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How can small businesses implement social distancing in the workplace?

Restrictions might be easing, but the fight’s not over yet. Here's how to reduce the risk of transmission and keep workers safe as people return to the workplace

Despite the unprecedented financial support that chancellor Rishi Sunak has made available to help small businesses get through the COVID-19 pandemic, most are eager to get back to work as soon as possible.

Following prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Sunday evening, employees who cannot work from home are being “actively encouraged” to return to work.

However, any small business that does reopen has a responsibility to keep their workers safe by stepping up cleaning, implementing social distancing measures, and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) where necessary.

Remember, working from home should be your first option wherever possible. Nobody is obliged to work in an unsafe environment.

It’s a mammoth task, but it’s absolutely essential to take every precaution possible to protect your workers. Below, we explain how you can follow the government's guidelines.

Has your business been struggling financially during the coronavirus epidemic? Check out our small business advice page for a full list of the support you can access. 


When can I reopen my business?

The government has proposed a three step plan for the phased reopening of society. The dates are subject to change depending on the threat posed by COVID-19 at any given time.

Step 1 – Wednesday 13 May

Workers who cannot work from home should return to work. However, this advice only applies to businesses that don’t involve customer-facing roles – for example, the construction and manufacturing industries.

Step 2 – No earlier than 1 June

Non-essential retail businesses will be allowed to reopen, provided they follow social distancing. Hairdressers or beauty salons will have to remain closed.

Step 3 – No earlier than 4 July

Some hospitality businesses – including restaurants, bars, and pubs – may be allowed to reopen, as long as they can maintain social distancing.


‘Mitigating actions’ to keep employees safe in the workplace

The government has shared a list of ‘mitigating actions’ that employers can take to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 between workers.

In order of priority, those actions are:

  • Increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning
  • Keeping the activity time involved as short as possible
  • Using screens or barriers to separate people from each other
  • Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible
  • Reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ (so each person works with only a few others)
  • If people must work face-to-face for a sustained period with more than a small group of fixed partners, then you should assess whether the activity can safely go ahead
  • In your risk assessment, identify any employees who could be especially vulnerable to COVID-19

Before reopening

Most of the work needed to make sure your workspace is COVID-safe should take place before reopening.

Carrying out a risk assessment

As an employer, you have a duty to assess and manage any risks to your employees’ health and safety. You also have a legal responsibility to protect them.

In the age of COVID-19, this means carrying out a risk assessment to address the specific risks presented by transmission of the disease, and establishing measures to mitigate those risks.

The government expects all employers with more than 50 employees to publish their risk assessments.

In order to foster trust and collaboration with your employees, who may be feeling nervous about their return to work, you should involve them in these discussions.

Ventilation

It’s vital that your workspace is well ventilated. Before anyone returns, carry out an assessment of all the ventilation systems to see whether they need servicing.

If you work in a building where you do not have control of the ventilation systems, consult with the building management. Some systems automatically reduce ventilation levels if there are fewer people in the building, so would need to be adjusted to maintain normal levels.

When your workers do return, make sure to open windows and doors as often as possible.


Who should go to work?

As we’ve stated before, any of your employees who can work from home should continue to do so.

Only workers whose roles are critical for business and operational continuity, facility management, or regulatory requirements should return to the workplace.

Who should not go to work?

Particular attention should be given to workers who are ‘clinically vulnerable’ or ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ people.

  • Clinically vulnerablethose aged over 70 or with an underlying health condition. They should work from home unless there is no other choice. If they do have to come into the office, they should be given the safest possible on-site role, and given maximum help to keep them 2m away from others
  • Clinically extremely vulnerablethese people will have received a letter from their GP informing them that they’re in this group. They have been strongly advised not to work outside of their own homes, which you’ll have to respect

What are the guidelines on social distancing in the workplace?

As an employer, you should make it as easy as possible for your staff to maintain a 2m distance from one another at all times.

These social distancing measures should be in place throughout the working day, and in all areas of the workspace. This includes entrances and exits, breakout spaces, dining spaces, and lavatories.

Here’s how to follow social distancing measures in different situations:

  • Arriving and leaving work – stagger arrival and departure times, provide additional parking or bike racks to reduce use of public transport, increase the number of entry points, provide handwashing facilities at entry and exit points
  • Moving around the workspace – discourage non-essential trips around the building, introduce a one way system using floor markings, regulate use of frequently used areas, make sure people with disabilities can access lifts
  • At workstations – change layouts to increase the distance between workers, use floor markings to maintain 2m distance, avoid hot desking and shared equipment, encourage side by side or facing away working where it’s not possible to maintain distance
  • During meetings – make use of video conferencing, ensure any attendees are absolutely necessary, provide hand sanitiser, hold meetings outdoors or in well-ventilated rooms
  • Using common areas – stagger break times, encourage workers to take breaks in safe outside space, make use of unused space, provide packaged meals to avoid canteen use or encourage workers to bring their own food

In a situation where social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full, you should consider whether that activity needs to take place in order for the business to continue operating.

If it’s not necessary, don’t do it! If it is, ensure you use the mitigating actions detailed above to minimise the risk of transmission.

What if there’s an accident or emergency in the workplace?

Accidents or emergencies present exceptional circumstances for employers and employees.

If following social distancing would result in more harm – for example, if someone was in immediate need of first aid, or if the building needed to be evacuated because of a fire – then people don’t have to stay 2m apart.


