What risks face offices post-COVID?

As people consider returning to workplaces, such as offices, we look at what risks may face them in the bid to become COVID-secure.

The term’ office worker’ applies to a large proportion of the UK population, covering jobs across the public and private sectors. Many people who typically work in an office will likely have been working from home for most of the pandemic, in line with the government’s stay at home messaging.

As restrictions begin to ease in line with the government’s coronavirus roadmap, some businesses may be considering bringing staff back to offices in the near future. However, even as cases drop, the threat of COVID-19 remains. As such, workplaces must take the necessary precautions to prevent outbreaks and protect staff.

Young woman in office wearing face mask

The risks will vary from workplace to workplace, with offices facing unique challenges in their COVID-19 approach. The measures required in each office will depend on the tasks done there, the space available and how many people may be present at any one time. Due to the many factors at play, it is essential to carry out a risk assessment in the workplace to determine the threats and put appropriate solutions in place.

In this guide, we have detailed the risks that may face offices once employees return to support your assessments and help you to consider the provisions you need.

Working in close proximity

As we enter what we hope to be the pandemic’s final stages, social distancing remains critical. Even beyond the coronavirus roadmap, maintaining distances from others will be vital in limiting the spread of COVID-19 and other infection. As such, employers need to reconsider the proximity to which employees work together in workplaces.

Depending on the layout of your office, people may work nearby to one another. This could include banks of desks or individual rooms that multiple people work in. It may also be a particular risk in office spaces that house large teams or high staff numbers.

To make the office COVID-secure, you need to reconsider where people work to allow employees more distance. In an ideal world, staff members will have their own desks at least two meters away from others. If you have a limited amount of space to work with, you may need to arrange desks so that people can work back-to-back or side-by-side rather than face-to-face, which poses a more substantial risk of spreading infection.

You may also consider using screens between workstations to mitigate risk further, especially if you do not have the capacity for 2 meters of space between employees. This will help you to maintain social distancing while enabling staff to get on with their jobs safely.

If you cannot secure distance between employees, it may be worth considering reducing capacity. This could include allowing some people to work from home or incorporating a shift rota that limits the number of people present at any time.

Communal areas and flow of people

Alongside desk areas and workstations, you also need to evaluate risk in communal areas, such as corridors, receptions, stairwells, canteens, kitchens and bathrooms. These can often become gathering points, so it is essential to have precautions that prevent multiple employees from visiting these areas simultaneously.

A good starting point is considering the flow of people. For example, which way do staff usually go to enter and exit rooms? Are there areas that are subject to congestion as workers move through the office? Are there small spaces that can only handle a set number of people at a time? These are all common threats that affect every office and can make social distancing harder.

Colleagues walking through an office

You can take several measures to manage the flow of people and prevent crowding in communal areas. First, incorporate one-way systems where possible to avoid people crossing over one another and limit traffic. You can also place thresholds on the number of workers allowed in one area at a time, especially for smaller rooms. Use signs to ensure everyone is aware of the rules and make sure there is adequate space for queuing. This can prevent too many employees from being gathered in one space. You might also want to consider the wearing of masks in communal areas for additional protection.

Another measure that may help with reducing traffic is staggering break times. It is often at these times that communal areas, such as bathrooms, kitchens and staff rooms, will be frequently used. By carefully planning when employees take their breaks, you can prevent congestion in these areas. You can also utilise outdoor spaces for breaktime, if it’s available, or encourage staff to eat lunches at their distanced desks.

It will also help if you have adequate facilities, such as bathrooms and kitchen space, that allow people to access the amenities they need without compromising their health. If you don’t, it might be another hint that you need to reduce office capacity by allowing some people to continue to work from home.

It may also be worth carrying out workforce training so they are aware of the risks and how to act accordingly.

Hygiene

Offices can be home to a surprising amount of germs, with up to 10 million bacteria living on a desk. These bacteria can be present on several surfaces touched during the working day, resulting in the infection spreading between employees. As such, desks and other shared equipment and surfaces can be a touchpoint for coronavirus outbreaks, as well as other viruses.

Poor hygiene accounts for a considerable amount of infection. By implementing rigorous cleaning of the workplace alongside staff hygiene, you can dramatically lower the risk posed to your workforce.

