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Ask an Expert: Founder of Management & Safety Training Ltd, Andy Farrall, on how HR can prepare for the anticipated office return

How HR can prepare for the anticipated office return

For the first time in almost half a year, the R number has fallen again in the UK, which means that coronavirus infections continue to decrease.

The positive effect of national lockdowns and introducing the first wave of the COVID-19 vaccine has seen the R number in the UK be placed between 0.7 and 0.9.

This information is coupled with the recent announcement that all adults are set to be offered the vaccine by 31 July under Boris Johnson’s accelerated plan, as the Prime Minister plans his roadmap out of lockdown.

Coming back to work can be stressful, but with the right planning and dialogue, HR has the prospect of creating a process for a safe return and to diminish any uncertainty from their workforce. However, with that said, it’s still no easy feat.

That’s why we got in touch with the Founder of Management & Safety Training Ltd, Andy Farrall, who specialises in health and safety. We asked Andy eight key questions that will undoubtedly provide food for thought in-preparing for the anticipated office return.

1. NHR: How can you plan for employees refusing to return to the office?

Andy Farrall: To set the scene, I think it’s quite feasible that some employees will be very reluctant to return to normal office working, and their reluctance may stem from a variety of valid reasons.

Some may have a general anxiety about leaving the safety of their home to work in a group environment, while others may have specific medical concerns. For example, someone may suffer from (say) diabetes or asthma and thus be in a higher risk group, or they may have a close family member who is vulnerable and the employee is worried about passing on an infection.

To be successful, therefore, any return-to-work plan needs to be a joint strategy involving both management and staff. I would suggest that, as soon as a return is anticipated, employers discuss the practical details with staff to ensure that their fears can be allayed where possible.

And employers may also have to accept that some staff will simply not wish to return until the pandemic has been brought under control – which may take some time.

2. NHR: How can you focus on ensuring your employee’s personal safety?

Andy Farrall: In terms of COVID-19, then the obvious answer has to be to keep up to date with, and follow, Government guidance on issues such as maintaining personal distancing in the workplace and regular hand washing.

Employers have always had a duty of care to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that their employees are safe in the workplace, and the pandemic has simply reinforced the significance of this duty.

It’s also important for employers to realise that health and safety management has always been based on cooperation – so they should listen to, and take note of, their employees’ concerns about personal safety rather than just issue instructions.

3. NHR: How should you go about conducting risk assessments and safety measures?

Andy Farrall: The fundamental risk assessment process has not been changed by the pandemic, but COVID-19 has now to be added to the list of hazards.

In essence, the employer has to think about the following: those work activities which might spread the virus; which employees (and others) could be put at risk; the likelihood, therefore, that somebody could be exposed to the virus; and, finally, what measures the employer can take to manage the COVID-19 risk.

Ideally, any process which puts people at risk should be closed down, but if that’s not feasible, then thought must be given to other ways in which the exposure or infection risk can be managed.

Control measures might include (say) restricting the number of people working in a given process, reducing the amount of time the process is allowed to run, ensuring a high level of sanitation and personal space in the workplace, etc.

The trap that employers must avoid at all costs is to assume that issuing personal protective equipment (PPE) is the primary solution – because it isn’t. Guidance from the HSE is quite clear: PPE is the last step in the control process, not the first.

4. NHR: Are there any legal requirements you anticipate being in place?

Andy Farrall: This is a difficult question for me to answer because I’m not a lawyer, and because the characteristics of the pandemic are evolving on a daily basis.

My recommendation would be to keep a close eye on both the Government and HSE websites so that any changes in the law or official advice can be acted upon quickly.

It might even be helpful to nominate a manager as the “COVID-19 tracker” (for want of a better term) with specific responsibility for updating the senior management team on the latest official guidance as it develops.

5. NHR: Will flexible working become the ‘new normal’?

Andy Farrall: My feeling is that the jury’s out on this one. Some people will appreciate the flexibility of such a procedure, but others may yearn for the good old days of being in the office with the accompanying camaraderie, social interaction, etc. And, of course, some organisations may decide that productivity from home working is not as high as office working (but, at the moment, that might be due in part to children getting in the way of home working, and they’ll soon be at school).

So, speaking as a true consultant, my answer has to be maybe: maybe not.

6. NHR: Why is it so important to set clear expectations and protocols?

Andy Farrall: Put simply, if people don’t know what’s expected of them, then how can they deliver the required outcomes? And this isn’t just a health and safety issue – it’s one of the fundamentals of good general management.

Protocols, however, (or standard operating procedures) can be a two-edged sword.

On the one hand they clearly lay out the details of how a task is to be done, and that’s good because it minimises the chance of confusion or error. But, on the other hand, they can also lead to a rigid bureaucracy where people do – and only do – what’s in their job description, and where initiative is thus stifled.

So, to summarise my answer: people need to know where they’re going, but may benefit from a little discretion as to the route they take.

7. NHR: Should you allow for a gradual transition period?

Andy Farrall: The pandemic has had a massive global effect, and in so many ways, on people and businesses, and normality will not be resumed overnight.

For this reason, I would expect employers to take a ‘softly-softly’ approach as their businesses, and the world gradually opens up.

Normal business will be resumed, eventually – but it may take some time.

8. NHR: What is your best advice for HR leaders in preparing for the office return?

Andy Farrall: I think my best advice would be to accept the enormity of what’s happened and to take things slowly.

People have all been through a traumatic time, ranging from the stress of lockdown and the furlough process to the appalling death toll (and remember that each death brings with it distress for a great many people, from family to work colleagues).

Accordingly, HR leaders must give people time to readjust to normal working conditions, and must also accept that some things may never be the same again.

About Andy Farrall

Before entering the health and safety field (an area in which he is, amongst other things, an accredited consultant and qualified lead accident investigator), Andy was a specialist investigator with two elite UK law enforcement agencies – HM Customs & Excise Investigation Division and No7 Regional Crime Squad.

As a customs investigator, he was involved in a variety of complex enquiries, ranging from a joint US-UK investigation into the importation into the USA of counterfeit machine parts from Taiwan (an investigation in which he acted as liaison officer with the US team), to international taxation fraud, drug and gold smuggling.

With No7 RCS, he was a financial investigator and as such, played a part in numerous cases as diverse as money laundering and the tracing of criminal assets.

His book, Investigative Interviewing”, is therefore based not just on theory and academic research (although there’s a lot of such useful material in the book) but also, and crucially, on years of practical experience “at the sharp end” interviewing both witnesses and suspects.

Headshot of Health and Safety expert, Andy Farrall