Assessing the Office risks for returning staff

From desk partitions, journeys to and from work and physical meetings, we highlight the risks that accountancy firms need to focus on once their employees return to the office.

It has recently been reported that Canary Wharf has drawn up plans to reopen, encouraging a return to ‘business as usual’ for those working in the Docklands complex, including those in financial services, as well as lawyers and accountants. JP Morgan had already announced in late April, that it was reopening its doors, and HSBC, Barclays and Goldman Sachs have also indicated their intention to do so.

What does this mean for employers and staff of accountancy firms in the area, and how practical will it be for their employees to return to their workplaces?

Many essential businesses have continued to operate throughout the crisis, primarily in the food processing sector, supermarkets, distribution hubs and, of course, clinical settings. In preparation for the possibility of non-food retail shops opening with social distancing measures in place, the British Retail Consortium published guidance on 26 April 2020, which emphasises the importance of social distancing as the bedrock.

It remains the responsibility of each business, including accountancy firms, to ensure a safe place of work. The Government’s Working Safely guidance published on 11 May 2020, builds upon this.

The starting point before an employer can envisage a return to the workplace is a Covid-19 risk assessment, focusing on staff in the vulnerable category, as well as the physical workplace itself. The guidance states that employers must make sure that risk assessments address the risks of Covid-19 because it is a new risk, and existing protocols are unlikely to cater for the risks presented by the pandemic.

The guidance does not go so far as to say (as the TUC had hoped) that a business cannot open until it has carried out a risk assessment, but it is advisable to carry one out in any event, not least because it will militate against health and safety and whistleblowing complaints.

As well as implementing a risk assessment as a first step, the guidance outlines other actions, which accountancy firms should follow:

  • It is essential for businesses to keep themselves and their employees informed about health risks and to remain aware of updated guidance.

  • The objective of the guidance when coming to and leaving work, is to maintain two-metre social distancing. This is likely to entail staggering arrival and departure times, deactivating turnstiles, and presentation of ID badges to security from a distance. Some businesses will also require staff to deposit personal items in secure lockers on arrival, to limit transmission.

  • Physical modifications include desk partitions, taped squares in elevators to prevent overcrowding, and the implementation of one-way systems.

  • Prohibiting physical meetings can limit transmission. This will inevitably mean greater use of videoconferencing facilities and other online tools. Alternatively, the guidance recommends holding meetings outdoors, or in well-ventilated rooms whenever possible. The guidance also advises employers to limit non-essential movement within workspaces, reducing job and location rotation.

  • Businesses should work collaboratively with landlords and other tenants in multi-tenant sites/buildings, to ensure consistency across common areas, for example, receptions and staircases. Other recommendations include staggering break times to reduce pressure on break rooms or canteens, using safe outside areas for breaks, creating additional space by using other parts of the workplace or areas freed up by remote working, and installing screens to protect staff in receptions or similar areas.

  • Increased sanitation is essential. This includes frequent cleaning of work areas and equipment between us e, frequent cleaning of objects and surfaces, such as door handles and keyboards, and ensuring adequate disposal arrangements. In addition, clearing workspaces and removing waste and belongings from the work area at the end of a shift is recommended, as well as limiting use of high-touch equipment, such as printers or whiteboards.

  • Businesses should consider installing signs to promote good handwashing techniques, reminding staff to avoid touching the face and to cough or sneeze into a tissue which is disposed of safely. The provision of signage to maintain personal hygiene standards, as well as hand sanitiser in multiple locations, is also recommended.

  • Interestingly, the guidance does not advocate the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) or face masks in the workplace. Instead, it emphasises the importance of social distancing, but if an employer’s risk assessment advocates the use of PPE or face coverings, then the employer must provide it and bear the cost.

  • Employers are advised to implement staggered working times/shifts, the used of fixed teams to limit transmission, and continued home and flexible working for those with additional childcare responsibilities.

All of this assumes, of course, that employees will return to work willingly. For many, the risks associated with getting to work on public transport will be problematic, and while social distancing can be maintained in larger workplaces, smaller workplaces present their own unique challenges.

The guidance is a helpful road map, but employers should not forget their existing health and safety obligations towards staff. They should also avoid the application of broad policies, adopting instead a nuanced approach, which accounts for their own unique ways of working.

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