A Guide to Social Distancing in the Workplace: Making Offices COVID-secure

Workplace

A Guide to Social Distancing in the Workplace: Making Offices COVID-secure

Contents:

Latest government guidelines

[Written October 2020] 

As you’ll know, these are testing times. We are all currently dealing with and adapting to a world where COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon. New rules and policies are introduced almost weekly and, when your top priority is to keep everyone safe, it can be difficult to navigate this ‘new normal’, especially when it comes to returning to work. 

As of October 2020, the UK government’s latest campaign is: wash hands (keep washing hands regularly and for 20 seconds), cover face (wear a face covering in enclosed spaces) and make space (stay at least two metres apart – or one metre with a face covering or other precautions).  

There is an NHS test and trace procedure to help guide you through what to do if you’ve developed symptoms or if you think you’ve been in contact with someone who has. There’s also a handy NHS COVID-19 app to go alongside the test and trace service.

You can also find out what the local COVID-19 alert and restrictions are in your area with their postcode checker. Here, you’ll find out what alert level your area or borough is currently in and what restrictions are in place to help manage the level of outbreak. 

The current alert levels are (as of October 2020):

Tier 1 – Medium

The government lists Tier 1 (Medium) as the alert level for areas where national restrictions continue to be in place.

Restrictions:

  • No socialising in groups larger than six, indoors or outdoors (other than where a legal exemption applies). Find out why no more than six in our ‘Coronavirus: The facts’ section
  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate, in a COVID-secure manner, other than those that remain closed by law
  • Certain businesses are required to ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and must close between 10pm and 5am
  • Businesses and venues selling food for consumption off the premises can continue to do so after 10pm as long as this is through delivery service, click-and-collect or drive-through
  • Schools and universities remain open 
  • Places of worship remain open, subject to the rule of six 
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on numbers of attendees, currently 15 for wedding ceremonies and receptions, and 30 for funerals
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors, or indoors if the rule of six is followed 

You must:

Wear a face covering in those areas where this is mandated, such as: 

  • Public transport 
  • Taxis and private hire vehicles
  • Transport hubs
  • Shops
  • Shopping centres, 
  • Supermarkets, 
  • Auction houses, 
  • Premises providing hospitality (bars, pubs, restaurants etc.) except when seated at a table to eat or drink 

Basically, anywhere that is a confined space for the public, especially indoor areas. For the full, detailed list, head to the government’s latest guidance page on face coverings

You should:

  • Follow social distancing rules
  • Work from home where you can effectively do so
  • When travelling, plan ahead or avoid busy times and routes. Walk or cycle if you can

Tier 2 – High

For areas with higher levels of infections, there are additional restrictions on top of those for medium-alert-level areas, like: 

Restrictions:

  • You must not socialise with anybody outside of your household or support bubble in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place
  • You must not socialise in a group of more than 6 outside, including in a garden or other spaces like beaches or parks (other than where specific exemptions apply in law)
  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate, in a COVID-secure manner, other than those that remain closed in law
  • Certain businesses are required to ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and must close between 10pm and 5am
  • Businesses and venues selling food for consumption off the premises can continue to do so after 10pm as long as this is through delivery service, click-and-collect or drive-through
  • Schools, universities and places of worship remain open
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of attendees. The number of guests for wedding ceremonies and receptions is currently 15, whilst for funerals it is 30
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors. These will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with people they do not live with or share a support bubble with, or for youth or disability sport
  • You can continue to travel to venues or amenities that are open, for work or to access education, but should look to reduce the number of journeys you make where possible

You must:

Wear a face covering in those areas where this is mandated, such as: 

  • Public transport
  • Taxis & private hire vehicles
  • Transport hubs
  • Shops
  • Shopping centres
  • Supermarkets
  • Auction houses
  • Premises providing hospitality (bars, pubs, restaurants etc.) except when seated at a table to eat or drink. 

You should:

  • Follow social distancing rules
  • Work from home where you can effectively do so
  • Walk or cycle where possible, or plan ahead and avoid busy times and routes on public transport

Tier 3 – Very high

For areas where the level of infections is very high, there are tighter restrictions in place; these can vary, and are based on discussions between central and local governments. You should check the specific rules in your area

Restrictions:

At a minimum, this means:

