The continued relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions across the UK means that employees are in the course of returning to the office in some shape or form, or employers are considering that return. In fact, 66% of attendees at our recent webinar said they have now communicated their plan for returning to the workplace. So, what are some of the issues employers will be thinking about?

You should adhere to the relevant government guidance for your office location in terms of opening and attendance of employees in them. Notwithstanding the government guidance in place, returning to the office must also be based around your COVID-19 risk assessments. Once you have identified risks, you need to implement control measures to remove or control those risks. These risks and control measures will determine your approach on a range of issues, and we've covered 10 examples of these below. Remember too that you have a duty to consult your staff on the control measures you are taking.

1. Social distancing 

    It is not currently a legal requirement for employers in any part of the UK to ensure social distancing on their premises. However, government guidance encourages this, and you may consider it an appropriate control measure in light of your COVID-19 risk assessment. You might want to think about, for example:

    • Limiting the number of people in the office – if so, how will you prioritise?
    • Staggering start and finish times
    • Reconfiguring desks, use of protective screens and desk booking
    • Limiting the number of people in certain areas e.g. canteens, toilets, meeting rooms and lifts
    • A one-way system round the office.

    2. Vaccination

      Making vaccination compulsory could lead to difficulties, including potential discrimination issues – for more information see our earlier blog.

      Even if you don't intend to make vaccination compulsory, you might want employees to disclose their vaccination status before they return to the office. This could allow you to consider additional health and safety measures to protect that individual and others (given that unvaccinated individuals may be more likely to catch and transmit COVID-19). However, this raises data protection issues, and whether it is justified will depend on the circumstances.

      3. Testing

        In line with government guidance, you may want to encourage staff to test themselves regularly for COVID-19.

        If you are considering implementing mandatory testing, we would recommend that you contact us for advice. 

        4. Office equipment

          As part of your control measures, will any restrictions be applied or alternative measures put in place for office equipment such as photocopiers, fridges, microwaves, water coolers or communal cutlery / crockery?

          5. Face coverings

            In Scotland, it is a legal requirement to wear face coverings in the workplace in certain situations.

            For England and Wales, it is not currently a legal requirement to wear face coverings in the workplace, however, government guidance encourages this, and you may consider it an appropriate control measure in light of your COVID-19 risk assessment.

            6. Cleaning and hygiene

              You should consider how you will keep the office clean which will include surface cleaning and maintaining good hygiene practices. For example, this may include:

              • Implementing a 'clear desk' policy and asking staff to wipe down their desk after use
              • Asking staff to use hand sanitiser regularly and at particular points when moving around the office
              • Encouraging good hand and respiratory hygiene.

              7. Ventilation

              Your risk assessment might identify that it is appropriate to open more windows and doors than usual, and it may also be appropriate to consider improvements to mechanical ventilation / air conditioning. For more information see HSE guidance on this.

              If you are opening windows and doors, consider fire safety, and whether this could impact on the confidentiality of sensitive conversations.

              8. Guidance for those who develop COVID-19 symptoms or are identified as a close contact

                You will need to ensure that staff are clear on what they should do if they develop COVID-19 symptoms (in the office or otherwise) or are identified as a close contact. Notwithstanding the government guidance on self-isolation and testing, you may consider that it is appropriate to implement additional measures around reporting and attendance at the office.

                9. Commuting

                  As part of your risk assessment, you should consider the risks posed by COVID-19 throughout all aspects of your business activity – this will include your employees' commute.

                  10. Other issues

                    Bear in mind other health and safety issues, for example fire safety and manual handling, and how you can manage these within a COVID-19 context.

                    Depending on the measures you take, you will also need to consider whether additional protections are needed for those who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, for example, due to medical conditions or pregnancy.

                    If you are looking to adopt a hybrid working model in the longer term, our earlier blog includes useful advice.

                    This is a high-level summary and provides examples of some of the issues to think about when returning to the office, if you have any queries please get in touch with your usual Brodies contact in the employment and immigration team.

                    Workbox COVID-19 office policy

                    Workbox by Brodies, our HR and employment law site has a template COVID-19 office policy which includes example wording on a range of issues when returning to the office. Workbox also has detailed and practical guidance on all of the issues you will be thinking about before returning to the office. 

                    Workbox is great - it gives us access to up-to-date and easy to understand HR guidance. The template documents available on the site are really, really useful.T Clarke Contracting Limited


                    Nicola Boardley

                    Practice Development Lawyer

                    Kathleen Morrison

                    Practice Development Lawyer