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Exiting lockdown: what will it mean for your workplace?

Smart Money: Will your temperature be taken as you arrive to work? – and six other big questions

The Government is considering a gradual lockdown exit strategy after May 5th – as yet the details are unclear. But what will life be like for employees and employers as closed parts of the economy gradually restart? What is clear is that workplaces and work practices are going to change fundamentally – at least until a vaccine is found. Here are the key considerations.

1. Which sectors go back first?

The timing of all this remains uncertain and reopening will be very gradual and made contingent on the virus not flaring up again.The construction sector may be one to start slowly getting back to work in the early stages of reopening. This would quickly take large numbers off government income supports – also the bulk of employees are in younger, less vulnerable groups. Non-essential manufacturing might also reopen – many big pharma and IT plants did not close, but sectors such as engineering , textiles and medtech did. The trend elsewhere in the EU also points to a phased reopening of non-essential retail stores in the earlier stages – clothes shops, department stores, garden centres and so on.

All this will be subject to companies being able to put appropriate precautions in place. Sectoral considerations will not be the only ones. There could be differences, for example, between different types of manufacturers or retail outlets, as some are simply better suited to operating the appropriate distancing measures.

People's mood in the weeks ahead will be difficult to judge

There is a key issue here too, of public trust. Whatever the rules say, employees must feel safe going back to work and consumers will only start returning to shopping and eating out when they feel any risk is small.


People's mood in the weeks ahead will be difficult to judge, according to Pete Lunn, behavioural economist with the ESRI. Surveys it has undertaken show that up to recently many people were "extremely anxious" – the grim news flow has taken its toll and most people know families directly affected, even if their own has been spared.

Ibec’s head of employer relations, Maeve McElwee, says that to build confidence, a road map set down by the Government on the basis of public health advice will be vital, setting out timelines for reopening different parts of the economy and with the buy-in of employers, trade unions and the appropriate agencies.

2. What about social distancing ?

This is a vital issue in all workplaces. For example a new set of guidelines developed by the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) underline the need for appropriate distance to be maintained on construction sites, which will require new work practices, discipline during breaks and in some cases early and late shifts to reduce the numbers on site.

Jennifer Cashman, partner with Ronan Daly Jermyn (RDJ)solicitors and an employment law expert says that appropriate distancing is a key issue for workplaces, with the likelihood being that many people would be asked to continue to work from home to reduce workplace numbers. Some employers could break staff into different teams who would rotate between the office and home.

Customer-facing businesses must also protect their clients. In retail locations, the grocery stores have shown the way with organised queueing, perspex screens between staff and customers and numbers being restricted on entry. Many have also eliminated other “ touch points”, such as doors or buttons to enter or exit parking.

Perspex glass may also feature in manufacturing locations, particularly where maintaining a two-metre distance may be difficult

Other retailers will have to follow suit and this could be a significant burden for smaller operators. Perspex glass may also feature in manufacturing locations, particularly where maintaining a two-metre distance may be difficult. Where possible, employees might work back to back, rather than facing each other.

The difficulty of appropriate distancing in other sectors, particularly pubs, means their reopening could be well down the line. Restaurants and other locations where people gather such as gyms also face challenges. Reopening with strict control on numbers, spacing and new procedures for cleaning and interaction with staff may be possible, but it’s not clear yet how this might work or whether it is viable.Take-away only is the other option.

Offices will in many cases be slow to reopen fully. typically in sectors such as banking, professional services, insurance and digital technology, where employees have worked in close quarters. These companies are now considering a variety of approaches. Your employer may ask you to continue working mainly from home for a prolonged period – and some big firms are now considering asking staff to be prepared do this for the next year, according to sources. Others are using the “teams” option and plan to move people in and out. Offices may be redesigned or some work stations just left empty to leave more space.

Paul Tuite, partner and chief operation officer at PwC, which employs 3,000 staff, says it is considering a mixture of approaches, including breaking staff up into teams and encouraging some staff to work from home, at least some of the time. An issue for its sector, he says, is uncertainty over when staff will be able to work on site with clients safely – as would regularly happen in normal times – which in turn would reduce office space pressure. PwC operates software which allows staff to book their seats in the office – and fewer posts are likely to be left open to book on any one day to allow more space between workstations. Some other big employers are also introducing this.

