As lockdown is opening up and people are moving back to work there are worries from local business owners about their responsibilities for staff safety in a post-COVID office space. We decided to gather 3 of Hampshire’s property experts to answer some of our questions.
Meet the Experts
Alison John has run Yellow Interiors for over 20 years. Based in Bursledon, near Southampton, Yellow are a commercial interior design company that work across a range of sectors including offices, hospitality, retail and healthcare. Alison provides particular expertise in space planning, planning permission, and health and safety legislation.
Chris Webber is qualified as a Chartered Surveyor and has worked successfully across the corporate sector in Industrial, Retail and Technology organisations – where property was always seen as supporting the business, not the primary consideration. He has over twenty years of experience in providing flexible and agile workplace solutions, where seeking to provide simple solutions that use existing investments and solutions in the IT, Property and HR parts of the client organisation has never been more relevant.
Jim Culverwell has 36 years of experience in the world of commercial property. For the last 22 of them, he has been advising small and medium-sized businesses who need premises to trade from but don’t possess the necessary knowledge, skills or experience to negotiate with a landlord/agent to reach an agreement that does the best for their business. You don’t know what you don’t know, and that can cost you.
We don’t have the space to ensure people are two metres apart and certainly can’t take on new office space at this time. What changes can we make to protect our staff?
Many retailers are using Perspex screens to provide a physical barrier between staff and customers, and some commercial furniture manufacturers have responded to the virus by providing screening solutions for desks. I would wait if you can, to see whether these guideline distances change (2m reduced to 1m). The long–term response to this is difficult to assess. If the experience of the virus makes people more aware of possible future pandemics, then we might see a trend toward the use of materials that are easy to clean and maintain, i.e. the use of copper, which holds natural antimicrobial effects, may become more popular. I think that a worldwide emergency response to future pandemics will be established, and eventually, we will fall back into our old routines with minor differences. However, I think that will be some time away.
Appraise the headcount and foreseeable staff requirements, use your space planner to redesign for the capacity you have, under “best COVID protection advice”, then fully exploit modern working practices to enable all the staff the business needs, to perform their tasks remotely, whilst being fully supported and resourced.
Changing the way that your colleagues work is the way recommended by the government, with as many as possible working from home (WFH). This isn’t possible for some, but most office-based work includes at least some tasks capable of being performed either at home or, looking to the longer term, away from the office – what we call remote working.
Many organisations have already, in the pre-coronavirus world, successfully adopted such an approach and experienced the associated benefits of staff retention and enhanced productivity. Partial WFH opens up the possibility of occupying existing spaces on a rostered basis, with teams sharing their areas to reduce the uncertainties associated with ‘untrusted strangers’ – random occupants from other parts of the organisation – being present in the designated team space. Whilst this implies a higher cost due to enhanced hygiene regimes, it avoids the requirement for additional office space and the need to acquire it.
What legal responsibilities do I have? Has health and safety legislation changed in the post-COVID office?
All employers have a duty of care to ensure that their staff are safe in the workplace. The rules laid down by the government need to be considered when carrying out a risk assessment, and as a result, it won’t always be possible to comply. If this is the case, alternative solutions such as home working will have to suffice.
Employers have always had a duty of care to provide safe, compliant workplaces for their employees, and this has not changed. Where people work remotely or from home, they should already have been made aware of appropriate requirements to observe the need for good posture, avoidance of glare (when carrying out screen-based activities) and security of information, for example.
We have a lot of shared equipment including telephones and printers. Our staff loos are limited. How do we make sure surfaces are hygienic in a post-COVID office space?
You must limit those coming to the office to people who do not come into contact with vulnerable people, and then only those who need to come in. Contact a high-quality cleaning company like Green Fox for advice on cleaning.
I agree with Jim’s response. A clear cleaning regime is important, but I think responsibility for yourself has to play a part. So an employer should enable adequate sanitiser, surface cleaner or wipes, and instructions on how to keep yourself safe, positioned at tea points and welfare facilities. Hot water boilers are better than kettles, but these need specialist skills to install. Hot-desking is clearly not recommended at the moment, and sharing any equipment should be avoided where possible. Perhaps investing in some small local printers to avoid sharing could be considered, but only if space permits. We all hope that any measures we take will be temporary so investment in adequate cleaning stations with plenty of sanitisers is the safest and most cost–effective solution if staff can’t work remotely.
In shared environments, or when using shared equipment, the hygiene needs should already have been identified and so in the example quoted, antiseptic wipes for telephone handsets should be available and used; the current situation will in all likelihood place more emphasis on a number of policies most likely in existence but not fully observed!
In other areas, such as those with frequently used shared equipment like copiers and scanners, cleaning prior to individual use and hand protection is a sensible and pragmatic solution, as is considering requiring colleagues to wear face masks in line with current government guidance.
A similar approach can be taken with staff toilets, although here physical constraints may constrain solutions in locations where such facilities are located at the end of corridors or in high traffic areas (where current social distancing needs may be almost impossible to observe).
Developing and sharing any revised workplace protocols ahead of reoccupying office space is a key factor in encouraging colleagues who are required to return to the office to do so in a confident and positive manner.
What’s my duty of care for staff working from home?
As an employer, you are duty-bound to ensure that the workplace is risk-free and that an employee has the right tools to carry out their job properly. This may be investing in a good chair that provides appropriate lumbar support or telephone conferencing equipment, although download and upload speeds are often outside the control of the employer.
Staff working from home need the same support as those in the office; they need to be aware of the need to observe organisational policies on H&S, security and working hours, for example. In some locations, access to data or voice systems may be poor, and this can limit the potential for the adoption of this solution. Similarly, for those living in a shared environment (such as sharing a flat or house with non-family members) there may be no suitable location to set up a computer and ancillary workplace environment which can be both compliant and secure.
Many organisations that have already adopted WFH provide support in the form of a dedicated phone line and broadband connection for their staff who are contractually home-based, although this practice is changing as tech infrastructure improves across the UK. Support includes providing a basic checklist (which does not require a home visit) to ensure that the environment is free from trailing cables, the computer screen is free from glare and – where appropriate – does not impose an uncomfortable posture.
Laptop users are likely to be the most vulnerable to such considerations and should therefore follow the manufacturers’ advice on use, which usually includes comments on frequent breaks, connection to monitor screens if working for long periods on the machine, and the use of a separate keyboard and mouse. For many, the kitchen table might be the location of choice; this can be acceptable, but not for long periods of uninterrupted screen-based activities; the sofa or bed is most definitely non-compliant!
We’ve introduced hot-desking recently but it doesn’t seem a great idea now. What alternatives do we have other than moving to larger office space?
Hot desks were never my favourite solution in shared work environments! Much better is a range of spaces provided in a ratio that takes account of user tasks – a team-based solution. Moving to such an approach and building a range of occupancy protocols that reflects the need for a more formalised approach to hygiene for the individual may go a long way to addressing the understandable concerns of individuals. Coupled with an informed adoption of a rota system supported by a desk booking solution (where “everyone has to come to the office”) can also help where there is anticipated to be space shortages.
It might be possible to negotiate the temporary use of adjacent space if that is available. I can think of a couple of instances where there is space next to a tenant occupier and extending into this space temporarily could allow a business to continue trading, ensuring the tenant stays.
In my opinion hot-desking is not really appropriate until a vaccine is found and delivered. Moving to a larger office is not the answer and more creative solutions need to be found.
Need help with your post-COVID office? Get in touch with the experts to ensure your office space is compliant, safe and prioritises staff health.