Many leaders want to increase the number of person/days of office work happening in their agency.

Companies have a legal requirement to ensure the health and safety of their staff and customers, and a moral requirement to help reduce the spread of a dangerous virus. But at the same time, many leaders and teams have been feeling the strain of 100% remote work, and are seeking a better balance.

In this playbook:

  1. The CARE acronym
    Understanding how to return to office work safely and effectively
  2. Understanding the risks
    Understanding the risks in order to develop a safe workplace
  3. Measures to consider
    The measures you will need to blend to in the three key contexts for working together as a team

The CARE acronym

The CARE acronym helps us understand what is needed to safely and effectively return to office work as a team:

  • Confidence: Simply ordering people to return to the office, or guilt-tripping/pressuring or whatever, will backfire. People will resist or leave. The only way that will work for you in the long term is to genuinely build up people's confidence that you understand the issues, that you care, that it is safe to work in the office, and that it is worthwhile.
  • Action: There is no point just pretending everything is okay, or in 'safety theatre' that doesn't actually protect you all. For example, many offices make do with asking everyone to use hand gel on their way in. That's no use against an airborne respiratory virus. Therefore you need to understand what measures will actually be useful and actually implement the right mix of those for your situation.
  • Review: The pandemic is a continually evolving situation, and new information and research is being published all the time. Keep up to date with expert advice and update your plans. That may include varying your approach based on the prevalence of cases in your area. Also, keep checking in with the team with updates on the current expert advice.
  • Empathy: Approach the whole process by seeking to understand people's thoughts, cares and worries. Involve the team in designing the approach.

Understanding the risks

Huge progress has been made in understanding the virus and developing vaccines and other medical interventions to protect us. But there are still risks that it is important to understand in order to develop a safe workplace.

  • It is now known that the virus that causes Covid-19, known as SARS-CoV-2, is mainly spread via airborne transmission. This means viral particles float freely in the air like smoke, rather than only being transmitted directly by a cough or sneeze, or via touch. You can catch Covid from someone just by both of you having breathed in the same room within an hour or so of each other.
  • Fully-vaccinated people can still catch and transmit the virus. The vaccines may protect them from the virus making them ill with Covid-19. They are very likely to be protected from a severe illness requiring hospitalisation. But the fact they can still catch and transmit the virus, and may still get ill, is key.
  • It's not just the immediate illness from Covid-19 that is a concern. Ongoing research is finding that the virus can cause significant long-term organ damage, particularly to the central nervous system affecting motor and cognitive function, even in people who only had very mild illness. This is a virus to avoid getting.
  • Agency leaders will also have to deal with the risks presented by disinformation around the pandemic. A lot of time and money has gone into spreading false information via social networks to discredit vaccines, health protection measures such as masks, or even the threat from the virus at all. That means leaders, in seeking to put in place sensible safety precautions, may face resistance or arguments from some team members or clients who have absorbed disinformation. Leaders may even find it difficult to know what to believe themselves.

Our service, Agency Radar, provides regular updates on the situation and what that means for agency leaders to help you identify and manage the risks.

Measures to consider

The right approach for your agency will be some blend of the possible measures below, tailored to your situation.

You can vary the measures you put in place based on published data about the prevalence of Covid cases in your local area. As case numbers fall to low numbers per 100,000 you can relax measures a little, and as they increase you can add measures.

Making the office safer

Here are some of the key steps you can take in your workplace.

