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Getting Back to Work - Charities and COVID-Safe Offices

on Thursday, 01 October 2020.

Responding, surviving, adapting, strengthening - charities have been on a difficult (and for some, desperate) journey in the last few months and now face the next stage.

Having scrambled to establish furloughing and home working arrangements in March there is now the prospect of a return to the office to manage. This may well be just as challenging.

The Government's announcement on 22 September is of course highly relevant, representing renewed caution as we are now encouraged again to work at home where possible rather than return to work en masse just yet. Nevertheless, as charities have been preparing for a return to the workplace and will continue to do that over the coming months, careful preparation and compliance is vital.

The Government continues to issue and revise copious guidance - see particularly Working safely during Coronavirus where you will see specific guidance for various sectors and work environments, including for offices and contact centres.

As well as offices, many charities have operational sites to consider - schools, shops, cafés, service centres, churches, theatres, heritage buildings and so forth. These are subject to their own specific considerations and guidance and we will not be considering this here. However if you have any questions as to such matters, please get in touch.

Essential messages from the Government's guidance include:

"It is critical that employers, employees and the self-employed take steps to keep everyone safe. We know that most office workers are not currently in the workplace, we hope this document will help those who are already working because they cannot work from home, as well as help other people think about how to prepare for when office working returns. The government is clear that workers should not be forced into an unsafe workplace and the health and safety of workers and visitors, and public health, should not be put at risk. We know many people are also keen to return to or contribute to volunteering. Organisations have a duty of care to volunteers to ensure as far as reasonably practicable they are not exposed to risks to their health and safety. This guidance around working safely during COVID-19 should ensure that volunteers are afforded the same level of protection to their health and safety as others, such as workers and visitors."

Naturally, the effects of Coronavirus change continually and accordingly this guidance will date quickly. You will need to monitor the situation as it applies to your charity's circumstances over time - updates to the guidance are given in Working safely during Coronavirus. One of the essential lessons of the last few months is that charities must be able to move quickly to adapt their working arrangements in response to practical and regulatory changes.

What Should You Do to Prepare For a Return to the Office?

Here are our recommendations:

  1. Decide on your own criteria for allowing someone to work in the office
  2. Conduct a comprehensive risk assessment and action plan for restarting office working
  3. Begin to think now what the medium term future may look like for your charity

If you have any questions on this, please contact Chris Knight in the Charities team on 07468 698954or complete the form below.

Decide on your own criteria for allowing someone to work in the office

Factors to consider here are:

Is it essential? Home working should continue to be the principal way your charity accommodates its office staff. Is the work only possible from the office? And is the work essential at all or could you continue to make use of the Government's Job Retention Scheme for as long as it continues? You might also need to think about whether there is a priority order for the return of your staff to the office.

Is it safe? This includes getting to and from work safely, preferably by walking, cycling, driving, or public transport, in that order. The office must also be as safe as possible, encouraging social distancing, omitting non-essential or risky features such as common rooms, reducing risks (eg allowing one person in a kitchen or washroom at once), rearranging work stations, and maintaining COVID-appropriate cleaning regimes.

Is it agreed? Staff consultation and information sharing is critical in this situation, ensuring everyone is reassured and clear as to how your office will operate.

Conduct a comprehensive risk assessment and action plan for restarting office working

A risk assessment on the specific areas required for the reintroduction of office working must be conducted, so you work out how each element of risk will be addressed for your charity's situation.

We suggest this should include:

  • non-attendance if unwell (COVID-19 or not)
  • those at higher risk (clinically vulnerable etc)
  • those with protected characteristics (for Equality Act purposes)
  • first aid and first aiders
  • fire drills and marshals
  • reception and public areas
  • dealing with visitors
  • managing items in and out (including post)
  • wearing face coverings
  • hygiene
  • dedicated routes around the office
  • use of stairs and lifts
  • number of desks that can be occupied
  • use of the kitchens
  • use of printers
  • limiting use of toilets and wash basins
  • limiting movement between floors
  • use of meeting rooms
  • proximity of seated persons
  • not bringing in personal items
  • restricted team contact (see below)
  • readiness for office closure at very short notice
  • anything else relevant for your charity

The reference above to 'restricted team contact' is to consider the risk of a whole team having contact with each other and thus possibly incapacitating the whole team if COVID-19 is contracted.

In addition to the Government's track and trace system, you should consider developing your own. This need only be as straightforward as knowing for certain who is in what building on any date, so you can contact others who were in the same place as anyone who contracts COVID-19.

Like all risk management, the objective is to identify, assess, act on, monitor and review the relevant risks. Risk management is a dynamic exercise, so you will need to keep returning to this as you manage the risks and as circumstances change.

Begin to think now what the medium term future may look like for your charity

There has been a good deal of opinion circulated on what the future will look like and, whilst much of this is of course speculative, there are some issues which have become more likely than not.

Effective governance always demands control of the present and preparedness for the future, so naturally trustees and senior teams must also turn their attention to this emerging way of working.

As well as the uncertainties of such an exercise, every charity is different, so we can do no more than identify some areas you should be considering:

  • Commuting - the savings of time, money and energy combined with the health risks, suggest many will choose to reduce radically their commuting days by working at home and where possible people may choose to walk or cycle.
  • Office space - if the daily head count in the office is much less than pre-COVID, even once people do start to work from offices again, then less space will be required, with consequences for lease renewals, site sales, and long term cost savings.
  • IT and equipment - our reliance on IT has increased greatly and if home working, electronic document management and video conferencing continue to be used heavily then investment in IT will be a major element in business and financial planning. On a practical and healthcare level, each staff member's home working environment must be considered, and second screens, wireless mouse and keyboards, comfortable chairs and other items considered. Desk phones may no longer be required.
  • Welfare - as well as physical healthcare considerations, mental well-being must also be addressed, with reduced face to face contact and isolation of home working being key factors.
  • Childcare - for those who need this, it is a substantial consideration and employers need to be understanding so that new expectations do not adversely and unreasonably affect them.
  • Training and support - many are used to leaning on a colleague's know-how in the office but you need to ensure everyone has access to that know-how when working from home or with less people in the office, to ensure support for the individual as well as consistency and excellence for the whole charity.
  • Meetings - we have all grown used to video conferencing but you must make sure these are effective. This is a different medium than face to face. Different challenges and dynamics apply and you need to work out how to make these effective in terms of the IT requirements as well as the interpersonal issues.
  • Absence - if you have not already adapted your systems for holiday, sickness and other absence, you will need to do this. What works for a fully staffed office will not work for a situation with a sparsely populated office and others working from home.
  • Risk - you will need to continue to acknowledge the particular risks involved with more widely dispersed staff, including IT strength and cyber- attack, as well as issues identified above regarding welfare and the home-office set up.

The return to office working is one of the essentials of the next phase of adapting to the Coronavirus pandemic. As ever, good planning is the key to being in as strong a position as possible and this is the practical implication of the duties of trustees and senior team leaders.

If you have any questions on this, please contact Chris Knight in the Charities team on 07468 698954or complete the form below.

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