Will office staff be required to wear face coverings – and would this work?

15 Jul 2020 By Jessica Brown

People Management explores some key questions on the possibility of mandatory mask wearing being extended to desk-based employees

In something of a surprise U-turn, the government announced yesterday (14 July) that it will be mandatory to wear a face mask in shops in England after 24 July, prompting much furore over whether shop workers could reasonably be expected to help the police enforce this.

At the same time, Downing Street said it would keep the guidance on face coverings in other settings, such as offices, under review, with conflicting messages from different ministers on this then ensuing.

So just how likely is it that the government will mandate mask wearing in the office? And what would be the effect on the timescale in which desk-based workers are likely to return to their workplaces? People Management finds out...

Is it looking likely that office workers will need to wear masks?

Health secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News the government has no plans to make people wear face coverings in offices. However, environment secretary George Eustice said he hadn't ruled out the idea of telling people to cover their faces in offices and other workplaces, according to The Telegraph. 

The most up-to-date government guidance states that everyone should still work from home where possible, and that the evidence of the benefit of using a face covering to protect others is weak.

However, the government’s position on face mask wearing has radically, and in some instances rapidly, changed over the course of the crisis, particularly in relation to retail settings. In the early days of the pandemic, the government insisted there was no, or weak, evidence that masks worked, while privately scrambling to source enough of them for health and social care workers. This was followed by their mandatory introduction on public transport, but in no other settings. 

Regarding shops, cabinet minister Michael Gove remarked as recently as the weekend that wearing face coverings in shops was “basic good manners” but not an appropriate area for legislation – which was swiftly followed by the announcement that they would be compulsory in stores from the end of July.

But Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, is still sceptical, highlighting that "there's no indication yet that the government will change its guidance on face coverings for offices”.

She adds that ”current guidance makes clear one could be marginally beneficial as a precautionary measure in terms of protecting others, but wearing one is not a replacement for other ways of managing risk of Covid-19 infection at work”.

What would the benefits be?

Rachel McCloy, associate professor in applied behavioural science at the University of Reading, says wearing face masks could help efforts to reopen offices – something government is reportedly very keen to make headway on to preserve the economic prosperity of city centres, with reports that Johnson is expected to announce a 'roadmap' for getting people back to offices as soon as this week. 

“Wearing masks in situations where we cannot easily adhere to strict social distancing may help businesses reduce social distancing from two metres to one metre, making the prospect of reopening more realistic,” she says. 

What would the drawbacks be?

“Mask wearing at work is likely to be more uncomfortable for people than it is for shorter periods while shopping or on public transport, and can impact on social interactions, as facial expressions are less easy to read and conversations may be harder to follow,” McCloy says.

It would also pose a challenge for HR, as whether it’s reasonable to make someone wear a mask in the office would be easily challenged by employees and there’s nothing in employment law to help employers enforce this, adds Ed Griffin, HR director of consultancy and research at the Institute for Employment Studies. 

With an inevitable expectation on employers to provide masks rather than assume employees will buy their own if this is mandated, this could also be financially burdensome for many companies at a time when they need to reduce costs, Griffin adds. “Reducing cost could be critical to survival, and if more things have to be bought that’s prohibitive. For a large office with hundreds of people, if they provide two or three masks to each employee per day the costs quickly escalate dramatically,” he says. 

There will also be issues to overcome regarding enforcement, particularly where employers share a building with others. “In shared buildings, who’s responsible for enforcement? The poor person on the reception desk? And lifts are incredibly difficult to use because, in theory, they should be cleaned after every use,” says Griffin.

What would employers need to consider to make this work?

Of course none of these drawbacks necessarily mean the government won’t eventually enforce this if it’s deemed necessary to get people back to offices safely. Experts agree that employers making a success of such a policy will depend on how it is implemented. 

Workplaces would need to determine who is responsible in each workplace for ensuring this is rolled out, what standard of mask an employer will be providing, how many masks will be issued to individual staff per day and where masks will be disposed of, says Griffin.

“Specifics around this will be incredibly important in terms of adherence,” Griffin says. “Including the use of telephones – my guess is that this will be an issue.”

Would such a policy speed up or delay office workers returning to work?

With current guidance still that staff should work from home if they can, many employers are reportedly reluctant to return employees to the office in a way that would contravene official government guidance. Indeed, many have said staff will be working from home until at least the end of the year, while others – such as Twitter and Shopify – have made bold statements around staff being allowed to work from home potentially forever now that home working has been proved to be such a success.

But Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London, argues that the introduction of face masks in the workplace will in fact incentivise workers to return. “One thing putting people off going back to work is the feeling that the world outside their home isn’t safe. If masks help give people a greater sense of safety, I expect it may encourage rather than discourage employees from returning,” he says. 

“One thing we are learning during this crisis is that, on the whole, people are quite good at working out how to get the same things done but in different ways. It’s bound to feel strange to begin with, but the strangeness soon wears off and we just get on with it.”

However, others feel mandatory face mask wearing could be yet another reason putting employers off returning staff to offices any time soon. Why after all suffer uncomfortably in a mask all day, with colleagues unable to take advantage of true in-person interaction because they can’t properly see your facial expressions, when you could conduct even face-to-face meetings quite happily, and in fact more effectively, via Zoom? 

McCloy says the positives of coming together in an office will need to outweigh such inconveniences if mask wearing isn’t to deter office workers returning even further – with careful thought needed on this from employers.

“Whether it impacts on a return to work will depend on there being other positive benefits to working from the office as opposed to more remote working,” she says.

What about people who can't wear them?

Concerns are also being raised around those for whom wearing a face mask is difficult or impossible, including people with disabilities or mental illness. For example, face masks can be a real challenge for people who lip read, Griffin says – although there are some versions of masks appearing that have clear plastic windows where the mouth is so people can see lip movements. “But I don’t know how clear they are – there’s certainly still an issue there,” he says. 

“Some people will say they’re unable to wear face masks all day. People will potentially feel claustrophobic, whereas for others it will become the norm.” 

And for people who are clinically more vulnerable to Covid-19, there is still uncertainty around infections in the air, he adds, and not enough clarity on the extent to which infected droplets stay in the air after someone coughs or sneezes. 

“There’s still not enough clarity for some people in terms of what equates to acceptable risk; science hasn’t told us yet what the levels of risk are,” Griffin says. 

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