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Phased Plan Return to Work Post COVID-19

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To help keep the workforce safe on returning to work post COVID-19 employers have been advised to produce a 'Phased Return to Work Plan'.

A phased return to work plan offers the best opportunity to get all employees back at work and fulfil most, or at least the 'core', business needs. This may mean reduced hours for some staff and/or modified duties based on the business needs and the social distancing requirements.

A phased return to work plan usually lasts anywhere between two to six weeks, but can go on longer if necessary, especially if COVID-19 implications go on longer than expected.

Because of the associated variables an employer needs to consider 'timescale' when looking at the staff and core business needs. Don't be surprised if this strategy is implemented by your employer and be prepared for 'a change in culture' in your working environment.

Planning The Return to Work – Business Requirements

A mentioned, an employer will need to adjust duties between staff and prioritising successive 'phases of return' to work to accommodate individual variables. This isn't easy as it depends on the type of work, the staff skill sets, numbers of staff and working environment so it's not something that is easy to accommodate.

An employer needs to 'Enable', 'Train' and support staff on their return to work. Along with this, staff members need to be held 'accountable' during this process. It is not just down to our employers to keep us safe; staff need to adhere to any new procedures and processes that are introduced to ensure their own safety. There will a 'culture change' in the way we work, this is a given as we all try to achieve a safer 'post COVID-19' working environment.

As mentioned, a lot will depend on the actual work and roles and there is plenty of government guidance to help us through the process.

Many offices and large corporations have staff that work 'in a building' and often these areas are often complex as they share 'areas'. So, it is likely that many employers will put in place social distancing rules when workers start their to return to work. A radical re-think of the working environment is therefore likely to be necessary to ensure that cases of COVID-19 are not spread within the workplace.

Employers may need to erect barriers between workspaces in open plan offices where employees work cheek-by-jowl, or they may separate employees out so that there is a distance of 2m between them. The European Commission has recommended that not all personnel should be allowed back to work at the same time. There may therefore be a system of cohorts of staff who work alternate shifts to enable social distancing so that the number of people in the office is limited.

Some employers have been considering more inventive ways of ensuring social distancing can be adhered to within the workplace, for example wristbands which vibrate when employees come within six feet of each other. Obviously, this would depend on the size of the business and potential cost involved.

Consideration should also be given to limiting the number of employees in confined spaces, shared areas, between workstations, or, for example, in lifts/elevators and communal areas, to observe social distancing.

Where workers travel for work, this may extend to travel arrangements, for example limiting the number of individuals in a company vehicle. These adjustments are likely to impact significantly on the working environment that existed pre-COVID-19 and effective planning will be required to ensure that they can be integrated smoothly and effectively enforced. For example, limiting numbers using lifts/elevators and communal areas is likely to create logjams at either end of the working day if not implemented in a considered manner.

In all cases the staff will need to be trained in any new processes and procedures, how can this be achieved? Use of a Learning Management System that is available online is an excellent way of producing courses for employees and enables employers to promote wellbeing and advice on how staff can return to work safety.

Along with this, notices and posters could be put up around the office or building to advise people on what they should be doing; and regular 'light touch' emails to the staff are also advised to keep everyone instructed and up to date.

Some workers, but not all, can expect enhanced health and safety measures when they return to the workplace, including greater availability of hand sanitisers (and encouragement to use these) or PPE (if required) and deep cleans of their workspaces.

Masks are a more sensitive and cultural issue. It is common practice (even before COVID-19) for people in Hong Kong and mainland China to wear face masks to limit the spread of disease and respect the health of work colleagues. Elsewhere, face masks were rarely seen but are now increasingly worn as a safety precaution.

However, health authorities have been divided about the effectiveness of face masks. The World Health Organisation has said that masks present no protection against COVID-19 and should be reserved for healthcare workers, but it is clear that some individuals feel more reassured wearing them. In some countries, masks are generally not being worn, to preserve the stocks of masks available to the medical profession. Similarly, in the UK, masks have to date not been worn by the general public, with the advice from the UK government being that face masks offer no protection against COVID-19. However, the UK government has more recently said that the guidance is under review and will change if the scientific evidence warrants it.

Policies, Procedures and Returning to Work Post COVID-19

As mentioned, it is an employer's duty to bring in new ways of working and procedures. And, it is the employees duty to comply with these new policies, procedures and regulations. Employers will need to ensure that COVID-19 policies, procedures and risk assessments are robust before the resumption of work in the workplace, ensuring the safety of workers and others visiting the premises.

For example, what should happen if an employee falls sick whilst at work? What if an employee does not disclose that a member of the household is suffering from COVID-19? What should be the best practices for protecting employees whilst maintaining a continuity of operations? Clear policies should be established addressing these issues and employees should clearly understand what these new policies are and what practices they need to be doing. Therefore, training of staff is a necessity.

When a phased return is imminent, employees should make sure they fully understand the plan the return to work phase and any revised working arrangements. Will remote working become part of your new working landscape; with hot-desking in the workplace and some days worked from home?

What additional risk assessments and safety documentation and guidance is available from your employer? Employees need to make sure they have a copy of this before commencing work. Additionally, is the working environment safe, can you immediately return or are surveys, inspections and remedial works required before re-commission of the premises?

And don't forget training, it is important for staff to 're-learn' so they understand any changes to their duties and any new working arrangements.

Along with all of this an employer should consider any implications regarding current legislation; there is more on this topic in 'COVID-19 and the Law'.

Helpful resource: Guidance to Employers and Businesses about COVID-19