Since COVID-19 restrictions were eased in July, people have no longer been asked to work from home. The Government has repeatedly emphasised the benefits of returning to the office, stating it is important for productivity and collaboration.
With cases of COVID-19 expected to rise over the winter months, the guidance on working from home may change again. The government has outlined a COVID-19 Autumn and Winter Plan for England, which includes two approaches.
Plan A focuses on ensuring everyone is vaccinated and includes booster jabs for vulnerable people, health workers and over-50s and jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds. However, if the NHS becomes inundated with cases, Plan B could include advice to work from home for a “limited” period.
Will more employers jump the gun and ask their staff to work remotely to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in their workplaces?
According to the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), working from home is one of the most effective ways to prevent the epidemic from growing.
It has advised that remote working helps to reduce contacts, including associated transport and social interactions, which has a strong impact on virus transmission. This has a significant impact on the R number, which is the number of people that one infected person will pass on a virus to, on average.
The REACT survey carried out by Imperial College London showed that working from home reduced the chance of catching COVID-19. Those who were working from home were less likely to test positive than those who left their homes to work in February.
“With more people returning to the office, employers need to be mindful that keeping employees COVID-safe in their workplaces this winter may be challenging, so it’s essential to plan now,” says Julie Ennis, CEO of corporate services at Sodexo UK & Ireland.
“Many organisations have been operating a hybrid working arrangement for some months now, but this alone may not be sufficient as we head into winter. A planned, flexible approach to the space available – along with open consultation with workers – will help to ensure both safety and trust among teams coming into the office.”
Although social distancing limits are no longer in place, businesses still have a legal duty to manage risks to staff and customers. Employers must follow official safety guidance and carry out risk assessments.
“Ensuring precautions are visible, including the presence of your service and cleaning colleagues, will encourage employees to continue to work in offices and feel safe,” says Ennis.
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“As mental health comes more into focus through the winter months, it’s important to recognise the role that the office plays in aiding the wellbeing of workers – especially those potentially disconnected from friends and family.”
It’s also important to remember that each person will have their own ideas about what is appropriate in terms of physical distancing, masks and disinfecting hands and surfaces.
“This may lead to some discomfort, so it will be vital to have clear policies and procedures in place: not only will they reduce the kind of workplace frictions that make organisations less effective, but they will also help preserve trust and maintain engagement,” Ennis says.
“Asking for the team's suggestions – with clarity of communication around new policies, procedures, and training to reinforce new practices – will improve the safety culture,” she says. “Additionally, setting clear expectations on roles and responsibilities is critical to ensuring a safe working environment that the team will want to work in.”
If you involve employees in the decision-making, Ennis states, the pay-off in terms of trust will be enormous. Ultimately, bringing employees into the process means enabling them to raise concerns in a respectful environment.
Finally, workers can ask to work from home as part of a flexible working request. However, employers don't have to agree, even if the individual has worked from home throughout the pandemic. With more employers embracing remote and flexible working practices, though, it may be easier for employees and employers to come to an agreement.