Phased Return to Non-Essential Offices - Draft Guidance
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic many office workers have worked at home where they can to support efforts to prevent the spread of COVID. Guidance on working at home is available to support employees and employers.
On 16th March the First Minister announced plans for a phased reopening of the economy. The “Covid-19: Strategic Framework update”, published on 23 February 2021, made it clear that employees should work from home where possible in levels 1-4. In level 0, which the country is expected to move into in late June, working at home should be the default but a phased and limited return to offices can begin at this time.
This document sets out the plan around this phased and limited reopening.
It is recognised the impact that sustained working at home has had on local economies and on the mental health of employees. However working at home where possible has been extremely important in reducing the spread of the virus and continues to help suppress the spread, allowing for further reopening of the economy and reducing restrictions on our daily lives.
As part of the work preparing for a return to offices, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce led on work to set out principles we should use for returning to offices. This work was done in conjunction with unions and other business organisations.
The principles agreed through this work were:
- The health and safety of employees and customers remains a priority for businesses throughout and after the crisis.
- A non-mandatory approach will be applied to all employees if opting to return to re-opened offices.
- A phased and co-ordinated approach should be considered to support the re-opening of offices to support employee wellbeing and economic recovery.
- The wide variety of models of working should continue to be promoted e.g. hybrid blended models of office based and home working, which meet the needs of the business
The most recent timetable for easing restrictions sets out indicative dates for progressing through the various protection levels. This timetable currently indicates that Scotland will move to level 0 in late June, subject to the data.
The Phasing below is based on the work led by the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the latest indicative timetable The direction and speed of phasing will be dictated by the data and continued progress in suppressing the virus.
MARCH 2020 - PRESENT
WHEN AREAS MOVE TO LEVEL 0 – EXPECTED LATE JUNE
AT LEAST 3 WEEKS AFTER PHASE 1 – SUBJECT TO DATA
AS WE MOVE BEYOND LEVEL 0 AT THE APPROPRIATE TIME BASED ON DATA
There is a range of existing guidance to support the reopening of offices. Many businesses have already been working to this guidance and continue to do so. Businesses which have not previously opened should consider this guidance prior to the phased reopening.
Call centre guidance which contains a range of relevant information for all offices
Guidance on safe travel which contains advice on how to be safe when travelling to work
Prioritising Groups to Return
Through discussions with unions and business organisations it has become clear that there are a range of reasons why employers and employees would like to see a return to offices. Each business will have its own unique circumstances but some of the issues that they may want to consider when prioritising staff to return include:
- Those who are on the shielding list and members of their household
- Those who would benefit from a return to work on mental health or disability grounds
- Those who have less appropriate settings for working at home
- Those who are new to the organisation and require training/mentoring (and those required to support this)
- Those who most benefit from collaborative working in person
- Where business demands require physical participation
These issues will not be the only elements taken into account of when prioritising staff to return to offices but may be helpful in considerations. We would encourage all employers to work closely with staff to understand any issues and concerns around both continuing to work from home and returning to an office environment in line with regular risk assessment.
The return to offices will potentially have a significant impact on our transport system, including public transport. Public transport has been adjusting throughout the pandemic taking account of both demand and the most up to date guidance. Public Transport continues to follow appropriate physical distancing guidelines which limits capacity.
To ensure that public transport is not overwhelmed and staff are not impacted too severely by the constraints on public transport we would encourage all employers to consider staggered start and finishing times for all staff to help deal with peak periods of travel.
Outbreak management and other levels
While the hope would be that cases remain low and continue to decrease there is always the possibility that the reopening process results in an increase in cases. This may result in outbreak management measures taking hold and a movement back up the levels for some areas.
If an area moves back up the protection levels we would expect that working at home would become the default again in these areas. To help control the outbreaks we would advise that offices in these areas should close where possible and staff who live in these areas should work at home where possible.
Advice for employers and employees on what to do should an individual(s) need to self-isolate can be accessed from the Test and Protect employers guidance.
Employers and employees have worked in collaboration throughout the lockdown restrictions period. Moving forward, we need more clarity as to how employees will be supported to return and businesses supported to resume operations at greater capacity. In particular, in the long-term, compliance issues on working from home need to be better understood eg display screen equipment, assessing work-stations etc.
We believe Level 0 should be treated distinctly from Levels 1-4, as Level 0 is designed to provide more normality. Therefore, the “default home-working” requirement” should be removed as a requirement under Level 0. In addition, will guidance be provided as to when, within Level 0, “work from home” will no longer be part of any Scottish Government guidance?
