need to carry out a coronavirus-specific risk assessment before bringing employees back into the workplace. Louise Hosking, vice president of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), said such practices would be “critical”. 

“These risk assessments need to determine measures based on a hierarchy of risk control in the same manner businesses assess other hazards in the workplace,” she said, adding that producing such assessments would require collaboration across organisations, with HR, finance, unions and staff all working with health and safety professionals to produce this documentation. 

Monitoring staff wellbeing for those continuing to work from home

While many staff will be brought back into the office, those with the ability to do so will still be encouraged to work from home, with employers encouraged to monitor their mental and physical health. The wording of the guidance suggested office workers would not be returning to work for many weeks – or even months – to come, according to the BBC.

Willmott highlighted that employee relations would be key in all workplaces as lockdown was eased, noting that how managers work with individuals would be especially important. “The sorts of behaviours that are going to be critically important are exhibit[ing] empathy, listen[ing] to staff, [and providing] support and flexibility,” he said.  

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