  • You must not socialise with anybody you do not live with, or have not formed a support bubble with, in any indoor setting or in any private garden or at most outdoor hospitality venues and ticketed events
  • You must not socialise in a group of more than six in an outdoor public space such as a park or beach, the countryside, a public garden or a sports venue
  • Pubs and bars must close. They can only remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant, which means serving substantial meals, like a main lunchtime or evening meal. They may only serve alcohol as part of such a meal
  • Schools and universities remain open
  • Places of worship remain open, but household mixing is not permitted
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of attendees (15 and 30 respectively). However, wedding receptions are not allowed
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors. These will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with people they do not live with (or share a support bubble with), or for youth or disability sport
  • You should try to avoid travelling outside the very high alert level area you are in or entering a very high alert level area, other than for things like work, education or youth services, to meet caring responsibilities or if you are travelling through as part of a longer journey
  • You should avoid staying overnight in another part of the UK if you are resident in a very high alert level area, or avoid staying overnight in a very high alert level area if you are resident elsewhere

You must:

Wear a face covering in those areas where it is mandated, such as: 

  • Public transport
  • Taxis & private hire vehicles
  • Transport hubs
  • Shops
  • Shopping centres
  • Supermarkets
  • Auction houses
  • Premises providing hospitality e.g. bars, pubs, restaurants etc. except when seated at a table to eat or drink.

You should continue to:

  • Follow social distancing rules
  • Work from home where you can effectively do so
  • Travel to venues or amenities that are open, for work or to access education, but aim to reduce the number of journeys you make

This is the baseline in very high alert level areas. The government will also seek to agree additional interventions in consultation with local authorities, in order to drive down transmission of the virus. These could include the following options:

  • Restrictions preventing the sale of alcohol in hospitality or closing all hospitality (except takeaway and delivery)
  • Closing indoor and outdoor entertainment venues and tourist attractions
  • Closing venues such as leisure centres and gyms (while ensuring provision remains available for elite athletes, youth and disabled sport and physical activity)
  • Closing public buildings, such as libraries and community centres (while ensuring provision remains available for youth and childcare activities and support groups)
  • Closing personal care and close contact services or prohibiting the highest-risk activities
  • Closing performing arts venues for the purposes of performing to audiences

We’ve taken these latest government guidelines from October 2020 – when this guide was written. Depending on the date and time when you’re reading this, there may be some updates, so please do check the latest government site and their postcode checker for local restrictions.

A lot to take in, isn’t it? We all hope to see things get better sooner with restrictions easing, but with no crystal ball to tell us if, or when another lockdown is due, we do our best to carry on, work and support one another as well as the economy. 

So with that in mind, for those of us who are needed in work, employers and businesses need to make sure workplaces are COVID-secure. Read on for our ideas on how to create a safe office set-up.

Coronavirus: The facts

The ‘hands, face and space’ mantra encompasses three steps we all need to take in order to reduce transmission of the virus – wash our hands, wear a face mask and keep two metres between ourselves and others. Only by all of us working together and actually doing these things, will we (hopefully) see a return to life as we once knew.

How is COVID-19 spread?

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), “current evidence suggests that COVID-19 can spread between people through direct, indirect (through contaminated objects or surfaces), or close contact with infected people via mouth and nose secretions. These include saliva, respiratory secretions or secretion droplets. These are released from the mouth or nose when an infected person coughs, sneezes, speaks or sings, for example. People who are in close contact (within 1 metre) with an infected person can catch COVID-19 when those infectious droplets get into their mouth, nose or eyes.”

Washing hands

Washing hands regularly and for 20 seconds is one of the most effective ways to help stop the spread of viruses and germs, as well as carrying and using hand sanitiser frequently. Coronavirus is an ‘enveloped virus’, meaning it has a protective outer layer from water in your respiratory droplets when you cough or sneeze. The virus’s layer is sticky, making it very effective at sticking to your hands, which helps it achieve its goal of infecting you if you touch your mouth, nose or eyes. Soap molecules are similar to the ones on the outer layer of the virus, and so they disrupt the virus’s layer, dissolving it in running water and killing the virus. 

Source on the science here at: Science Focus.

Face coverings

When social distancing (standing one metre or more away) is not possible, wearing a face mask is an important and incredibly easy measure you can take to protect others. As we’ve covered above in the Tier rules, the UK government also requires you to wear a face mask or covering in certain public places, where people are especially confined, such as in shops. There are exemptions that are listed on the government face coverings guidelines.

Social distancing

The rule of six (no meeting up or socialising in groups more than six), is there to help control social distancing. Social distancing at least two metres apart is key in helping control the spread of the virus because this distance makes it incredibly hard for an infected person to pass the virus on. COVID-19 gets into us when we touch contaminated surfaces or are in close proximity to infected people, where droplets from coughs and sneezes – as well as any touching – can pass on into our bodies through our mouths, noses and eyes. 

Social distancing for offices: Making offices COVID-secure

Whether it’s an office for the heroic key workers, a breakout area for the hard-working retail staff, or any office for COVID-secure businesses – where working from home is difficult or unfeasible – make them safe, comfortable and welcoming for your deserving staff.