In addition, SCC Network supported limited, phased re-opening at the time of the submission of the initial report in August 2020. We now believe we are in a very different situation in Scotland given the success of the vaccination roll-out, low hospitalisation rates & low death rates. Therefore, we do not support a severely limited re-opening in May 2021. We believe we need to accelerate the re-opening of offices, with fewer restrictions and increased capacity. Further detail is provided in comments below.
If an employer has a legitimate business reason for an employee to attend the workplace, how is this factored into the guidance? At the moment, it appears not to be included and it should be included in final guidance.
Clarity of additional assessments should be stated here. For example, it is not just COVID risk assessments that are needed. If people have been away from the workplace for considerable periods, all H&S workplace risk assessments need to be revisited and refreshed as part of the planned return to work.
“Work from home where possible, remains the norm” we believe this sends mixed messages and “remains the norm” should be removed. This guidance should be facilitating and supporting a return to normality but the language and current format appears to apply a restrictive and prescriptive approach. This needs to be adapted for businesses to be able to apply this effectively.
We believe this bullet point should be removed for the following reasons:
1. The word “justifiable” is open to challenge and interpretation. We suggest this is removed as it should be left up to the employer/employee to discuss and agree.
2. In addition, this bullet point, in practice, represents no change from present guidance where there is the ability for staff to return for wellbeing reasons, providing effective/safe working from home is not possible. Therefore, if published in its current format, businesses will be asking the question as to what has really changed for their business and their employees.
We understand the inclusion of the physical distancing maximum capacity guidance. However, from our data, this would result in a return of around 20% on average based on 2m distance for some larger office premises. For smaller offices, it may not be viable to re-open at all which could exclude small businesses from re-opening under Level 0. This should be further reviewed and discussed by Scottish Government and business groups. In addition, what are the plans to reduce physical distancing requirements? Will this be included as part of the physical distancing review undertaken by Scot Gov and will it be aligned with UK Gov?
There are some practical matters that impact numbers, including the need to have first aiders, fire wardens etc. This becomes very difficult to plan for if returning numbers are low due to distancing restrictions. This could disadvantage small / medium sized office premises.
As this is Covid-focused guidance, what considerations are given to the interface with other workplace hazards/assessments.
How will this be monitored / assessed eg Councils? Are there enforcement powers?
Further clarity needed on the definition of “enhanced ventilation?” This needs to be defined and links provided both to the SG guidance on ventilation and CIBSE Covid ventilation guidance document.
Current guidance doesn’t adequately cover air cleaning or sterilising systems that would allow recirculating air systems to be used. It simply says do not use them which is not always possible.
Will this enhancement be subject to all indoor spaces, retailers, public sector buildings, schools, colleges, universities? Will a cost-analysis be undertaken and will there be reliefs from SG to support any additional cost burdens for businesses, particularly SMEs?
Business travel forms an important part of day-to-day interactions and we believe this should be removed. If travel for other purposes is allowed eg international travel, staycations etc, business travel should not be discouraged in this manner. As of 26th April, travel in mainland Scotland has been permitted, notwithstanding specific local authority restrictions, therefore business travel should not be singled out in Phase 1 or 2 of this guidance. If SG believes it has to be included, we would need to understand the data behind this decision and the definition of “unnecessary.” Our view is this restriction should be removed entirely as it appears illogical, unfair and wrongly targets businesses.
This bullet point requires further detail and clarification. For example, how will an increase in numbers of staff returning be achieved if the physical distancing maximum capacity must be maintained? One cannot increase if the other stays the same or doesn’t flex alongside the increase.
SCC believes Level 0 should be treated distinctly from Levels 1-4, as Level 0 is designed to provide more normality. Therefore, the “default home-working” requirement” should be removed.
As above, we would not expect to see business travel targeted or deterred. See comment above. What’s the difference between “unnecessary” in Phase 1 and “non-essential” in Phase 2? These restrictions appear unreasonable in the current environment where travel is allowed across Scotland.
See comment above on capacity. As an example, at 1m distancing, one of our members with multiple office locations throughout Scotland, would be able to operate at 39% capacity, which is far below effective levels. In Phase 3, we would expect to see a more open-approach but it is hard to see a path to 100% return. Companies are, and will be reviewing hybrid work patterns as a positive opportunity but these should be matters for companies in consultation with their staff to consider, rather than there being any implied regulation in this direction. This should be revisited and consulted on further.
Full re-opening of offices is necessary for Phase 3 to avoid a sense of permanent restrictions and for businesses to be able to plan more, particularly supply chain/city centre businesses that rely on office workers footfall. We need to understand the Government’s timetable intentions as to when we can expect restrictions on office capacity to be reduced.
It is our view, that Level 0 should see the removal of working from home default position unless there is a clear business benefit or is part of specific Covid-control measures backed up by evidence.
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