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Covid-secure offices and contact centres – applying government guidelines in the workplace

As sections of the UK economy are told they can resume operations, the government has produced "Covid-secure" guidance for offices and contact centres.

  The UK government has produced "Covid-secure" guidelines for those operating offices or contact centres (call centres). These apply widely to indoor environments such as offices, call centres, operations rooms and similar workplaces.
The office guidelines will likely be among the most widely utilised of the government's Covid-19 security measures, due to their broad applicability to all kinds of office-based work.
The guidelines recognise that the majority of office workers are currently working from home, and target businesses either with employees already in the office, or which plan to reopen their offices in the near future.
All office-based businesses should review the guidelines as soon as possible and start to implement the recommendations.
Businesses with office-based staff should be considering the following key principles:
1. Covid-19 risk assessments
In addition to office-specific risk assessments required by law, a Covid-19 risk assessment will need to be undertaken and should be completed before offices/call centres re-open. For offices/call centres that are already open, these assessments should be conducted without further delay.
The employer must make sure that the risk assessment addresses the risks of Covid-19 and that suitable control measures are implemented to reduce workplace risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level.
Employers should consult their workers and a health and safety representative selected by a recognised trade union, or a representative chosen by workers, although there is no further guidance on what to do if risk assessments cannot be agreed.
The office guidelines make clear that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will seek to take enforcement action against operators who do not have robust risk assessments in place.
Once the risk assessment has been prepared and agreed, the office guidelines stipulate that businesses must share the results of the risk assessment with their workforce and are encouraged to publish the results on their company website.
This becomes an expectation if a business employs more than 50 workers.  
2. Working from home and knowing your work-force
Government guidance remains that people should work from home, where they can.
It is anticipated that the majority of office-based workers will be able to work from home and office-based businesses should make every reasonable effort to adopt working from home practices for all staff that can practically do so (for further advice on safeguarding the health and safety of remote workers, please see our previous guidance).
When working from home is not possible, every effort should be made to comply with social distancing guidelines (see below).
Employers should identify clinically vulnerable individuals (CVIs) and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals (CEVIs). CEVIs have been advised not to work outside the home and employers should abide by this.
CVIs are at higher risk of severe illness and if CVIs cannot work from home, they should be offered the option of the safest available on site-roles, enabling them to stay two metres away from others.
If they have to spend time within two metres of others, a careful assessment is needed as to whether this involves an acceptable level of risk, although it is unclear what this means in practice and in reality will be a subjective assessment.
3. Social distancing
For some offices/contact centres, some individuals will be required to undertake work on site. The default position is that any on-site activity must be undertaken at a social distance, i.e., two metres away from other people.
Where social distancing cannot be followed in full for a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and if so, take all mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between staff.
Mitigating factors may include:
  • Planning for the minimum number of people needed on site to operate safely and effectively;
  • Keeping the activity time involved as short as possible;
  • Staggering arrival, departure and break times to reduce crowding into, out or around common areas;
  • Introducing one-way flow through buildings and providing floor markings and signage to workers to remind them to remain socially distant;
  • Reviewing office layouts and processes to allow people to work further apart from each other;
  • Using screens or barriers to separate people;
  • Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) if barriers/distancing measures are not possible;
  • Reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using fixed teams or partnering to prevent transmission among a large group of people;
  • Avoiding the use of hot desks and shared spaces/equipment;
  • Reducing maximum occupancy for lifts, providing hand sanitiser for the operation of lifts and encouraging the use of stairs where possible;
  • Using remote working tools to avoid in person meetings where possible and if contact meetings are required, maintaining social distance;
  • Limiting the number of visitors at any one time and ensuring social distancing and hygiene;
  • Providing training, guidance and signage on Covid-19-related safety measures.
4. Hygiene
Before offices and contact centres reopen, employers should ensure sites are clean and ready to restart. This should be incorporated into the Covid-19 risk assessment.
Office-based businesses should assess whether the workplace is sufficiently ventilated and if they have concerns, they will need to think about improving ventilation and airflow into the workplace and potentially seek advice from heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) engineers or advisers.
All areas of the office/contact centre should be regularly cleaned using usual cleaning products. Particular focus should be paid to regularly touched surfaces such as door handles, printers, lift buttons and keyboards.
Increased handwashing and hand sanitisation facilities should be made available to all occupants and signage about increased hygiene.
Once a business has undertaken all of these measures, they can download and display a notice to say that they have complied with the government's guidance.
It is not yet known whether the HSE will use these notices as a precursor for investigations/inquiries into health and safety standards in a workplace, but attention is likely to focus initially on businesses who do not display this notice.
The office guidelines are to be welcomed and while it is still unclear when office-based businesses will be permitted to return to normal operations, for the time being, the majority of workers who can work from home should continue to do so and be supported by their employer.
For offices that need to bring staff back sooner or are contemplating re-opening at some point in the next few months, the guidelines should be reviewed and its recommendations followed for the employer to fulfil their statutory obligations concerning the health and safety of their workforce.

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