Transitioning from home working to office working is not without its challenges. While it might feel like a move towards normality, there are new steps and procedures you need to consider before transitioning your workforce back into a shared space.
There are many reasons business owners might want to think about returning to the office. As infection rates come down and the uptake of vaccinations increase, we can start to think about things returning to normal. If your business has been struggling during lockdown, or if your workers are having trouble focusing at home, there is a case for starting to reopen your office.
Returning to work needs careful planning and consideration. There are government guidelines to follow and you will also need to consider the unique needs of your workforce. For example, anyone who is still sheltering and has yet to receive their vaccine may need to continue to work from home.
If you’re planning a return to work soon, consider the following risks and controls to make the transition smooth and safe.
One of the best ways to limit the risk when bringing back your workforce is to stagger the return. This will help you to ease into the new working conditions slowly, allowing you to identify areas of risk and manage them accordingly.
Workers don’t only face risk when they are in your office, they could also be facing challenging conditions during their commute. By allowing your team to adjust their working hours, you also allow them to avoid public transport at the busiest times. If you work in a large office building, they will also avoid having to mix with people from other offices.
Changing your working hours has company-wide benefits too. Instead of having everyone working from 9-5, you could increase your hours of operation from 7 am to 7 pm, for example. We expect many companies will keep this in place even after things have returned to normal. Here at Nolan Recruitment, we believe offering flexible working is a big plus for applicants. So you might consider offering this long after the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
By setting limits on the number of people in the office at once, you automatically reduce the risk to your workers. Some workers will be happy to continue working from home, but those who might be struggling will appreciate the change of scenery. Remember that some people may live alone or they may not have space for a home office, so a trip to the office will be very welcome at this stage.
If you do decide to allow workers back into the office, it’s important to keep track of who is in the office and when. This will allow you to isolate any outbreaks and identify close contacts if anyone gets infected.
We now know that COVID-19 is an airborne disease that spreads through tiny particles from the nose and mouth. Even those without symptoms can spread the disease. Maintaining good airflow is one of the best ways to limit the risk to your workers when they are inside.
It’s harder to keep windows open in winter, but this may be necessary for smaller spaces. Things like air conditioner units can actually make the spread of COVID-19 particles worse. Studies have found that these help to circulate the particles without filtering them. Mask wearing in the workplace can help to limit the spread of the disease.
In addition to social distancing of 2 meters, you should also consider adding perspex screens between workers. This can help to prevent larger particles which may be spread when individuals talk, laugh or shout. You could also adjust seating arrangements so that individuals aren’t facing one another.
Many open-plan office spaces were designed to allow the easy flow of conversation between team members, but this may now become a thing of the past. We could start to see the return of individual offices, partitions and office pods becoming the norm.
We know that regular hand washing is essential to help stop the spread of the virus, so workers need to have the opportunity to wash their hands or use sanitiser gel frequently. You should also consider enhanced cleaning of workspaces, shared spaced such as kitchens and hygiene facilities such as bathrooms. These spaces should be wiped down throughout the day, or between users. If cleaning the kitchen after every occupant is too much to manage, consider closing the kitchen.
Hiring an external company to manage this will ensure that cleaning steps aren’t skipped. If you decide to manage the extra cleaning in-house, create cleaning schedules so that you can remain accountable.
One way to remove the risk of the virus spreading in your workplace is to stop the use of shared surfaces and items. Shared spaces and surfaces could include:
Keeping doors propped open can limit the number of people touching them every day and also improve airflow. Phones should also be assigned to individuals and never shared. When it comes to shared spaces like break rooms and conference rooms, these spaces would ideally be re-assigned as workspaces to allow for greater social distancing.
Before allowing workers to return to work, you should decide if you will implement testing, how often tests should be carried out and who is responsible for sourcing the test. The UK government is stepping up its plans to allow more workplaces to offer daily testing using lateral flow tests. This would allow workers to return to work with a little more confidence, but it should not be used in place of social distancing.
A worker could be asymptomatic in the morning, take a test with a negative result, spend the day with co-workers and then be sick the next day. While not perfect, testing can help to identify outbreaks and allow you to take action if a worker gets sick.
If one of your team members tests positive or displays symptoms, you need to have a plan in place to limit the spread. Everyone who has been in contact with them should self-isolate for 10 days in line with government guidance. This is why it is important to keep accurate records of who is in the office and when.
In the event of an outbreak, it may also be advisable to hire an external company to carry out a full antibacterial spraying service. This type of fine mist fogging will help to eliminate COVID-19 particles and allow your workers to return to work with confidence when it is safe.
You might think you have thought of everything, but your team are the ones that will have to live with the changes. Be open to feedback, suggestions and comments on the new working environment. If you can find ways to improve your return to work plans, you don’t have to feel constrained to the original plan. Provided you are taking steps to make things safer, there is nothing wrong with admitting that there is a better way to do things.