You should create a frequent cleaning schedule covering every area of the office, including all desks and communal spaces. All surfaces should be included, such as keyboards, door handles, printers and other touchpoints that could host germs. You will also want to ensure staff have the appropriate equipment to clean their areas during the day, such as bins for waste and disinfectant if they need it.

It’s also recommended that hotdesking is avoided and that staff members have a designated desk to reduce cross-contamination of germs.

On top of office cleaning, you need to empower staff to manage their personal hygiene.

Skin contact accounts for 80% of infection, so regular hand cleaning can reduce the spread of viruses substantially. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that your staff have access to handwashing facilities throughout the day and take frequent breaks to wash their hands, using warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. They should wash their hands when they are visibly soiled, before and after eating, after using the bathroom and if they have coughed or sneezed onto their hand.

There may be times when handwashing is not possible, such as during busy periods or while staff move around. In these instances, it is worthwhile providing your staff members with hand sanitiser. The HSE recommends a combined approach of both handwashing and sanitiser to provide increased protection. Some offices may have wall-mounted sanitiser units already, but it may be worth considering personal sanitisers that staff can carry with them and use at desks or while on the move. In some cases, these can be much more efficient than wall-mounted units. It’s also essential to seek a sanitiser that is effective at killing germs.

Once you have given staff the tools for good hand hygiene, it is essential to embed it as a culture. People can easily fall into lazy habits, especially as the risk of COVID-19 seems to be abating, but comprehensive handwashing and sanitiser use are fundamental to preventing future peaks. Ensure staff have been made aware of best practice and its necessity in your workplace. You may also wish to display posters that remind them of the proper hand washing technique, such as above basins and throughout the office.

Visitors

As well as your staff, you will need to consider the risk posed by any visitors to your office. This could include people coming in for meetings, cleaners or drivers delivering parcels.

Presently, it is recommended you minimise the number of visitors coming on-site, utilising virtual means or telephone calls instead where possible. However, if anyone is coming into the premises, you should make sure they understand the protocol to follow (such as cleaning hands upon arrival, wearing masks, following one-way systems and not visiting if they have any COVID-19 symptoms). This will ensure they feel safe during their visit, as well as protect the health of employees present in the workplace.

Receptionist scanning temperature from a visitor

It is also worth implementing a process to track details of anyone entering your offices, such as showcasing a Test and Trace QR barcode or recording sheet. This means that if a visitor goes on to test positive for coronavirus, or someone they may have been with in the workplace does, you can ensure people are alerted, and action is taken before an outbreak spirals out of control.

Illness

Illness has always been a factor that employers have to deal with, but it has taken new precedence during the pandemic. It is more crucial than ever that staff feel comfortable taking sick leave when they need to, particularly if they have symptoms that could signal COVID-19. This will reduce the risk of rising infections, which could leave you with significant absences if it affects enough of your workforce.

You may also want to employ lateral flow testing as a preventative measure. Currently, this is open to businesses with more than ten employees, though individuals can also visit test sites or order tests to their home. Staff will need to complete twice-weekly tests, with the result given in 30 minutes. This helps to capture positive tests, even if the individual is asymptomatic, so people can isolate at home rather than spreading the virus at work. Alternatively, you may use tools like fever scanners or temperature monitors to check for people who may be unwell.

By identifying staff members who may be unwell and encouraging them to stay at home, you can protect other employees from the risk of COVID-19 and other illnesses. This can prevent more people from becoming infected, reducing total sick leave and saving you money in lost productivity.

Conclusion

As we move forward in the coronavirus roadmap, it is essential that businesses put in place measures to reduce future outbreaks. Beyond this, it allows you to carry out your responsibility as an employer to safeguard employee health and safety. It can also benefit productivity by stopping disruption through staff sickness and leave, helping to fuel post-pandemic recovery.

If you are considering returning to the workplace, you must take adequate action to secure your offices and other premises so that the threat of COVID-19 is minimised. This means carrying out your own risk assessment, with consideration of the factors outlined above. This will allow you to put in place the proper precautions before workers return to site, reassuring them in their ability to remain safe while undertaking their jobs.

Further guidance for creating COVID-secure offices can be found on the government website.

At Protecta, we seek to help businesses take the necessary steps to recover from the pandemic, reinforce staff safety and embed preventative measures to avoid future outbreaks. Our office COVID-19 safety training courses and workplace solutions can help you in your mission.

Get in touch today to find out more.