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COVID-19 Safe Working: Best Practice for Returning to the Workplace

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new and unprecedented challenges for millions of workers. In a short matter of weeks, the workforce has quickly implemented a shift to remote working, while maintaining business continuity and employee well-being. Looking forward, our clients across the country are tasked with transitioning employees back into the workplace safely and in alignment with government guidelines. How this is communicated and implemented to maintain the health of both employees and the company/ institution is our challenge and focus. It’s important to start planning now.

While much of the improvements to safety and healthy workplace environments are down to management and attitude, the physical office environment will contribute greatly to wellbeing and confidence. It’s prudent to plan for the management of infections in the workplace now and in the future, and we need to rethink and redesign workplaces to respond. The new agile office must adapt to protocols of social distancing to protect workers but should also preserve important qualities such collaboration and communication in order to keep businesses efficient.

It is worth recapping the WHO definition of COVID 19 transmission specific to the workplace. The WHO advises that all employers need to consider how best to decrease the spread of COVID-19 and lower the impact in their workplace as workers begin to return to work:

When someone who has COVID-19 coughs or exhales they release droplets of infected fluid. Most of these droplets fall on nearby surfaces and objects - such as desks, tables or telephones. People could catch COVID-19 by touching contaminated surfaces or objects – and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. If they are standing within one meter of a person with COVID-19 they can catch it by breathing in droplets coughed out or exhaled by them. In other words, COVID-19 spreads in a similar way to flu. - WHO document, 2019

As a practice, we have been staying abreast of not only government advice, but also advice from other established bodies, periodicals and webinars including research from doctors, scientists and workplace experts. We have drawn up our ‘Covid19 Safe Working Best Practice’ report here. Our report and comments are designed to help and guide businesses in making spaces safe and limit spread of infection. All businesses are different, and methods of working are unique, so while there is no one-size-fits-all approach, we’ve outlined some considerations and methodologies which universally apply:

1. Reconfiguring office layouts and space planning for social distancing

Reconfiguring your office layout is an essential protocol to consider for safe working and will need to operate on both a behavioural and physical level.The return of employees to the workplace will vary by organisation but will undoubtedly occur in waves. This provides management with a good opportunity to consider the safest way to reconfigure the office for social distancing.

Behavioural aspects to consider should include:

  • Limiting workplace occupancy – ideally, office occupancy rates should be reviewed in line with guidance to keep the levels of infection transmissions at the lowest rate. This may be challenging for companies, so staggering shifts and gradually building up occupancy will limit the overall risk.

  • Prioritise essential workers to return to the office first, and then continue to work out who needs to be in the office on which days, in order to keep occupancy levels low. This may also include incorporating shift patterns into your employees’ regular hours.

  • Limit shared workspaces and hot desking. An Activity Based Working Model may no longer be appropriate. Reassign desks to one person or implement strict cleaning regimens between shifts.

  • Consider repositioning departments and facilities to allow for a one-way system throughout the office.

  • Encourage the continuation of remote working and hosting virtual meetings where possible.

  • Provide training and information to help employees understand the importance.

Limit hot desks and shared workspaces

Physical actions to ensure social distancing include:

  • Consider diagonal or ‘every other desk’ spacing, in order to maintain 6 ft distancing. This spacing should also be adopted in conference rooms and all shared spaces.

  • Employ visual queue to signify appropriate spacing between people, this could take the form of floor graphics, physical markers such as bollards or clear signage.

  • Clear signage to signify appropriate flow throughout a workspace, keeping 6ft apart at all times. This will often need to be a one-way system around the office and needs to be adopted in enclosed spaces such as conference rooms too.

  • Try and put desks near windows for clean air ventilation. Cases relate to how clean the air is in terms of particles – there are considerably fewer cases with cleaner air, and this will help with general respiratory health. More will undoubtedly unfold in this arena in the coming months.

2. Redesigning personal workspaces

The average workstation harbours 400 times more microbes than the average toilet seat according to a recent Harvard University study, and cleaning personal workstations is more important than ever. With certain workstations being placed out of use, assigned personnel will need to be clear which desks to use when, and raises questions of cleaning regimes. There are several ways to implement this in personal workspaces:

  • A clutter-free desk policy must be adopted to allow for frequent and deep cleaning.

  • One keyboard and mouse per person, also telephone handsets, no sharing if possible.

  • Lockers or pedestals for personal belongings should be in place, with storage for a keyboard and mouse to be stored when the user is away from their desk.

  • A hand sanitiser and cleaning materials should be assigned per workstation, with employees encouraged to clean their spaces frequently.

  • Task chairs are a primary location for dust and allergens, so choose chairs that don’t accumulate dust, are easy-to-clean and perhaps use germicidal materials.

  • Increase separation by installing easy to clean screens around each desk.

  • Where possible, touch free technology should be implemented. This might include PIR lights, hands free chargers for phones, for example. More involved examples could be automatic doors etc.

Increase separation by installing easy to clean screens around each desk

3. Best practice for safe shared facilities

Having worked out a maximum occupancy for your office to ensure social distancing, this common sense approach will also need to be applied to communal facilities and shared spaces including tea points, shared kitchens / canteens, conference rooms, corridors, waiting area/ receptions, in house gyms, toilets etc.:

  • One-way systems throughout the office should be introduced to limit accidental interactions

  • New rules for social etiquette should be reinforced – no more handshaking!

  • Touch-free and sensor technology needs to be introduced where possible, particularly in shared amenities such as kettles and bins

  • ‘Gym cleaning’ rules should be adopted by employees (alongside strict cleaning schedules), whereby amenities and spaces are wiped down after each use.

  • Remove any excess seating from communal or breakout areas. Identify seating that can maintain the required separation and consider exchanging larger pieces such as sofas to individual seats. Signage and visual cues can be used to ensure communal furniture remains safely spaced.

  • Easy to clean furniture with fewer visible fixings should replace fabric upholstery and complicated designs.

  • Encourage staff to eat at their desks rather than communally.

Communal spaces such as canteens will need to be reconsidered to maintain social distancing

4. Cleaning

With cleanliness as a number one priority for workers returning to work, management need to plan, communicate and reinforce cleaning regimes to ensure both safety and peace of mind. Identifying which spaces are assigned to employees, and when, will help cleaning services prioritise their work:

  • Plans to phase employees back to work may involve shift work / dedicating seats to individuals for a set period of time. If the occupants of each desk or workstations alternates, clearly communicating the plan with cleaning services will be paramount to ensure desks have been properly sanitised.

  • Eventually, companies should look towards covering furniture in anti-microbial materials.

  • A 2020 study by Dr Alan Hedge at Cornell University found that COVID-19 survives far longer on plastic or varnished surfaces – between 12 and 72 hours – than surfaces such as metals or unvarnished wood. Not only will these surfaces be less likely to harbour the virus for long periods of time, but metals are also easy to clean and can withstand harsh cleaning chemicals.

  • Management should ensure they supply workers with their own cleaning materials (disposable gloves, hand gel), providing cleaning/sanitisation stations throughout the office

  • Eventually, UVC lights will be the most effective cleaning mechanism, but need to be used with caution as they can cause skin cancer and eye problems. Each ‘clean’ with UVC light takes 25 minutes so could be done during lunch breaks.

Try and put desks near windows for clean air ventilation

As plans commence for the return to the office, we hope these suggestions and considerations will support both business continuity and the safety of your workers. Every organisation should have the tools they need to plan accordingly during these uncertain times. Please contact us to find out how these tools and our consultancy service can be implemented in your particular and unique workplace; we hope to support you now and into the future.


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