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The Great Return to Work

My old mate Boris has given everyone the go ahead to get back to work and start getting back to normal...whatever that is! But as we all know, nothing is ever that easy. I'm going to try and summarise what you need to be thinking about as you bring people back to work, whatever that looks like for you.


COVID Risk Assessment

I feel like this goes without saying your COVID risk assessments! Or ask a health and safety professional to help you. COVID poses a risk to health and safety and you therefore have a responsibility to mitigate that risk wherever you can. Plus, this will help you form your new procedures and systems of work in a COVID safe way.

Office Design

You've done your risk assessment and this should have prompted some questions about your office space (if you have one).

Start with the doors and work your way around all the communal areas thinking of ways in which you can automate or use technology to improve the safety of your staff. Some companies are using thermal imaging cameras on entrances to ensure no one with a high temperature gets in.

Then think about the office design. How can you enable social distancing? Maybe you need a one way system. It might mean you have fewer people back in the office, then that prompts the question, who do you bring back?

I'm sure it goes without saying, but have a chat with your cleaners and up the anti on hygiene. Perhaps provide employees with cleaning stations around the office or in communal areas like around the printer / kettle.


Bringing people back in

The main thing you need to think about here is the big C... COMMUNICATION!

STEP 1: Identify how many people you can have back in the office safely at any one time. This will help you work out who to bring back in vs who can continue remote working. You could also consider bringing people back in gradually. Maybe you split your staff into teams so that one person from each team is in the office at least once a week and work from home the rest of the time. There's no right or wrong answer to this one, it just depends how many people you have and how many people you need in the office.

STEP 2: Talk to people. Understand who would be up for coming back in and who would find it challenging. Take the time to talk to people who feel anxious about it, if they can see you understand their point of view, they're more likely to trust that you've made it safe for them. Remember how we all felt about working from home in March? It's the same thing but worse. Home is safe. Home means pyjama bottoms and slippers all day. Home means no commuting. There are lots of pros to working from home so you need to help people see the benefit in going back to work.

STEP 3: Set a date and put it in writing. Confirm to everyone what the plan is going to be in writing. But don't stop communicating with people!

BONUS: For anyone who is nervous about coming back to work, I have found that asking people to come in for a brew works really well. They pop in, have a chat, see what you've been up to and get the feel for everything before making the leap.



What if people are reluctant to come back?

This is a good question. First things first, make sure you have done everything reasonably practicable to make your work place COVID safe. Employees can refuse to come back to work if there is an imminent danger to health and safety. So it's on you to not only make work safe, but to tell everyone what you've done to make it safe. One of my clients actually gave everyone a welcome pack when they came back to the office containing a fact sheet on new PPE and safety requirements, hand sanitiser, a mask and a pack of tissues. If someone is unreasonably refusing to return to work, you have to make a call on whether to keep negotiating with them or start disciplinary proceedings.

What if people don't stick to social distancing?

Firstly, you should ensure that social distancing is referenced in your COVID risk assessment and in any updates to your health and safety policy. From there, any breach of social distancing or hygiene rules can be addressed through your disciplinary procedures. A breach of health and safety rules can indeed be considered as an act of gross misconduct, particularly where you deem that the employee has put themselves or others at risk. I would always advise that you approach this sensibly, taking an informal approach first and considering whether PPE was being properly utilised despite the lack of distance. Remember that not everything is as it seems so don't just start sacking people, conduct a thorough investigation and be reasonable.

What if we get a case in the office?

Your approach to employees who develop symptoms of COVID or feel unwell should be very clearly communicated to everyone. The sensible approach would be to ask anyone who develops symptoms or feels unwell to stay at home and get tested. If the test is negative, they can return to work when they feel well enough. If the test is positive, they should self isolate. You're likely to get queries about whether employees will be paid for such sickness so ensure you have decided what you're going to do around that. I have unfortunately seen cases where employees have been negative towards someone they thought had COVID, so be sure to stamp out any such behaviours very quickly.


I've said it in several blogs and posts before but it's worth repeating: don't make any assumptions about people's experiences this year. Some have had it worse than others, some have come out of this thing okay and others are really struggling. Take the time to talk to your people, it will pay off.

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