Breakout areas for social distancing

When it comes to keeping employees safe and distanced from one another, a breakout area can work well.

Use highly visible signage to guide employees to designated seating arrangements, for instance, use green tick symbols to show which seats are usable, or for a quirkier way, place teddy bears on seats or parts of couches that are off limits. 

Place protective screens and dividers between desks and on long tables to add an extra level of protection. And of course, don’t forget those hand sanitisers and antibacterial wipes.

Distant desking 

Whatever desking system you have set up, there are ways to make it more COVID-secure. For benching systems, these can benefit from protective screens in the centre as well as only placing appropriately distanced seats under the desks or tables.  

If there is enough space, or even a separate room, you may wish to break up staff or departments by placing individual desks too, so employees can have their own workstations or have a mix of bench desks and individual ones. Consider placing mobile screens to separate desks and departments.

Keeping staff rooms and canteens safe

To help reduce the number of people gathering in certain areas, create order by having clear posters and signs indicating rules. Back these up with emails and into policies. 

You could also have a whiteboard outside of staff rooms, where each person marks who has entered via a tally to prevent others walking in at the time of full occupancy. So, for example, if the limit is three people, if everyone marks down before entering the room, anyone else walking by can clearly see if it’s full or not. These simple layouts and procedures will help reassure your staff as well keep them safer.

Again, where there are dining tables, coffee tables and canteen chairs, simply mark crosses with tape on seats that are out of use. Use protective screens to create COVID-secure barriers between people. 

Place mobile hand sanitiser stations around for instant access and to keep viruses and germs at bay. 

Meeting rooms and pods

Consider re-evaluating your meeting protocols, can they be done more socially distanced? Can they be reduced, and can they be more productive

Office and meeting pods could be the way forward for your business, as they provide clearly defined areas for workers to separate. Cell pods are also ideal for keeping employees extra safe from contamination, thanks to the fully enclosed glass pods.  

Allermuir CellPod

Toilet and hygiene facilities

It should go without saying, but it is essential that you have a well-organised cleaning rota and plenty of toiletries, ensuring everyone is catered for. Keep on top of replenishing items, as this is vital. 

Store away plenty of antibacterial wipes, hand sanitisers, toilet rolls, bottles of handwash and bars of soap etc. 

Hand sanitising stations conveniently placed around can also help keep your business more COVID-secure. 

Social distancing for the hospitality industry

For bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants, social distancing is vital, yet not always so easy. To help keep you from trouble, avoid chaotic customer gatherings and prevent closures and more curfews, here are some ways in which to control footfall and make premises more COVID-secure.

Set capacity limits

You need to seriously measure how many people can be in your building that’s safe for social distancing and moveability. Don’t flippantly guess, put in some time before you open or reopen to work out how many can be seated safely, taking into account the rules on group numbers. 

A little adjustment may need to happen. If there’s enough space, you may need to move tables further apart or if you have a big establishment already, a few more tables could be added to help with catering. If you’re a cosy bistro, you have to seriously consider capacity. 

The easiest and most sensible way to control this is to only take bookings. And if bookings are few, make sure you’re vigilant with counting any visitors and use footfall counters. 

Table service

Only offering table service is another good way to help control customers gathering with clearly marked floor signs to designate socially distanced queues for toilets etc. Encourage people to use your app for ordering if you have one, promote this where you can.

Face coverings

Currently, the government mandates face coverings should be worn in hospitality venues, only to be taken off when seated at a table to eat or drink. You should set out clear rules yourself, put up clear signs and posters to show this to remind customers or potential ones. Staff should wear face shields or face coverings as well as having access to hand sanitisers at the bar. 

Hygiene

Again, hand sanitisers around the bar area for staff will not only reassure them and keep them frequently germ-free, but your customers will be reassured too. Make sure your toilets are catered for all, don’t leave feminine hygiene behind when making sure your venue is COVID-secure. Always replenish essential supplies, empty sanitary bins and especially if your venue is small, mark out floors with social distancing signs to help order any queues.

Food service and takeaway

Share and promote your food hygiene rating to reassure customers and make sure you are up to date and always vigilant.  

Depending on the latest government guidelines, you’ll need to make sure you’re able to remain open. Currently, if you’re in a ‘very high’ alert level area, pubs and bars must close – they can only remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant, which means serving substantial meals, like a main lunchtime or evening meal. They may only serve alcohol as part of such a meal.

A curfew is in place currently (this guide was written in October 2020, so please do check the government website), where certain businesses are required to ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and must close between 10pm and 5am. Businesses and venues selling food for consumption off the premises can continue to do so after 10pm, as long as this is through delivery service, click-and-collect or drive-through.

Back offices

For guidance on how to set up safer offices, see our social distancing for offices section above.

