Last reviewed 13 July 2020

As Britain returns to work, the Government continues to update its suite of guidance to help employers, workers and the self-employed work safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Vicky Powell looks at some of the key points for working safely in offices, contact centres and similar working spaces.

The 5 main principles

As a starting point, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the Government’s new guidance for employers across multiple workplace settings. This is based on five safe working principles, to help businesses get up and running and British workers safely back to work during the coronavirus pandemic.

  1. Carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment in line with the HSE guidance, while consulting with your workers or trade unions and sharing the results of the risk assessment with your workforce and on your website.

  2. Develop cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures by increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface washing, using the NHS guidance as well as encouraging people to follow the guidance, providing hand sanitiser, arranging for frequent and enhanced cleaning and disinfecting objects, surfaces and busy areas, setting guidance for use and cleaning of toilets and providing hand drying facilities — either paper towels or electrical dryers.

  3. Workers should go back to work, if they can, based on a recent statement by the PM. However, the guidance continues to emphasise that employers should help people to work from home, presumably where appropriate, by discussing homeworking arrangements, ensuring they have the right equipment, including them in all necessary communications and looking after their physical and mental wellbeing.

  4. Maintain social distancing between people. Updated guidance on social distancing requires people, ideally, to stay 2m (6ft) apart but if this is not possible to stay “1m-plus” apart, using risk mitigation measures such as face coverings and not sitting face to face. In addition, office managers should put up signs as reminders and staff should avoid sharing workstations, using floor tape or paint to mark areas to help people socially distance as well as arranging one-way traffic through the workplace if possible and switching to seeing visitors by appointment only if possible.

  5. Therefore, where people cannot be 2m apart, employers should manage transmission risk by considering:

    1. whether an activity needs to continue for the business to operate

    2. keeping the activity time as short as possible

    3. using screens or barriers to separate people

    4. using back-to-back or side-to-side working whenever possible

    5. staggering arrival and departure times

    6. reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using “fixed teams or partnering”.

Employers must follow all instructions from authorities in the event of new local restrictions, such as a local lockdown, for example as in the recent case of Leicester.

Assessing the risks

The Government has been clear that people should not be forced into an unsafe workplace.

It is therefore essential to plan for how to work safely during the Covid-19 pandemic, keeping as many people as possible 2m apart from those they do not live with, or 1m with risk-mitigating measures where 2m is not viable.

In this new climate, employers must make sure that the risk assessment for the business addresses the risks of Covid-19, recognising it is not possible to completely eliminate the risk of the virus.

As always — and this is unchanged during the current crisis — employers have a duty to consult employees on health and safety. Involving staff in making decisions shows that you take their health and safety seriously. You could also consider any advice that has been produced specifically for your sector, eg by trade associations or trades unions.

If you are an employer with fewer than five workers, or are self-employed, you don’t have to write anything down as part of your risk assessment.

Controlling the risks

Employers have a duty to reduce the risks associated with Covid-19 to the lowest reasonably practicable level by taking preventative measures. This means the following.

  • The PM recently told the public, “Go back to work if you can”. Where this is not appropriate, businesses and workplaces should make every reasonable effort to enable working from home.

  • In the office, employers should make every reasonable effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines set out by the Government (keeping people 2m apart wherever possible, or 1m with risk mitigation measures).

  • Where the social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full in relation to a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between their staff.

  • In every workplace, increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning is important. Further mitigating actions include:

    • keeping the activity time involved as short as possible

    • using screens or barriers to separate people from each other

    • using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible

    • reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using “fixed teams or partnering” (so each person works with only a few others).

  • Finally, if people must work face-to-face for a sustained period with more than a small group of fixed partners, then you will need to assess whether the activity can safely go ahead. No one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment.

  • In your assessment, you should have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to Covid-19. See Who should go to work? below.

