By Andrew Johnson MD at PowWowNow

The government has published its ‘roadmap’ for progressively lifting lockdown restrictions, but many are asking for further clarity over how to ensure the safety of workers as we begin to reopen the economy. With companies responsible for worker safety, business leaders need to know what steps they should be putting in place to minimise risk and create a secure environment for the future.

The legal responsibility of employers

Employees can refuse to work if they have a reasonable belief they are in serious or imminent danger, since Section 44 of the Employment Act 1996 finds that an employee has the right not to be subjected to any detriment by any act, or any deliberate failure to act, by his [or her] employer.

Consequently, business leaders will need to comprehensively assess the risk of workers’ exposure to Covid-19 when encouraging staff to return to the office, and put in place adequate measures to reduce any risk wherever they can. Companies will need to carry out thorough risk assessments, and to ensure there is transparency for workers around the risks found and the measures taken to mediate them.

Safeguarding health in the office

Your priority in maintaining a healthy workplace is ensuring any sick employees stay at home for as long as they could be contagious. Coming in to work when ill risks their own health, but also the health of others. You must ensure you build a culture that allows workers to feel supported when asking to stay home, and not feel they are compromising their career.

Additionally, measures will be required to keep the office safe. Allocating different arrival times for your employees can help minimise crowding on the commute, while staggered break times can ease the demand for communal spaces at one time, and ensure social distancing can be maintained. Different shift patterns for your staff can also reduce the number of workers in the office at any one time, allowing desks to be placed at safer distances, and improving safety.

You should encourage meetings to be carried out using video and conference calling tools wherever appropriate, while offices will need to invest in more work tools to prevent sharing of equipment and cross-contamination. Hygiene equipment will be needed, including PPE, hand sanitizer, and disinfectants to allow employees to keep work surfaces clean.

Safeguarding mental health

Whenever people experience major changes to their routines and their way of life, mental health can be at risk— and an ongoing public health crisis is a difficult time for all. Therefore, business leaders should implement processes to support mental health and show staff they are being prioritised. You should ensure your staff are aware of the mental health services they can access, and offer managers training to make sure they are able to deal effectively with mental health issues. Your sick leave policies should be updated to allow workers to take time off for mental, as well as physical, health reasons.

Evolving attitudes to remote working

At present, employees have a legal right to request flexible working once they have worked for an employer for 26 continuous weeks. This application can be denied only if there are statutory grounds for the rejection. There has also been some discussion among senior political figures reported in the media around whether this law could be strengthened to making flexible working the default position for all workers.

Although the law remains unchanged as yet, it is clear the Covid-19 pandemic has changed attitudes towards remote working across the country. If your business has successfully carried out remote working during lockdown, it will be harder for organisations to find grounds for rejecting flexible working requests- especially with the appropriate technology now in place. As well as this, there is likely to be a rise in demand from employees for flexible working options.

Business leaders must reevaluate their remote working policies and update them in accordance with the change in attitudes around flexible working and the ongoing danger of coronavirus. Empowering staff to work from home whenever they need to will help protect your workforce’s health.

To make this long-term shift towards more flexible working, you must make sure the necessary technologies have been invested in so that employees can carry out daily tasks effectively, and productivity is not adversely affected.

Communication is crucial, so you must invest in good video and conference calling tools, and utilise web messaging platforms and file-sharing tools so that workers can continue to collaborate and share ideas remotely.

The ongoing pandemic is having a devastating impact on lives and businesses globally. For a sustainable future, business leaders must balance ensuring the survival of their company with the safety of their workers, both of which rely upon each other. By implementing the above processes, you can safeguard your staff and move onto a secure path for the future.