Last reviewed 10 November 2020

As British employers and workers continue to navigate the Covid-19 crisis, the Government is regularly updating its advice to ensure that employers, workers and the self-employed work safely during the pandemic. Vicky Powell looks at some of the key points for working safely in offices, contact centres and similar working spaces.

Currently, the Government wants all office workers to work from home if they can. Employers should ensure that workplaces are safe for anyone who cannot work from home. Clinically extremely vulnerable people are strongly advised to work from home and if they cannot, the Government states that they should not attend work during the lockdown in England.

The 7 priority actions

The Government has listed the following as priority actions to make office-based workplaces safer during the coronavirus pandemic.

  1. Complete a Covid-19 risk assessment and share it with all your staff.

  2. Clean more often, including surfaces, especially those that are being touched a lot. Ask your staff and your visitors to use hand sanitiser and wash their hands frequently.

  3. Ask your visitors to wear face coverings unless an exemption applies, for example for someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate. Face coverings are especially important if your visitors are likely to be around people they do not normally meet.

  4. Make sure everyone is social distancing and make this easy for everyone to do so by putting up signs or introducing a one-way system that your staff and visitors can follow.

  5. Increase ventilation by keeping doors and windows open where possible and running ventilation systems at all times.

  6. Take part in NHS Test and Trace by keeping a record of all staff and contractors for 21 days. From 18 September 2020, this has been enforced in law although some exemptions at www.gov.uk apply.

  7. Turn people with coronavirus symptoms away from the office — if a staff member (or someone in their household) or a visitor has a persistent cough, a high temperature or has lost their sense of taste or smell, they should be isolating. By law from 28 September 2020, employers must not require someone who is being required to self-isolate to come to work.

Five other points to be aware of, for people who work in or run offices, contact centres and similar indoor environments are as follows.

  1. Work from home if possible — anyone who can work from home should do so over the winter.

  2. Arrange work spaces to keep staff apart. Consider using barriers to separate people and introduce back-to-back or side-by-side working.

  3. Reduce face-to-face meetings. Encourage calls or video conferences to avoid in-person meetings with external contacts, or colleagues outside someone's immediate team, wherever possible.

  4. Reduce crowding. Consider how many people can be in each space while remaining socially distant, and consider using booking systems for desks or rooms. Reduce the maximum occupancy for lifts.

  5. Communicate and train — make sure all staff and visitors are kept up to date with the safety measures.

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.

Failure to complete a risk assessment which takes account of Covid-19, or completing a risk assessment but failing to put in place sufficient measures to manage the risk of Covid-19, could constitute a breach of health and safety law.

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.

  • To help contain the virus, office workers who can work effectively from home should do so over the winter. Where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home they should do so.

  • Government advice is that public sector employees working in essential services, including education settings, should continue to go into work where necessary. Anyone else who cannot work from home should go to their place of work.

  • The risk of transmission can be substantially reduced if Covid-19 secure guidelines are followed closely.

  • Ensuring both workers and visitors who feel unwell stay at home and do not attend the premises is essential. From 28 September 2020, by law businesses may not require a self-isolating employee to come into work.

  • 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 the employer will need to assess whether the activity can safely go ahead. No one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment.

  • In the assessment, there should be 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.

  • The rule of six means that any social gatherings of more than six people will be against the law but this does not apply to work and education settings.

  • Only absolutely necessary participants should physically attend meetings and should maintain social distancing (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable). (For context, conference centres are currently, as at 1 October 2020, not open, other than for hosting meetings or business events for under 30 people. The police have the powers to issue a £10,000 fixed penalty notice to anyone holding, or involved in the holding, of an illegal gathering (such as a rave or house party) of over 30 people.)

  • Employers should minimise contact during payments and exchange of documentation, for example, by using electronic payment methods and electronically signed and exchanged documents.

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?

Government figures show that some groups of people may be at higher risk of Covid-19 than others, including:

  • older males

  • those with a high body mass index (BMI)

  • those with health conditions such as diabetes

  • those from some Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

These factors should be considered in the risk assessment.

Employers will also need to take steps to protect clinically vulnerable and clinically extremely vulnerable workers. These groups could, for example, include those with cancer, those aged 70 or over or with certain underlying health conditions as outlined in the Appendix to the latest guidance.

