This is the first in a series of republished blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange. These articles will revisit important topics with ongoing relevance for public policy and practice, as well as for communities and wider society. The first revisited post covers the workplace, and focuses on the ways in which employers can ensure their employees can return to Covid-secure places of work. At the end of the republished article, we’ve updated the post to report on recent developments.
As well as being a public health emergency, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has had wide-reaching economic implications. It’s something of an understatement to say that it has had dramatic effects on all our working lives.
And while successive lockdowns have helped in reducing the number of COVID-19 cases, business cannot remain on hold forever. Gradually, carefully, workplaces have been reopening, and growing numbers of workers are preparing to return to their jobs in offices, shops, schools and construction sites.
In 2020, a White Paper produced by The Knowledge Exchange explained how the workplace has to change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A redefined workplace
Before the pandemic, the workplace landscape was already changing. But now it is being totally redefined. Organisations of all shapes and sizes, in all sectors, are facing hard decisions. And how to reopen their workplaces, in a way that protects the health and wellbeing of their employees, is a key challenge.
The White Paper focuses on what employers have to consider when thinking about how to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The most important challenges concern:
- social distancing, including areas where this is more difficult, or not possible;
- organising the workplace, including the location of desks and the installation of additional features, such as screens and hand-drying facilities;
- cleaning and sanitising, including what needs cleaning, who will do it and when.
As well as complying with guidance, employers have to make sure their staff are confident in the plans for reopening workplaces. A survey for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in May 2020 showed that almost half (44%) of respondents were concerned about catching COVID-19 at work.
How businesses can prepare for reopening
Every organisation needs to introduce sensible measures to control risks. Therefore, before reopening a workplace, it is vital to conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment, in line with guidance from the Health and Safety Executive.
A risk assessment should:
- identify what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus;
- think about who could be at risk – paying attention to whether the people doing the work, or those they live with, are especially vulnerable to COVID-19;
- decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed;
- act to remove the activity or situation, or if this isn’t possible, control the risk.
During the risk assessment, it’s essential to consult with workers and afterwards to share the results. Different industries and sectors may require specific measures. On construction sites, for example, access between different areas may need to be restricted, and high traffic areas may have to be regulated to maintain social distancing. The UK government has published guidance covering a range of different types of work in places such as offices, factories, shops and outdoor working environments.
Actions to make the workplace COVID-secure
The UK government and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved administrations have provided guidance on how to work safely. This gives practical advice on how the guidance can be applied in the workplace.
In planning to reopen their workplaces, every organisation should translate this guidance into the specific actions it needs to take, depending on the nature of their business. At the same time, employers must also ensure that everyone in the workplace continues to be treated equally. Discrimination against anyone because of a protected characteristic, such as age, sex or disability is against the law, and employers also have particular responsibilities concerning disabled workers and new or expectant mothers.
The White Paper contains a checklist of actions which all organisations need to take. These include
- developing cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures;
- helping people to work from home;
- maintaining social distancing;
- managing transmission risk where social distancing is not possible.
CAFM Explorer: an invaluable support tool for getting back to work
Much of the workload involved in ensuring a safe and effective return to work will be taken on by facilities managers. Keeping workplaces clean, managing shift patterns, ensuring availability of personal protective equipment and creating procedures for inbound and outbound goods are just some of the many considerations to be made.
The White Paper highlights the value of the CAFM Explorer software solution to help organisations manage and consolidate information on the vital elements of a COVID-secure workplace, such as one-way systems, desk spacing, cleaning, staggered hours and hand sanitising stations.
Developed by Idox, a trusted supplier of digital software and services, CAFM Explorer can also trigger work orders as a result of an action – for example, ensuring a desk is cleaned once it has been booked – as well as providing processes to support working at home.
It is too early to say what lasting effects the coronavirus will have on UK society and business, but it’s likely we will all be living in the shadow of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. It’s essential, therefore, that organisations make themselves aware of the steps necessary for preparing, implementing and managing the Covid-secure workplace.
What happened next
When this blog first appeared, in June 2020, lockdown restrictions in the UK were being lifted, and there were signs that more people who had been working remotely were ready to return to their usual places of work. However, in the autumn the emergence of a more infectious strain of the coronavirus – the Delta variant – forced governments to reimpose restrictions. For most of 2021, many people have continued to work from home, although this benefit has not been available to people working in key sectors such as health, public transport and retail.
The development of vaccines to prevent the worst effects of Covid-19 has resulted in governments again relaxing restrictions. Although, the guidance on returning to work from the administrations in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may differ, the increasing numbers of people who are double-vaccinated indicates that by the end of 2021 more people will have returned to their usual place of work, at least for some of the working week.
While some employers are urging their staff to return to the workplace, others are stressing that no pressure is being put on their workers to go back to the office right away. In the United States, some employers may be planning to cut the pay of those who continue to work from home, while others are trying to lure their workers back with incentives. At the same time, as the UK government’s furlough scheme comes to an end, many employers must consider whether they can continue to employ their workers, or make them redundant.
It’s now clear that the Covid-19 virus will be part of our lives in the long term. What’s not yet clear is how we can learn to live and work with it. So, the guidance on returning to the workplace that was highlighted in our original blog post and our White Paper still stands. And the CAFM Explorer solution remains an important tool in ensuring that, when the time is right, people can return to their workplaces safe in the knowledge that they are Covid-secure.
Further reading: articles on employment and the workplace from
The Knowledge Exchange blog
- Diversity and inclusion in the workplace: more than just demographics
- A different perspective: supporting neurodiversity in the workplace
- An ageing workforce and growing emotional demands call for more sustainable employment
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