From supporting particularly vulnerable colleagues to keeping buildings well ventilated, there is plenty employers and employees can do to make their offices COVID-19 secure
As lockdown measures ease an increasing number of charity workers will begin to switch to hybrid working, after months of working almost exclusively at home to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
On 19 July 2021, lockdown measures eased considerably with laws around mask wearing and social distancing lifted. Instead of these measures being a mandatory requirement in many indoor settings, the government is ‘expecting’ employers, employees, and the public to keep each other safe from the threat of infection.
But after so long working only at home, many workers may be nervous about a return to office-based culture, as part of hybrid arrangements that combine home and office working.
According to the latest donor research report from fundraising platform Enthuse, half of all charity workers expect to be allowed to return under hybrid models, with flexible hours of working less than five days a week in the office.
These returning workers will expect the same level of safety as they are maintaining for themselves remotely.
Here we explain how charity employers and employees can ensure hybrid workers are safe and comfortable.
A good start is to access latest guidance from The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which has produced updated advice to help employers ensure their workplace is COVID-19 secure.
The HSE advises that employers should start by making sure risk assessment polices are up to date to understand what needs to be done to ensure safety amid the pandemic.
The assessment should identify what specific work activity could cause transmission of the virus and which workers may be at most risk.
In addition, a risk assessment should look at how likely it is that someone could be exposed to risk of infection and have procedures in place to remove an activity or situation to control the threat of COVID-19.
There is no longer a requirement to keep workers two metres apart and wear masks when mixing indoors, where possible. But many staff may feel safer if colleagues are wearing masks and keeping their distance.
Employers and employees may wish to continue these measures and consider how to minimise contact between workers within offices. For example, many tasks can be done digitally using work collaboration tools, such as Slack or Asana. Ensure these options are available for staff to help them minimise risk and movement around office buildings.
Placing desks side-by-side not face-to-face is another tip.
HSE social distancing guidance has instead been replaced with advice on cleaning, hygiene and handwashing. This advises frequent handwashing to minimise the spread of COVID and using hand sanitisers. In addition, workplaces should be kept clean, especially bathrooms, toilets and washbasins.
COVID-19 feeds off poorly ventilated areas. Employers are urged to minimise the threat of infection by making use of natural ventilation, ensuring fresh air comes through open doors, windows, and vents. Also use fans and ducts to bring fresh air into an office.
Charities also need to identify poorly ventilated areas of building in their risk assessment and address them.
Charities need to ensure employees and visitors are aware of risks and the measures being taken to minimise the threat of infection.
Also, involve hybrid staff and volunteers in decision-making about keeping offices safe. They can help identify areas of risk and suggest solutions. Such conversations should also take into account diversity of a workforce, says the HSE.
“Hold conversations in ways that are ‘culturally competent’. This means taking account of the background, culture, beliefs of that person and their specific circumstances,” it says.
Identifying the most vulnerable workers, who may have underlying health conditions is key to a secure hybrid working arrangement. Minimise the time they have to spend in the office. If they feel more secure working at home, help them to continue working remotely.
A coalition of 16 health charities this month warned that around half a million people with underlying health conditions still need to be protected through mask wearing and social distancing.
By paying attention to the physical health of workers returning to the office, there are indications their mental health may improve under hybrid arrangements, especially those whose emotional wellbeing has been adversely impacted by the pandemic and the lack of face-to-face communication involved in exclusive home working.
According to this year’s Charity Digital Skills report, just under a third of charity staff have been left “burned out from the demands of intense remote working”. Returning to a COVID-19 secure office for part of the week may be vital to helping them.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has launched a consultation exercise around the government’s lifting of restrictions, following concerns from the sector around staff safety. It has launched an online survey, which takes a few minutes to complete.
In addition, the NCVO is staging an online event around the easing of lockdown, on 29 July 2021, which “which will be an opportunity to share with and learn from other charities and voluntary organisations”.