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Reopening the workplace: How to safely and effectively bring employees back to work during the COVID-19 pandemic

Has the time come for your business to reopen its doors? Businesses are slowly starting to reopen but many employees have mixed feelings about returning to their workplace.  

Reopening the business doors may provide much needed financial relief but it can be a minefield as an employer to know where to start with preparations to reopen. Employee safety is paramount. So, how can you ensure your employees feel comfortable to return to work and ensure you provide a safe environment? Rebecca Mian, Head of HR at Benenden Health, shares six tips on how they’ve put plans into place to begin to reopen the doors to employees into a safe working environment in the midst of the pandemic.

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1. Have a dedicated group within the business that looks after the pandemic situation

Aim to catch up daily. Scrutinise and discuss the government and HSE guidelines to keep on top of the changes. This will help you to be well equipped to know what steps need to be taken to ensure your place of work is safe. This group needs to evaluate the on-going situation, reviewing the following regularly:

  • Discuss and action if employees need additional equipment if they’re due to work from home for a long period, or if another lockdown happens and employees are sent back to work from home. This will make the transition from leaving the home/office environment easier for all.

  • Bring employees back into the business only if they are not able to work effectively at home and in a customer-centric way (due to a pick-up of customer demand). Determine the number of employees needed to handle the workload.

  • Plan how the working environment will change, following the government guidelines. This may take time to implement.

2. Decide how/if you need to bring employees back to work

Most people feel anxious about returning to work. You can help to ease this anxiety by ensuring you bring back the right people at the right time. When determining who goes back, it is largely based on personal circumstances , as well as focusing on roles which aren’t as well suited to working from home. Those who are more likely to come back first are those who struggle to operate from home, those having technology issues that make it very challenging to work from home, newer employees who may need to shadow other colleagues to make the transition into their role easier and those who are feeling socially isolated at home. 

Rebecca is keen to stress the importance of providing reassurance to employees, “To try to ensure staff at Benenden Health feel as comfortable as possible to return to work, the HR team are busy developing a video for colleagues that will showcase a virtual tour of the business with the new COVID-secure measures put in place for when the business and employees are ready to repopulate the offices.”

Employees who will be the last to come back are anyone who is vulnerable, has caring responsibilities, those who depend on public transport and employees that are shielding. Rebecca explains, “It isn’t a one size fits all approach and is being determined on a case-by-case basis. It’s paramount we get this right and ensure employees return to the office when the time is right for their personal and professional situation .”

3. PPE? First aiders? Perspex screens? Ensure you’re aware of the full extent of preparing your business to open its doors to employees

Don’t forget the health and safety aspect of opening your business up again. In order to keep the building and your people safe, you’ll need a number of first aiders and fire wardens in the building. Rebecca suggests, “As we’re adhering to the 2m rule and we’re categorised as an office/contact centre in the government guidelines, PPE won’t be provided to all employees but it is available to first aiders and mental health first aiders in case of an incident. Perspex screens have also been ordered to separate desks and people will be asked to take lunch at different times and to avoid communal areas. This means they won’t be able to make tea and coffee currently, so we’re recommending to employees they bring thermal flasks into work. As Benenden Health are aware of the mental health impact of this uncertain time, we have also ensured there is a Mental Health First Aider on site and contactable. In addition, employees are able to access the Mental Health resources available via their Benenden Health Membership.”

4. Assess your workplace and make appropriate adjustments 

Rebecca shares changes we’re making to our office environment:

  • Increased cleaning – have an office deep clean. Ensure a cleaner is on site during operating hours to keep on top of cleaning  at all times. Communicate to your employees the importance of a clear desk policy, this will assist the cleaners to clean effectively once everyone has left the building.

  • Install hand washing stations upon entrance to the building with hand sanitiser stations on floors/separated areas.

  • Install acrylic desk screens as needed.

  • Instil limited movement across the business to allow all colleagues to maintain 2 metre social distancing.

  • Design the office layout to ensure 2 metre social distancing – this may mean re-organising  your business space  .

  • Complete COVID-secure risk assessments and new office procedures. Ensure all staff undertake training (e-learning if possible) provided by the business before they return to work. Each returning employee must undertake and pass the training.

5. How to approach office repopulation

Make sure this process is gradual and appropriate. You need to be able to operate your business, whilst taking into account the individual circumstances of your employees (i.e. vulnerable, shielding, caring responsibilities, socially isolated, avoiding public transport if possible or travelling during peak times etc.). Ensure you have two-way communication with employees – keep your team informed regularly and throughout. Encourage your staff to keep their manager informed of their individual circumstances and to raise questions and concerns regarding returning to work.

6. Be flexible with your employees’ return to the office

Rebecca recommends, “Remember, the rules could change at any time and the approach needs to be flexible! Keep a close watch on government guidelines and recommendations. Ensure your business is equipped to change it’s working practice quickly if needed.”

Benenden Health has produced a coronavirus hub, with more tips and information about how to stay healthy as a business and individuals during the COVID-19 outbreak. It also outlines any changes or enhancements to our services in response to the global pandemic.

Visit the COVID-19 hub for more information.

Find out how Benenden Healthcare for Business could support your employees

Got a question and want to know more? Call us FREE on 0800 414 8179.