How to return to the office safely

Law firms are making tentative steps towards reopening offices in the UK after lockdown. Dentons was the first to announce a return for those who would prefer to work in the office, in mid-June, while others are still evaluating what should constitute the new normal. The Law Society has distilled government guidance on returning to work into a practical framework and toolkit, aimed at all firms, from sole practitioners to international giants. 

‘The basic principles state that staff should work from home if they can, but go to the office if they must,’ says Alexandra Cardenas, head of public affairs at the Law Society. She is speaking at a seminar moderated by Stephen Denyer, director of strategic relationships, on the guidance. ‘Some trainees and associates may be living in flat-shares, working on a chest of drawers instead of a desk and sharing the kitchen table with others. In these circumstances they may prefer to be in the office.’

First steps

A risk assessment is essential. Firms should consider staff especially vulnerable to Covid-19 – pregnant women, for example, or those with an underlying health condition. These employees should be supported to work from home, or, if this is not practical, redeployed in the organisation – being mindful of ‘protected characteristics’ under equalities legislation. ‘The guidance does not trump existing legislation, such as that governing health and safety, anti-money laundering or equality,’ says Cardenas. For firms with over 50 employees, results of the risk assessment should be displayed on the firm’s website. ‘It is not enough to display on the intranet only,’ she says.

Mitigating measures

We are now very familiar with the social distancing of 2m (to be reduced to 1m if other measures are in place) and enhanced hygiene that are required to minimise transmission of Covid-19. Translated to the workplace, this means a very different set-up to early March. Kitchens may be out of bounds, due to possible contamination of fridge door handles and surfaces. Turnstiles are likely to be deactivated for the same reason. Movement around the building should be carefully controlled through the creation of one-way systems (and judicious use of floor tape) and the number of people who can use toilets or the lift at any one time restricted. The necessity for frequent handwashing means that posters should be displayed, reminding people of the need for stringent hygiene.

Getting to and from work

The guidance recommends staggering arrival and departure times, to minimise the risk of crowding at entrances and exits. Extra parking, storage for belongings and bike racks are all good ideas, with many people reluctant to use public transport. ‘Staff who do use public transport may wish to wear face coverings,’ says Cardenas. ‘The guidance does not encourage face coverings in the office unless the risk assessment advises so, but staff should be allowed to wear these if they want, bearing in mind it is the employer’s responsibility to tell them how to do this effectively.’

When at work

Hot-desking is out. Instead, the government and HSE advise the use of one desk per person for the week, rather than interchanging desks every day. ‘Many firms are encouraging staff to bring in everything that they need and are providing only the desk – which allows for more stringent cleaning at the end of the day,’ says Cardenas. Firm stationery – such as branded pens and paper – should be removed from meeting rooms to avoid cross-contamination. Where it is not possible to move workstations far apart, arrange people to work side-by-side or facing away from each other rather than face-to-face, and erect screens to separate people from each other. ‘In most instances the essential workforce, such as a litigation team that needs to be in the office, are being divided into Team A and Team B,’ says Cardenas. ‘The teams may rotate attendance in the office, and if one of them does develop symptoms it is easier to isolate just that team.’ Meetings should be virtual, if possible, and a robust approach taken with any recalcitrant partners or clients who insist otherwise.

Managing client visits and contractors

Connecting remotely should be encouraged, but where this is not an option visitors should be limited and sign in and out if this is practical (without using the same pen). Guidance on social distancing and hygiene should be explained to visitors ideally before arrival at the office through email and on the firm’s website. Firms should establish ‘host responsibilities’ on Covid-19 and provide any necessary training.

Look after staff, regardless of location

The lockdown was an abrupt shift in working practices, without much time for forethought. When reopening consideration should be given to whose attendance is genuinely business-critical. The finance team, post room, facilities manager? Remember that first-aiders and fire wardens are still required. Keep in touch with those still working at home, providing support for their mental health and wellbeing. With this in mind, consider how to handle any stigma that may attach to staff that have had Covid-19 and manage the procedures for notifying other team members if someone is infected.

Communicate with staff

‘Consult, communicate and engage,’ emphasises Cardenas. This means using existing channels to communicate with staff. Simple messaging is best – whiteboards and signage to explain changes to schedules, new procedures for arrival and to outline existing and any new firm policies. Vary the methods of communication and consult staff representatives. And remember to stock up on floor tape.

The Law Society’s practical framework and toolkit can be found here.

 Katharine Freeland is a freelance journalist