  • Ventilation:  Good ventilation is one of the best defences, which is why outdoor spaces are much safer than indoor ones. Having windows and doors open helps, but otherwise having good mechanical ventilation is a requirement. You need a ventilation system that can completely change the air in the office a few times an hour.
  • Air filtration: Research has found that HEPA filters are effective at removing SARS-COV-2 viral particles from the air, addressing one of the main routes of transmission for Covid. There are cheap HEPA-grade air filtration units readily available for home and small office use (Note: none of our links are affiliate links, we only include links that are genuinely useful). Installing these around the office can reduce risk significantly.
  • CO2 monitoring: It's been found that CO2 levels in the air are an effective proxy for how likely it would be for Covid to be transmitted. That's because CO2 also builds up in enclosed spaces with more people in but poor ventilation. Installing a CO2 monitor, in combination with other measures here, could give reassurance to people (including you!) that the office is well ventilated and risks have been lowered.
  • Physical distancing: Change the layout of the office so that desks are spread apart as much as possible, rather than clustered together. Avoid using meeting rooms as a group unless they are well ventilated and you can spread out enough.
  • Mask requirements: Masks are also very effective in reducing transmission of the virus. However, there is likely to be resistance from many people to wearing them all day in the office. In discussions you can show how other measures here are necessary in order to avoid the need for masks. But if there is not enough ventilation or distancing, masks are needed.
  • Vaccine requirements: We are not aware of any western countries where it is currently possible to require vaccination of staff members in non-specialist sectors (eg outside of healthcare or the military). However, if all your staff are vaccinated this is one of the best protections for each other. It is okay to encourage vaccination and provide information, as long as you do this equally with all staff. There isn't yet clear enough legal guidance or case law on this topic, and you will need to consult a lawyer about your specific situation if you would like to mandate vaccination.
  • Testing requirements: You should source and make available lateral flow tests (LFTs, also known as Antigen tests). Through discussion and agreement with staff, develop a policy that you'll all commit to for voluntary regular testing for those coming to the office. In the US the EEOC has explicitly confirmed that employers may require tests to come to work. In other countries it's not so clear. In the UK, for example, there hasn't been any useful official guidance on this, and it is likely that employers can only require employees to take a test if they are displaying symptoms, because it is official guidance that they must be tested in that situation. You could examine with a lawyer whether you can update your employment contracts to include a requirement for testing to access the workplace as part of your wider health and safety responsibilities to all staff.
  • Self-isolation/sick pay and support: If a staff member, or one of their immediate family, tests positive, has symptoms, or is told to isolate by the authorities, they should self-isolate and not come to work. Employees should be supported and encouraged to do this, and not be disadvantaged. Design a policy for how you'll approach this.
  • Toilets: Research has found that toilets are a high risk area for transmission. Ensure good ventilation and increased regularity and thoroughness of cleaning.
  • Hand gel: This isn't one of the biggest considerations, but it doesn't hurt. Do ask everyone to use hand gel when they come into the office, but don't let it be considered a replacement for many of the other measures above.

Remember to apply these measures equally to all staff, and in all parts of the workplace. With all of these it is best to discuss openly and reach consensus about the best approach for the agency. But as the CEO and business owner you do have ultimate legal responsibility for the health and safety of all employees, a weight which nobody else has on their shoulders. So you can be justified in pushing for a safer environment.

Making travelling to the office safer

People travelling to work could be exposed to the virus on their commute.

More employees than usual may prefer to travel by car or bike. What facilities can you provide to support this? Extra parking? A secure bike shed? Showers?

Perhaps some staff who live near each other could car share. As they'll be sharing an office all day this is only a small extra risk. When local case numbers are high they should consider having the car windows open for extra ventilation and/or wearing masks.

For those who have to travel on public transport, the risk is highest. Allow for flexible work times so that they can travel outside peak times. Strongly advise that they wear a mask on the journey.

And for some people, even though they might want to come to the office, the journey may seem too big a risk for them. Be understanding of this and flexible with the work arrangements to allow work from home.

It's going to be a while before it's genuinely safe for every single person to go to work in an office.

Client meetings, conferences and socialising

Many people are keen to get back into offices and work with colleagues face to face again, and the risks associated with that can potentially be managed as above.

Achieving that alone is a a big step right now.

Many want to go much further, though. But it introduces a much higher level of risk to also go out to face to face client meetings, conferences, networking meetups, and social events.

Every person who you come into contact with is a possible vector of transmission. Key to staying safe is reducing the number of vectors of transmission as much as possible. That means prioritising, then only doing the top priorities face to face.

You've already got a number of unavoidable vectors — family members, people at the shops, the office, and so on.

While case numbers are high in your area, we strongly advise against general face to face contact, even if you are vaccinated. Instead, have only your key priorities (such as family and colleagues) as face to face meetings, and keep the rest on Zoom for now.

In areas where case numbers are low, and vaccination take up is high, you can be more relaxed and meet more people face to face.

The key is understanding your risk factors, the risk factors of those you may be meeting, and the prevalence of the virus in your area.

By taking these precautions we can keep ourselves and our teams safe — and also play our part in helping protect the world from this virus.

Having staff off sick, or simply feeling unsafe in the workplace, will only lead to more problems to deal with. We need to take responsibility as leaders to take action now to avoid consequences later.