The decision to return to the workplace must be made in meaningful consultation with workers (including through trade unions or employee representative groups where they exist).

Wherever possible, clinically extremely vulnerable workers should work from home. If clinically extremely vulnerable individuals cannot work from home, they should be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles, enabling them to maintain social distancing guidelines (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable). It may be appropriate for clinically extremely vulnerable individuals to take up an alternative role or adjusted working patterns temporarily.

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.

As mentioned earlier, by law, from 28 September 2020, employers must not knowingly require or encourage someone who is being required to self-isolate to come to work.

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, so 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 practical tips could include 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 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 out sinks 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 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.

  • Limit/restrict use of high-touch items and equipment, for example, printers or whiteboards.

  • Businesses should provide extra bins for workers and visitors to throw away their waste face coverings or personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves used for cleaning or any other additional waste such as food packaging or disposable tableware. However, face coverings and PPE should not be put in a recycling bin — these cannot be recycled through conventional recycling facilities. Bins should be emptied often and further information on waste disposal for businesses during the pandemic is available at www.gov.uk.

Face coverings

In the context of face coverings in the office, there is growing evidence that wearing a face covering in an enclosed space helps protect individuals and those around them from Covid-19.

The Government guidance explains that a face covering can be very simple and may be worn in enclosed spaces where social distancing isn't possible. It just needs to cover your mouth and nose.

Face coverings are not the same as face masks like surgical masks or respirators. Similarly, face coverings are not classified by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as personal protective equipment (PPE).

At the time of writing, there is no requirement for face coverings to conform to any manufacturing standard and they do not provide protection for industrial work-related hazards like dusts and sprays.

Supplies of PPE, including face masks, must continue to be reserved for those who need them to protect against risks in their workplace, such as health and care workers, and those in industrial settings, for example those exposed to dust hazards.

Government advice also emphasises that face coverings are not a replacement for the other ways of managing risk, including:

  • minimising time spent in contact

  • using fixed teams and partnering for close-up work

  • increasing hand and surface washing.

These other measures remain the best ways of managing risk in the workplace and Government would therefore not expect to see employers relying on face coverings as risk management for the purpose of their health and safety assessments.

Face coverings are mandatory on public transport and in a number of indoor premises. However, at the time of writing, face coverings are not mandatory in offices, although they are required for customers and staff in some businesses that are customer facing, such as:

  • banks

  • building societies

  • post offices

  • premises providing professional, legal or financial services

  • estate agents

  • auction houses.

Staff in these settings must wear face coverings when in areas that are open to the public and where they are likely to come within close contact of a member of the public, unless they have an exemption.

People are also encouraged to wear face coverings in enclosed public spaces where there are people they do not normally meet. If you choose to wear one, it is important to use face coverings properly and wash your hands before putting them on and before and after taking them off.

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.

Employers should support their workers in using face coverings safely if they choose to wear one. This includes 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.

Further information on face coverings in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is available at www.gov.uk for details.

Ventilation in the office

Ventilation in the office building is important, to ensure maximum fresh air supply to all areas wherever possible.

Ventilation systems should provide a good supply of fresh air and steps that will usually be needed are the following.

  1. Increasing the existing ventilation rate by adjusting the fan speed.

  2. Operating the ventilation system when there are people in the building.

  3. Monitoring and managing filters in accordance with manufacturer instructions.

  4. Keeping doors and windows open if possible.

  5. Using ceiling fans to improve air circulation (provided there is good ventilation).

Working safely with display screen equipment

Employers must protect workers from the health risks of working with display screen equipment (DSE), such as PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 apply to workers who use DSE daily, for an hour or more at a time. These workers are known as “DSE users”. The regulations don't apply to workers who use DSE infrequently or only use it for a short time.

Employers have the same health and safety responsibilities for employees working from home as for any other employees, including the duty not to charge for things done or provided for their specific requirements. If you have staff working at home, you must still manage the risks to their health from DSE.

The HSE has produced information at www.gov.uk on homeworking and DSE which may be useful with the increase in working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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.

If the local PHE health protection team declares an outbreak, the employer will be asked to record details of symptomatic staff and assist with identifying contacts. All employment records should be up to date and in such cases employers will be provided with information about the outbreak management process, which will help to implement control measures, assist with communications to staff, and reinforce prevention messages.

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.