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Returning to the workplace in a COVID-19 environment

This article was written by Conor O'Loughlin, Marketing Officer at Advantage Group UK.

Like many employers across the UK, Advantage Group UK are in the process of getting all of our offices COVID-secure ahead of our planned return in September.

There have been months of planning, including lots of discussions with employees and our various serviced office providers to ensure we have everything in place. We have reduced the numbers of employees we have in each location each day and we have put start and leave times in place to ensure we don’t have bottlenecks upon arrival or departure during key times. We have produced bespoke health & safety posters for each location, installed floor markings and protective screens for desks, enhanced cleaning, provided plenty of hand sanitizer and 20 thousand facemasks, and we will also be implementing temperature checks on arrival. However, we know that a number of our employees are still nervous about our eventual return.

One of the biggest concerns our employees face is around the journey to the office, as many colleagues, especially our teams based in London, rely on public transport for their commute.

I spoke to two of our colleagues who have recently visited our London office and asked them about their experience.

Lucy Sheliker – Head of Compliance, Legal and Customer Services

“Initially, I was a little concerned about traveling to London. My last trip to the City was mid-March and having spent the last few months in lockdown with my family, it felt somewhat unfamiliar, so I was a little anxious about making the journey.

Like many others, I had not used public transport during that time, so I was uneasy about journeying into a typically highly-populated area. I was also concerned about how wearing a mask for a long journey was going to feel.”

You travel from Kent. How was the journey?

“I commute from an overground train station, as opposed to the tube. My local train station featured a one-way system, clear signage to direct one-way traffic, and an open ticket office.
There were very few people on the platform and only a handful of other commuters.”

Were you able to socially distance once on the train?

“I was the only passenger in the whole carriage on the way to London, as well as the only person to travel all the way to Cannon Street. The carriage had good ventilation and due to the fact that there were very few people on the train, I didn’t have to worry about social distancing or people being too close to me. I took the 9:15, meaning I travelled off-peak, which I assume was the reason for the lower amount of commuters.

Once I arrived at Cannon Street station, again, there were one-way traffic systems implemented by the staff wherever possible. There were also spacious areas where you could sanitise your hands and free facemasks were provided. All of the staff at Cannon Street station were wearing PPE.”

On arrival to Bank/Poultry, were there many people on the streets? Were shops and cafés open? Were you able to get lunch?

“There were a few people out and about, but the streets were much quieter than normal. Some people were wearing masks while walking around while others wore none.

There were some eateries open, such as Pret and Waitrose, and a couple of other cafes.

Along Cannon Street, a number of shops were shut, including places like All Bar One and M&S at the train station. However, there were also many additional eateries that were open such as Birley, Joe Café and The Candle Maker. Overall, there were plenty of places where you could eat on your lunch break.”

How was your journey home? 

“There were a few more people present during my journey home, but everyone was wearing masks. Social distancing was comfortably in place and there was plenty of fresh air and ventilation on the train, thanks to open windows. One-way traffic was present on the return train as well.”

How did you feel after the trip?

“I felt very positive about the experience and I’m glad I made it. The restrictions and measures in place, both during the commute and upon arrival to the office itself, allowed me to feel comfortable about potentially returning to the workplace full-time.

I certainly came away feeling safer and more confident after seeing how much effort everyone has put into making travel across London as safe as possible.”

Zeena D’Souza – Compliance Partner

How did you feel before you set off? What specific concerns did you have?

“My main concern was primarily regarding the train journey itself and people not adhering to social distancing. I hadn’t travelled on public transport since lockdown began, so like many others, I was rather apprehensive.

Facemasks, as we know, are compulsory on public transport and wearing a mask for a 45-minute-long journey was somewhat uncomfortable, but obviously necessary. There was the odd person not following the rules, which was disappointing.

I was also traveling at peak time. However, despite there being no restrictions in place on the train, which would normally signpost where commuters should and shouldn’t sit, I noticed that people were sitting one person per chair (double bench). There were also more people standing near the doors trying to keep distant from each other.

There were also posters all over the trains demonstrating social distancing rules.

Cannon Street was definitely the busiest station that I passed through on my commute. However, once I’d arrived, there was signage everywhere and station staff were giving out free facemasks. It was the only station I noted doing this, and I didn’t see any being given out at London Bridge.

Cannon Street station was well-marked out with informative signage which tells you where to walk, as well as additional instructions regarding health and safety measures.”

How did you feel afterwards having made the trip?

I didn’t find it difficult as such, as it had been something I’d been ready for. On a normal day, there’d be people everywhere, but this was not the case today. I remain slightly anxious for the future as more companies return to the workplace and the possibility to social distancing, but this is something I would raise with my manager, if and when it becomes an issue.”

Listening to employees discussing how they feel as they transition back into the workplace, and engaging with them in open and honest dialogue, is going to remain key if we are to ensure we are both mitigating risk but also effectively managing expectations and employee wellbeing.

It’s important to look at each individual’s circumstances. In situations where the employee really does not wish to return to the office, it’s vital that the employer takes a systematic approach and looks at the individual’s perspective and understands their reasons, so they can work around it.

In the article for People Management Magazine, Kate Palmer, Associate Director of Advisory at Peninsula, urges employers not to take a blanket approach when dealing with employees reluctant to return to work, and that employers should factor in various considerations before making a decision. Considerations could include someone who has been, or continues to be, shielding based on ongoing medical advice, or a single parent who has been unable to secure childcare, or someone who has an immediate family member in the household with a serious underlying health condition.

However, if an organisation has followed all of the government guidance and ensured that the risk is minimised for employees but they still refuse to return, then businesses need to be prepared to conclude that a staff member doesn’t have reasonable grounds. This may be deemed as unauthorised absence and the employer needs to think carefully about how they approach disciplinary proceedings.

I also spoke to Martin Chitty, Employment and Equalities partner at our advisors Gowling WLG. From his perspective:

"The steps Advantage have taken reflect the need to balance access, risk and making the working environment safe and attractive for staff.

One of the biggest issues our clients face, as mentioned by colleagues at Advantage, is that although they are comfortable enough with being at work the psychological barrier for some, and the concern of many is getting to work. Employers do not have a Health and Safety at Work Act responsibility for getting to work but in pure employment law terms they cannot ignore the legitimate concerns that staff have.

Taking disciplinary action for refusal to return to work is possible, but employers will need both a fair reason to dismiss and follow a fair procedure prior to dismissal. They also need to know that there are specific protections for employees who raise safety concerns (whether they are personal to them or relate to others) as well as raising whistleblowing concerns. Ongoing engagement and discussions with your employees as well as constant review of the measures that you have in place will hopefully mitigate or reduce employee fears and concerns. Remember that it is legitimate to ask people to explain their concerns – so there is no excuse for employers who make ill-informed decisions"

We hope that, like us, you too are shortly welcoming your employees and colleagues back into a safe and productive work environment.