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“COVID secure”: stepping safely out of lockdown

29 May: The “COVID secure” message is at the forefront of the government’s return to work strategy. But what does this really mean for organisations and individuals, and will it provide a stepping stone to a safe working life after lockdown?

Lockdown has been an anxious time for everyone. So the prospect of an easing of restrictions, including a possible return to the workplace, should be welcomed. Yet many employees, and their employers, are uncertain about what their post-lockdown working environments will look like and how they can stay healthy, safe and productive.

For most staff in the financial sector, home working is likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. Official guidance still remains that “everyone should work from home, unless they cannot work from home”. But the government also wants people to start thinking about “how to prepare for when office working returns”, and is making it clear that no one should “be forced into an unsafe workplace”.

Culture of trust

As with any health and safety hazard, employers must assess the risks people face from COVID-19 and do everything reasonably practicable to minimise these. This will require fully involving staff in the decisions and precautions by listening and talking to them about what they do and how best to manage any risks. High levels of anxiety and fear about the exit from lockdown make this involvement even more critical: a culture of trust and collaboration is most likely to allay fears and produce constructive, and safe, outcomes.

In line with government advice, where people do need to come in to the office – such as those in roles critical for business and operational continuity, or critical staff who cannot work remotely due to home circumstances – employers must follow guidelines on maintaining social distancing, handwashing and enhanced workplace cleanliness and hygiene.

Risk-based controls may include staggered shifts, providing handwashing facilities at entry and exit points, introducing one-way systems in buildings, keeping work areas and surfaces clean, and physically re-arranging workstations to keep people two metres apart. Employers also need to consider the safety of staff travelling to and from work, as well work-related travel.

Where social distancing cannot be followed in full during a specific activity, organisations need to decide whether the activity really needs to continue for the business to operate. If it does, options might include keeping the time involved as short as possible, using screens to create a physical barrier, using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face), and introducing team “bubbles” – small groups made up of the same individuals – to limit social interaction.

In planning for different return to work scenarios, businesses also need to think about how best to protect people at higher risk from COVID-19, as well as the needs, and any associated risks, of workers with protected characteristics under equalities legislation.

Catalyst for change

Designing the post-lockdown workplace isn’t limited to physical health and safety issues. Businesses need to keep a close eye on mental health. The switch to remote working brought its own stresses and strains, but the return to a so-called “new normal”, whether temporary or more long term, is fraught with anxiety. Equally, those still working from home need to be assured they have not been forgotten, by keeping them fully involved in decisions and well connected to their office-based colleagues. 

A “COVID secure” organisation is the first step in a much longer journey back to the workplace. The virus and associated lockdown may have fundamentally shifted how we perceive hazards and risk, and made us rethink our approach to the health, safety and wellbeing of ourselves and our colleagues. But the “stay home, save lives” message may also have ingrained a fear of return to work and wider social interactions, and made some people more risk averse.

Ultimately, the sudden shifts associated with COVID-19 may have provided a catalyst for some deeper cultural changes that were already underway before the outbreak. Looking further ahead, the most likely scenario in the finance sector is the emergence of an agile, hybrid working environment with an ongoing, and perhaps fluid, mix of home and office working.

In this context, discussions with staff should focus on broader long term issues about what, how, when and where they do things. This should stimulate debate about how we might work in a post-COVID world, creating both a challenge and opportunity for businesses to rethink how they deliver productive, but also safer, healthier and even happier working environments.   

Further support

More information on ensuring your workplace is “COVID secure” is available from the Health and Safety Executive and in the government’s sector-based guidance. The Society of Occupational Medicine has also produced a useful toolkit