My daughter returns to school tomorrow after 5 months and 19 days at home (not that I’m counting, of course). The government hopes that once schools are back, parents will be able to return to their workplaces, bringing an end to the disjointed zoom meetings and late afternoon pyjama-wearing, while simultaneously reviving the fortunes of the M&S meal deal.
But many workers are reluctant to return. They have got used to the flexibility of working from home and the improved work-life balance. Others are worried about the risks of returning to busy trains and shared work kitchens.
Lawyers are particularly vulnerable. They often work in open plan, air-conditioned offices with limited personal space and shared communal areas. The glass to ceiling windows look great, but good luck trying to find one that actually opens.
Managing partners and practice managers should not be allowing anyone back to the office until they can ensure a COVID-19 secure workplace. The government has published detailed guidance for offices in England and the Law Society has produced a practical framework on returning to the office, which includes a template risk assessment. https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/topics/coronavirus/practical-framework-for-law-firms-and-sole-practitioners-on-return-to-the-office
Both these documents provide helpful advice, much of which will sound very familiar: you must maintain social distancing in the workplace wherever possible; if social distancing guidelines cannot be followed, consider whether the activity can be redesigned; increase the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning; use screens or barriers to separate people from each other; use back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible.
So far, so good. But what if you are working on a deal with a team of lawyers or need to meet clients in the office?
One option is to reduce the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’. For example, can you divide your staff into teams, each one with a selection of lawyers and support staff from each practice area. Team A can come into the office on week 1 and 3 of the month and team B on weeks 2 and 4. School children will be in bubbles, so why not lawyers?
It goes without saying that you should avoid in-person meetings if possible, but it’s also the nature of the business that documents have to be witnessed and clients have to be met face-to-face. Where that is the case, avoid sharing pens, documents and other objects and provide hand sanitiser. Members of the public are required to wear a face covering when visiting premises providing professional, legal or financial services. However, this only applies to law firms with a ‘shop front’ on to a high street, for example where members of the public can walk in. If your firm only sees clients by appointment, face coverings are not obligatory.
If you have missed providing seminars in person to a room full of people, then you will be pleased to know that firms can host groups of 30 indoors, provided the usual COVID-19 secure guidelines are followed.
Other recommendations include staggering arrival and departure times to reduce crowding into and out of the office, setting an upper occupancy limit and removing desks to encourage physical distancing.
It’s not rocket science, but it takes time to organise, and as with all health and safety related issues, consultation with staff and detailed risk assessments are fundamental.
‘It’s important that employers and employees have that discussion about Covid-safe environments. There’ll be more opportunities for parents to go back into the office if that’s what is the best thing for them and their employer.’