  • You should ensure that office workers need not shout or unduly raise their voices to each other (so avoid playing music or other broadcasts at a volume that makes normal conversation difficult). This is because of the potential for increased risk of transmission, particularly from aerosol transmission.

  • In terms of mass gatherings, it is against the law to gather in groups of more than 30 people in private homes (including gardens and other outdoor spaces). However, businesses following COVID-19 Secure guidelines can host larger groups.

Sharing the results of your risk assessment

As mentioned above, it is imperative to carry out an assessment of the risks posed by Covid-19 in your workplace as soon as possible. You should also share the results of the risk assessment with your workforce. If possible, consider publishing the results on your website (and all employers with over 50 workers must do this).

Employers should display this notice in the office to show they have followed Government guidance.

Who should go to work?

The PM recently stated that people should go back to work if they can, to support the economy.

  • Employers will need to take steps to protect clinically vulnerable and clinically extremely vulnerable workers. These groups include those with cancer, those aged 70 or over or with certain underlying health conditions as outlined in the Appendix to the latest guidance. Some of these people are strongly advised not to work outside the home whereas others may be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles enabling them to socially distance from others.

  • Another group of office workers to consider is those who need to self-isolate because they have symptoms of Covid-19, live in a household with someone who has symptoms or are in a support bubble with someone who has symptoms as well as those who are advised to self-isolate as part of the Government’s Test and Trace service. Here employers will need to enable staff to work from home while self-isolating if appropriate.

For those working from home, it will be important for employers to monitor their wellbeing and help them stay connected to the rest of the workforce, as well as provide equipment for them to work at home safely and effectively.

Further points about social distancing in the office

Social distancing of 2m wherever possible or 1m with risk-mitigation measures where 2m is not viable, applies to all parts of a business, not just the place where people spend most of their time, but also entrances and exits, travelling between sites, break rooms, canteens and similar settings. These are often the most challenging areas to maintain social distancing.

Here the guidance offers some practical tips including the following.

  • Ensure handwashing on arrival.

  • Use floor tape — eg in lifts and for workstation layouts — to help workers keep apart.

  • Manage occupancy levels and stagger start and end times.

  • Avoid hot desking and where this is not possible, such as in call centres, clean workstations and shared equipment between different occupants.

  • Reduce transmission risks associated with face-to-face meeting by using remote working tools. Hold face-to-face meetings only when absolutely necessary and then use hand sanitiser, well ventilated rooms, avoid pen and equipment sharing and use floor signage or tape on tabletops to help office workers maintain social distancing.

  • Encourage workers to bring their own food or provide packaged meals instead of fully opening staff canteens.

  • In an emergency such as a fire or accident, people do not have to comply with social distancing guidelines if this would be unsafe, but those providing assistance should pay particular attention to sanitation and handwashing immediately after any incident. However, incident and emergency procedures should be reviewed to ensure they reflect social distancing principles as far as possible.

  • Do consider the security implications of any Covid-19 changes, as these could present new or altered security risks that may require mitigation. Organisations which conduct physical searches of people should consider how to ensure safety of those conducting searches while maintaining security standards. See the Government guidance at www.cpni.gov.uk on managing security risks.

  • Office managers will also need to minimise the number of unnecessary visits to the office by customers, visitors and contractors.

  • Cleaning and social distancing guidelines for toilets and washrooms will be important. Organisations could look at blocking outsinks to ensure staff are kept apart when washing hands.

Cleaning the office

The aim is to make sure that any office that has been closed or partially operated is clean and ready to restart. The Government has published guidance on cleaning ordinary, non-healthcare workplaces.

The new guidance for offices emphasises the need for the following.

  • An assessment for all sites, or parts of sites, that have been closed, before restarting work.

  • New cleaning procedures, with frequent cleaning of work areas and equipment between uses and providing hand sanitiser before restarting work.

  • Signs and posters to build awareness of:

    • good handwashing techniques

    • the need to increase handwashing frequency

    • avoiding touching your face

    • coughing or sneezing into a tissue which is then binned safely, or into your arm if a tissue is not available.

