As COVID-19 lockdown measures ease across the country, employers must plan how employees can safely return to work. There are two main considerations to make: adhering to the latest government guidelines on COVID-19 and taking the correct steps to ensure that employees maintain social distancing in the workplace at all times.
This article explains how employees can maintain social distancing in the workplace, ensuring a safe, COVID-secure return to work.
What is social distancing?
Social distancing means keeping people apart to help reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Where possible, you should ensure all employees keep people two metres apart. If this isn’t possible, you’ll need to consider additional control measures.
Completing a coronavirus return to work risk assessment
Social distancing should form part of your business's COVID-19 risk assessment and is a crucial step to making your workplace COVID secure. This guidance operates within current health and safety employment and equalities legislation, so risk assessments are a great way to assess and monitor the risks.
Carry out this risk assessment to establish what guidelines to put in place. As an employer, you should publish the results and make them available for staff and customers to view on your website – the government expects businesses with over 50 employees to do so.
If possible, work closely with your health and safety and occupational health teams to manage the employees’ risk assessment and safe return. Ask the following questions to ensure that the return to work is safe:
- Can staff maintain a safe distance between each other?
- How will meetings or interviews be handled?
- How will communal or social areas be managed?
- Can you stagger working hours so that not all staff are in at the same time?
- What are the risks to staff mental and physical health?
How to maintain social distancing in the workplace
Firstly, redesign workspaces like desks or workstations to maintain two metres of distance between staff members. Amending shift times is beneficial, too, as it’ll minimise contact between groups of people - doing this by as little as five minutes can prevent crowding at entrances and foyers.
You may also consider reducing the use of physical materials in communications by making better use of digital communication systems, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. This method will reduce the chances of contagion via surfaces while saving vital resources.
Finally, you can ensure your employees maintain social distancing and minimise the risk of workplace transmission by facing them away from each other while working. Where that’s not possible, consider installing barriers between workers and provide additional PPE like disposable gloves and masks where necessary.
Enhance cleaning processes
While it’s your responsibility to provide a safe working environment, your employees are responsible for cleaning their own space and maintaining social distancing and personal hygiene.
Communal spaces should be cleaned regularly, with efforts being focused on touchpoints like door handles, light switches, and toilet flushes. You should provide handwashing facilities (hot, running water, soap, and disposable paper towels) as standard and sufficient quantities to serve all employees. If this isn’t possible, ensure hand sanitiser is available at all entry and exit points. It'd also be helpful to consider whether a deep clean is necessary for staff safety before everyone returns to work.
COVID 19-secure workplace checklist
Once you’ve conducted a COVID-19 risk assessment and established social distancing rules, consider the following checklist to ensure your workplace is safe and COVID-19 secure.
Local government regulations
Stay compliant by seeking local government guidance on reopening places of work. In some cases, you will need to obtain a new certificate of occupancy. If this is the case, be sure to do it before your staff return to the workplace.
Confirm any new rules and procedures with your landlord and determine the necessary policies regarding the building’s safety and cleanliness.
PPE supply chains
Keep a close eye on PPE (especially face masks) supply chains and consider advance orders for items with long-lead times.
Workspace and speciality areas
Ensure floor plans and seating arrangements meet your local government’s social distancing guidelines. Use appropriate signage throughout the building to communicate new COVID-secure workplace protocols and etiquette. Plan how to address the impact on non-work areas like post rooms and gyms – one way is designing a one-way system that limits the number of people using these areas at a given time. Where applicable, set straightforward policies for entry into other company buildings.
To safely manage potential evacuations, assign floor wardens and ensure your evacuation procedures comply with social distancing guidelines. For multi-storey buildings, confirm elevator protocol and occupancy levels with your landlord. To safeguard against a failed reopening or a further virus outbreak, devise phased and emergency closing procedures.
Establish occupancy and employee tracking for the building and any potential infection zones. Room reservation technology and any equipment provided should adhere to social distancing measures – and be sure to distribute disinfectants and hand sanitiser within easy reach of each piece of equipment.
Ensure essential employees are acquainted with entry and exit protocols and confirm building shutdown policies in the case of further emergency closures.
How to maintain social distancing in the workplace: Conclusion
It would be best to support the above checklist by reassuring your employees that their safety remains the top priority during this transitional period. The social distancing measures you implement will help, but there are other ways to put your employees' minds at rest.
Consider staggering work schedules to afford staff more personal space while ensuring that procedures are in place for the proper cleaning of floors, seating, and workspaces.