Businesses across the UK are preparing for the return of employees to offices and workplaces as Covid-19 lockdown restrictions continue to ease in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The snapshot. In England, while legal restrictions on going to the workplace were effectively lifted on June 1 and removed entirely on July 4, government guidance maintained that workers should continue working from home if possible. On Aug. 1, the government lifted this guidance, saying that working from home is simply “one way” to operate safely. However, a recent analysis from The Guardian showed that many big businesses are sticking to home working arrangements or delaying a partial return until September at the earliest.

The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments also lifted the legal restrictions on going to work. However, their guidance says working from home remains the default.

Slow to return. Employers and employees alike have embraced working from home. Remote working has been in place across the UK since the start of the lockdown restrictions in March and is considered to be a success.

In fact, remote working seems to be favored by many workers; a recent analysis by Morgan Stanley’s research unit AlphaWise showed that only 34% of UK white-collar employees have gone back to work, compared with France, Germany and Italy where 68% have already returned to offices.

But as many employers in the UK continue to prepare for a return to the workplace, concerns arise over how to do so safely.

Safety Guidance

The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the professional body for HR and people development, advises that before employees can return to work, they should consider the physical safety and mental well-being of their workers.

Staffing buyers should heed to this advice as well.

Organizations should first consider if they can meet three conditions, the CIPD states: “Is it essential for [the workers] to be in the workplace to do their job, is it sufficiently safe and is it mutually agreed with workers. Even with those measures in place the return to workplaces must still be gradual so that social distancing can be maintained.”

Meanwhile, staffing giants The Adecco Group, Randstad and ManpowerGroup formed an HR services industry alliance and launched the “UK and Ireland Safely Back to Work guide.” Some recommendations in the report include: Keeping doors open where possible to limit the need to touch door frames, handles, push buttons, etc.; having cleaners update a prominently posted “confirmation of cleaning” list upon completion of cleaning; providing a good supply of hand wipes throughout the workplace; and establishing staggered start and finish times to help enforce social distancing.

The governments for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also published guides on working safely during Covid-19.

In England the government published “Five steps to working safely”:

  1. Carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment.
  2. Develop cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures.
  3. Help people to work from home.
  4. Maintain two meter social distancing, where possible.
  5. Where people cannot be two meters apart, manage transmission risk.

As businesses continue to reopen in England, more guidance will be issued.

In Scotland, all business workplaces that are not specifically required to be closed should consider a set of key questions – and at all times work on a precautionary basis:

  1. Is what you do essential or material to the effort against the virus or to the well-being of society?
  2. Is your business able to open in accordance with the current position in the Scotland’s Route Map?
  3. Are you able to demonstrate and give confidence to your workforce that you can consistently practice safe physical distancing and comply with all other standard health and safety requirements?

In Wales, similar guidance recommends maintaining a distance of two meters between all persons on particular premises, limiting close face-to-face interaction, improving hygiene, and providing information to those entering or working at premises about how to minimize risk.

Northern Ireland also published its own return to work guidance, “Working through this together,” which is similar to England’s five-step guide.

While all workers in the UK have an obligation to obey lawful and reasonable instructions given by their employer, employees who refuse to attend the workplace because they reasonably believe that there is a serious and imminent danger have certain protections under employment rights legislation.