Social distancing for the retail industry

Whether you’re a big-chain supermarket or a small, independent retail shop, there are a number of ways to help with social distancing for your customers.

Capacity and counting

Due to many retail venues being quite big with many floors, shelves in the way and numerous departments, it can be harder to monitor and observe headcounts. That’s why it’s a good idea to delegate or hire staff to count footfall at the door or invest in some footfall counters.

Floor stamps and signage

Many retailers are marking out floors with stamps, crosses and lines to create more order and to guide customers for queues; even guiding one-way systems. These can work especially well for places that do get a lot of footfall daily. If capacity is full, make sure the outside of the premises is marked well for socially distanced queues.

Hygiene and handling goods

Make sure there are clear signs for toilets and well-marked floors to control queues. If you weren’t already, you need to be stricter and way more vigilant when it comes to replenishing toiletries and make sure you cater for feminine hygiene.

Especially for clothes shops, where customers handle and touch clothes or want to try outfits on, consider putting up clear posters advising people to minimise touches and if you are allowing people to try things on, make sure changing room staff are wiping and spraying handled goods with sanitisers and antibacterial wipes frequently and signpost this to reassure customers.

Place mobile hand sanitiser dispensers around shop floors for easier access and better hygiene.

Cashiers and payment areas

Signpost and remind customers to use contactless payment wherever they can. When it comes to tills and cashier desks, consider placing protective screens for extra protection.

Always have hand sanitiser available so staff can keep on top of their hygiene, especially when handling a lot of goods touched by many daily. 

Again, use hand sanitising sprays and antibacterial wipes to keep areas clean; the sprays can be used for returns or on goods that customers have changed their mind about. 

Back offices and staff rooms

For guidance on how to set up safer offices and staff rooms, see our social distancing for offices section above.

Social distancing in schools

The school day is unlike any other, with timetables, dinner times and lessons to be considered. Maintaining social distancing in schools is no easy feat, but there are some helpful and useful guides you can follow to help create more order.

The government advises:

  • To arrange classrooms with forward-facing desks 
  • Staff should maintain social distancing between each other and their pupils as much as possible
  • When grouping children, avoid contact between groups

Canteens

When it comes to canteens, it’s a good idea to reorganise the queuing system, you could opt for floor stamps like many retail shops have to signpost appropriate distancing. Also, for canteen tables it would be wise to have markers or signs to help break out groups on tables. Have some canteen seats off limits with seat signs. Consider setting up outdoor areas for even better ventilation.

Provide social distancing protective screens

For the ICT rooms or smaller areas where social distancing is more difficult, provide social distancing protective screens.

Keep toilets well stocked

For toilets, just like you should be checking already, make sure they are well stocked and have plenty ready in storage. This includes toilet paper, hand wash and hand sanitiser. It’s also a good idea to provide sanitary products for your female students and staff.

Make more space in classrooms

Make sure classrooms are adapted appropriately. Again this may be difficult but every little helps. If you have enough room and space, rejig the seating and use whatever you have in storage e.g. add some beanbags for extra seating space.

Reorganise lockers

It may be worthwhile reorganising lockers and breaking up units to help spread them out to help with those chaotic transitions between classes.

Also see our useful article we did on preparing for schools reopening.

Back offices and staff rooms

For guidance on how to set up safer offices and staff rooms, see our social distancing for offices section above.

Post-COVID-19 working world

If there’s one thing this unprecedented pandemic has taught us, it’s that when we are forced into testing and tough times, we have to adapt whether that’s entire countries, towns, communities or businesses. We adapt in order to survive. Tragically, lives have been lost, as well as jobs, businesses and opportunities. As we shift into a post-COVID-19 world, we have to maintain a hard balancing act to stabilise the economy, whilst protecting our public health.

That’s why it’s vital everybody pulls together and carries on being more vigilant on both personal hygiene and office hygiene. The shape of the office space is changing, and it’s changing for the better. With more breakout areas, office pods, protective screens, office dividers, mobile hand sanitising stations and better guided office layouts, employers are adapting to help keep employees safer.

A safer, more dynamic and caring workplace is being created, one in which helps stop the flow of viruses… but not the office banter.

DBI Furniture Solutions

These adaptations and changes are introducing new ways of collaboration, holding productive meetings, improving mental wellness and are helping employers reintroduce staff back into the office safely, helping them break away from the detrimental effects of isolation and to continue earning a living. 

More people will be working from home as companies have had to adapt, but this isn’t always feasible or easy for many and so the office environment will become safer and more hygienic as employers have to update. A safer, more dynamic and caring workplace is being created, one in which helps stop the flow of viruses… but not the office banter.

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Lyndsay Carling
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