Huddersfield-based Specialist Glass Products (SGP), which creates bespoke glass products for residential and commercial projects, is a great example of a manufacturing company that’s had to adapt to the new normal.

But it hasn’t just reopened to resume business as normal. The company has developed glass desk screens to help office workers social distance. These screens (pictured below) will be on sale to help other businesses protect staff and customers.

SGP has installed the screens in its own workspace alongside a number of other safety measures, including:

  • All staff have personal hand sanitisers, cleaning tools, additional wash facilities, and masks
  • The factory has implemented a morning and evening shift, with start times staged at 5/10 minutes intervals to prevent overcrowding at clock in, toilets etc. There is also a longer gap between the morning and evening shift to minimise cross overs
  • All staff have to wash their hands on arrival, wash down their work areas and equipment, and do so at regular intervals throughout the day
  • They are also required to clean down equipment at the end of the shift
  • The incoming shift has to repeat this method
  • Visible reminders around health and safety are in place, e.g. posters etc.
  • They have also recruited a dedicated member of staff whose role is to ultimately go around the factory and offices, cleaning any items that are touched by two or more people throughout the day. This individual initially worked for a contract cleaner SGP used, and had been made redundant by the firm

Specialist glass products


Cleaning

After social distancing, cleaning is one of the next most effective measures you can take to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

Not enough data has been collected for a conclusive answer yet, but some studies have found that the virus can survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours.

It would be near impossible to stop people from touching the same surfaces all day, so more regular cleaning is necessary to reduce risk as much as possible.

The main steps you should take are:

  • Increase the frequency of cleaning of busy areas and shared equipment, paying particular attention to door handles, printers, whiteboards etc.
  • Use signs to remind workers to clean surfaces and objects after use
  • Use disposable paper towels instead of hand dryers

If you’re cleaning an area after a suspected case of COVID-19, you should follow this procedure:

  • Clean the area with normal household disinfectant, using a disposable cloth
  • Wear disposable gloves/aprons, which should be double-bagged, stored securely for 72 hours and then thrown away
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after removing protective items

Are there any penalties for not following social distancing in the workplace?

As far as we know, there won’t be any standardised enforcement of social distancing from an external body.

However, during a government press briefing earlier this week, business secretary Alok Sharma urged any worker who is concerned that their employer is not taking adequate precautions to contact the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

At the same briefing, HSE chief executive Sarah Albon said that the HSE is prepared to use its enforcement powers – including the provision of specific advice to employers, or issuing enforcement notices – and, if necessary, will even consider criminal prosecutions.

If your small business is following guidance, you have nothing to worry about. But you should ensure that any measures you introduce to mitigate the risk of transmission are adequately communicated to staff.


Should my employees use personal protective equipment?

Personal protective equipment (PPE) includes helmets, gloves, eye protection, and respiratory protective equipment such as face masks.

The government guidelines state that businesses should NOT encourage the use of PPE to protect against COVID-19 “outside clinical settings, or when responding to a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19”. 

And PPE certainly shouldn’t be used in lieu of social distancing measures, or as a replacement for other mitigating actions to manage risk. This is because PPE has a limited role in providing additional protection from COVID-19.

However, if your risk assessment shows that PPE is required, you must provide it to your employees free of charge.

Should my employees wear face masks?

According to government advice, evidence for the benefits of face masks is weak. There is no legal requirement to wear them.

Again, face masks should not be used as a replacement for other methods of managing risk.

Any employee who does wear a face mask should be encouraged to follow correct procedure. This means:

  • Washing their hands for 20 seconds before putting their face mask on and after removing it
  • Avoiding touching their face or face covering to prevent contamination of the mask
  • Changing the face mask if it becomes damp
  • Washing it if it’s reusable, or disposing of it if not

What are my responsibilities to customers, visitors, and contractors?

As well as protecting your staff, it’s also your responsibility to protect anybody who visits your workplace, including customers, visitors, and contractors.

The best way to do this is to minimise the number of unnecessary visitors.

Other measures you can take include:

  • Using video conferencing where possible
  • Limiting the number of visitors at any one time
  • Limiting visits to specific time windows
  • Keeping a record of all visitors
  • Observing social distancing at all times

Andrew Mawson, founder and managing director at Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) and the brains behind Workplace Week, thinks that, rather than get back to the office as soon as possible, organisations should use this as an opportunity to rethink their way of working.

“Government and industry should also be using this moment as a vehicle for modernisation and for cultural transformation. Together, we have to address and implement more modern ways of working.

“We have to showcase our flexibility and our daring to be different, and our bravery to do things in a different way. Business leaders have to shake up their thinking, they have to recognise that there are different, cheaper and sometimes better ways to run their operations.

“This pandemic also presents an opportunity to think more carefully about the culture of an organisation; we’re already seeing hierarchical models being swapped for more human models – no doubt a side-effect of peering into each other’s lives behind screens on a daily basis.

“New ways of working can also open up opportunities for diversity of recruitment. It’s always a challenge to come up with and try out new ideas. But it will be worth the effort if we get it right, and there’s plenty of science to back up our plight.”


Has your business been struggling financially during the coronavirus epidemic? Check out our small business advice page for a full list of the support you can access. 

Henry Williams
Henry Williams

Henry has been writing for Startups.co.uk since 2015, covering everything from business finance and web builders to tax and red tape. He’s also contributed to many of our industry-renowned annual indexes, including Startups 100 and Young Guns, and created a number of the site’s popular how to guides. Before joining the team, he reviewed films for a culture website, and still harbours ambitions of being a screenwriter.