  • If you are cleaning the office after a known or suspected case of Covid-19, then you should refer to the specific guidance on this.

Face coverings — still optional in offices

The Department of Health and Social Care recently updated its advice on face coverings. Face coverings are required by law when travelling as a passenger on public transport, such as on trains, buses and metro systems, in England to help reduce the transmission of Covid-19. As of 24 July 2020, face masks will be compulsory in shops and supermarkets, but they remain optional in offices at the time of writing.

However, some people don’t have to wear a face covering, including for health, age or equality reasons; for example those with physical or mental illness or impairments. Face coverings do not need to be worn outdoors, while exercising or in workplaces such as offices.

It’s also important to note that face coverings are not the same as face masks such as surgical masks or respirators. Nor are face coverings the same as the personal protective equipment (PPE) used in industrial settings where dangerous dusts or sprays are present.

The public is being asked not to purchase surgical masks or respirators but leave these for healthcare workers working in environments where the risk is greatest.

Instead the public is encouraged to make face coverings at home, using scarves or other textile items that many will already own.

Therefore, the new guidance on working safely in offices emphasises that face coverings are optional in the office and are not required by law.

If staff do choose to wear a face covering, it is important to use these properly and wash hands before putting them on and taking them off.

Employers should support their workers in using face coverings safely if they choose to wear one. This means communicating the following information to employees.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before putting a face covering on, and after removing it.

  • When wearing a face covering, avoid touching your face or face covering, as you could contaminate them with germs from your hands.

  • Change your face covering if it becomes damp or if you’ve touched it.

  • Continue to wash your hands regularly.

  • Change and wash your face covering daily.

  • If the material is washable, wash in line with manufacturer’s instructions. If it’s not washable, dispose of it carefully in your usual waste.

  • Practise social distancing wherever possible.

Some final points about working safely in offices

  • Arrange work to reduce the number of contacts each employee has (eg where staff are split into teams or shift groups) and fix these teams or shift groups so that where contact is unavoidable, this happens between the same people and there are distinct groups.

  • Employers should also assist the Government’s Test and Trace service by keeping a temporary record of staff shift patterns for 21 days, and assisting NHS Test and Trace with requests for that data if needed. See further information on the NHS Test and Trace service at www.gov.uk.

  • Identify areas where people directly pass things to each other, eg office supplies, and use drop-off points or transfer zones instead.

  • Avoid unnecessary work travel and keep people safe when they do need to travel between locations. Shared vehicles will need to be cleaned between shifts or on handover. Where workers are required to stay away from their home, the stay should be centrally logged, making sure any overnight accommodation meets social distancing guidelines.

  • Communicate: make sure all workers understand Covid-19-related safety procedures in the new style office working environment and keep them up to date with how measures are being implemented or updated.

  • Maintain social distancing and avoid surface transmission when goods enter and leave the site.

What to do in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak in the office

Your risk assessment should include an up-to-date plan in case there is a Covid-19 outbreak. This plan should nominate a single point of contact (SPOC) where possible who should lead on contacting local Public Health teams.

If there is more than one case of Covid-19 associated with your workplace, you should contact your local PHE health protection team to report the suspected outbreak.

You can find your local PHE health protection team at www.gov.uk.

According to Acas at www.acas.org.uk, if someone with coronavirus comes to work, the workplace does not necessarily have to close, but they should follow cleaning advice at www.gov.uk.

Sources of further guidance

The guidance on offices, contact centres and other similar environments, recently published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, will be updated over time — check for updates via this link.

The guidance also lists three ways in which employees can raise concerns about working safely in offices — namely through their employee representative, their trade union (if they have one) or the Health and Safety Executive (via an online enquiry form or by phone: 0300 790 6787).

Of course, many businesses operate more than one type of workplace, such as an office, factory and fleet of vehicles and so employers may need to use more than one of the recently published guides. Further information can also be accessed via the Government’s website.