What companies can do to get staff back in to the workplace safely

As businesses start to reopen their workplaces, employers must plan for any return in a way that safeguards their people.

How they should go about doing this was the subject of a recent webinar hosted by Spark, Bruntwood Works’ business support programme and Unify, the property group’s integrated facilities management service.

The event explored what employers should consider when bringing teams back into the workspace including plans for social distancing, enhanced cleanliness guidance and providing flexibility for bringing teams together and why communication is key.

The event was chaired by Heather Gray, business development manager at Bruntwood Works and included panelists; Simon Durbin, soft services director at Unify, Esther Park, head of people at Unify, Andy Weaver, head of operations at Bruntwood Works, and Rachel Butler, head of risk at Bruntwood.

With restrictions easing and life slowly returning to normal it is no surprise that businesses are looking at new ways of welcoming staff back to the office.

Whether employees have been on furlough or solely working from home, more companies are considering what to do next to comply with health and safety too.

Andy Weaver observed that most businesses that haven’t had colleagues in the office are now starting to think about bringing people back and expects that to accelerate from this week.

“The sentiment around working from home seems to be changing. With access to lateral flow tests people are more confident to start to think about returning to their offices.

“By mid-June and with restriction lifting it will be back to somewhere close to normal.”

Esther Park said she was seeing a growing demand from people who wanted to see the introduction of hybrid working.

“Everyone’s very different so there’s been lots of positives that people have experienced from working from home such as spending more time with kids for example, for others it’s been lonely and a struggle at times and they want to be in the office where they can feel more engaged with their colleagues.

“From the conversations we’ve had a lot of people want to work independently but also get back to physical engagement with their colleagues which hybrid working can offer and I think most businesses, where they can, will be doing some form of that hybrid working.”

Looking at safe steps to plan for a return to the office Weaver said businesses should not be scared about risk safety assessments and should take a ‘common sense’ approach.

This includes signage and markings to enforce social distancing, reducing capacities in lifts to minimise contact, introducing one-way systems in buildings, moving desks away from each other, and doubling up on hygiene practices.

“It doesn’t have to be daunting, it doesn’t have to be scary, and we’re here to answer any questions and help in any way we can,” he said.

Simon Durbin said engaging with staff regarding changes was paramount especially if workers have not been in the workplace for some time, and if things have changed, he said it may be useful to talk to them about coronavirus precautions before they return to work.

“Some of the advice we’ve offered is to encourage customers to do walk throughs with staff and then to write a list of any areas that may cause some concern. It gives the chance to then think about processes more deeply.

“And involve your team as you effectively start to build your own risk assessment. Sometimes the language around health and safety advice and risk assessment can be daunting but they can be explained.

“Other aspects to consider are touchpoints and can they be removed or should there be regular touchpoint cleaning. Sometimes areas where people gather such as the breakout room might need more planning such as the introduction of a rota to minimise contact between staff. How people operate hot desking and what the current cleaning regime is will also need to be explored.

“Once you’ve gotten that list, you can think about how to effectively manage out some of these challenges.”

Rachel Butler, head of risk at Bruntwood, said there is more guidance available for employers to seek advice and recommended businesses to head to the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) website.

“It’s a user-friendly portal and I recommend any business to have a look,” she urged.

“It’s the first time anybody’s ever gone through anything like this, but we now have the resources and tools available to help.  As a group we’re also here to help and share best practice.”

Esther Park said communicating with staff about changes was equally important. At Unify 90% of staff are operational with many people including cleaners and engineers out in the field, so keeping staff as well as customers safe was a priority.

“We’re working with our staff and our customers closely and communicating changes we’re going to need to put in place especially as offices begin to get busier.

“We’ve also got our central team who’ve been working from home primarily for a year. Again, we’re having conversations and communicating with them which is then backed up with regular clear companywide communication emails about changes and government advice.”

She added: “It ultimately comes back to having one to one conversations with managers and with teams about how they feel and and what’s going on and how it is going to impact their day to day lives, how to understand and adopt new approaches and you can only do that by involving people.”

Andy Weaver highlighted that regular weekly internal communication with staff as well as Covid updates to customers gave his team the opportunity to communicate key messages from senior leadership as well as give people the chance to raise any concerns.

“People were able to raise any issues that they were nervous about and it put them at ease,” he highlighted.

“The key was opening all those communication channels because as we’ve seen things change so quickly, often overnight, and I don’t think you can communicate too much in times like this.”

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