3. What about my journey to work?

For people travelling by car, there will be encouragement not to have full vehicles . The CIF operating procedure encourages staff to travel alone or at most with one other person in the car, ideally in the back seat on the far side. Cashman of RDJ says companies may seek to encourage staff not to use car pooling arrangements. Public transport will also be a key concern, and is likely to be addressed in the government’s advice after May 5th. It may encourage companies to continue home working where possible and to allow off-peak-hours travel. Tuite of PwC says employers will have to be more flexible in terms of hours to allow staff to avoid packed trains and buses.

4. What about my children?

This is a crunch issue for the Government to address – already problems have emerged in the health sector, If schools and crèches do not reopen, how do people with families return to work? Employers may be called on to be flexible here – many who have had working from home arrangements during the lockdown say that productivity has not been noticeably hit. But what happens in sectors where home working this is not possible, particularly with older grandparents out of the equation for child minding?

5.Will my temperature be taken as I arrive at work?

This may happen. Cashman of RDJ says employers are likely to introduce some controls on staff. Some are considering questionnaires, she says, which employees or visitors would have to fill out, perhaps asking them to confirm they had not been in contact with a confirmed or suspected case, or are not themselves showing symptoms. Or employees may be asked to take their own temperature in the morning and verify it is not high. Some employers are indeed already taking staff temperatures each day – Supermac’s has said it will do this as it reopens some outlets, for example. Cashman says that companies need to be careful in handling data related to this and acting on it so they do not fall foul of data protection rules.

The health advice from the Government will be closely watched here

Another factor is that people can have high temperatures for a range of reasons, or can often reduce it via the use of paracetamol – so there is debate about this. The health advice from the Government will be closely watched here, as it will on the use of masks, already being used in many retail settings. Some countries advise their use when outside, and particularly on public transport.

6. What else should my employer do?

Employers have a responsibility under health and safety legislation to take all reasonable steps to safeguard their staff. This now takes on a new importance. Employers will have a responsibility to follow updated public health advice and to have protocols on what happens when a staff member feels ill, or is tested positive. Contacts of this person will also have to be sent home and this could be disruptive – another advantage of having employees in teams. The Government has promised that widespread testing with a quick turnaround and contact tracing will be available, and this is seen as key for reopening.

Doors and gates will be left open where possible

Employers will have to introduce more regular workplace cleaning – and in locations such as building sites, proper washing facilities will be needed. Employers will need to do what they can to remove touch points people face on arrival. Doors and gates will be left open where possible, says McElwee of Ibec, seating may be removed from canteens and there will be tight controls on visitors and goods deliveries. Face-to-face meetings will be discouraged – online meetings are here to stay – and movement around workplaces may be discouraged. Shifts may be staggered to ensure members of different teams do not meet.

Cashman says that employers should consult not only with health advisers but also their insurers to discuss the implications. What if an employee takes a case because they feel they were unnecessarily exposed to a risk, for example?

7. Where else will there be rows?

There is already tension in some companies about holidays – employees do not want to take leave at the moment, but employers fear a build up of leave possibly just as the economy gets going again.

Beyond that are issues of whether some people should be allowed to return to work before others. There have been suggestions, for example, that younger employees, seen to be at lesser risk, should be allowed back to work in a first wave. This would cause operational difficulties for many companies – unless older colleagues could continue to work from home. It will be interesting to see if the Government’s reopening plans allude to this in any way.

What happens in cases where working from home is not an option?

And what of employees who may be advised to continue to cocoon – older people and those with underlying health conditions? What happens in cases where working from home is not an option? And will the company continue to pay their wages?

Some employees may just be nervous of returning to work. Lunn of the ESRI suggests that one approach companies can take is, where possible, is to allow people an element of choice. Those who are nervous of coming to work and can work from home could be allowed to continue to do so.

So as the gradual reopening starts, the rules will be different. We will not be turning the economy back fully on again – it’s more a question of trying to gradually wake it from its slumber over a period of months and accepting that, for a significant period of time, things are going to be different.