When this all started, many of us expected things to go back to normal almost as quickly as they became abnormal.

Weeks after coronavirus brought the majority of our industries to a halt, however, we now know that things will be a little bit different for the foreseeable future, with all workplaces expected to follow social distancing rules wherever possible.

Employers have a duty of care, and must take steps to protect both their employees and their customers. But how, when you have a business to run, are you supposed to enforce social distancing rules?

There's no doubt you'll need to make some big changes, and all businesses are now required to perform thorough risk assessments before asking staff to return to work. But there are, thankfully, a number of tools and techniques you can use to help keep your team safe.

The following 10 tips should prove helpful, and in some cases be absolutely necessary, to getting your business back on track...


#1 Consider shift groups & partnering

Terms like 'shift groups', 'cohorting', and 'partnering' might not have been common parlance in your workplace previously, but they're about to become an essential part of keeping your team safe.

The logic behind splitting your teams up into specific groups, or having staff work solely with designated partners, is that it makes cross-contamination between staff members much less likely. Each cohort or shift group should work to entirely separate schedules, or even in separate physical workplaces, and there should be no mixing of team members at any point.

This way, even in the unlikely event that one employee somehow spreads the virus to an entire sub-team, it won't pass through your whole workforce and you'll be able to continue operating.

If it's not possible to physically separate teams in your office or workplace, consider asking half or part of your team work remotely. You may want to rotate every few weeks in order to keep things fresh and ensure that no one feels they're at a disadvantage, but do be sure to thoroughly sanitise surfaces and equipment before and after each rotation.

Finally, an effort should also be made by your staff not to socialise with members of another group, and any possible complications (for example, staff who cohabit being assigned to different groups) should be brought to your attention immediately. If you're making use of staff scheduling software to organise your team and rotas, shift swaps should either be temporarily disabled or set to require manager authorisation to ensure that teams don't mix.

#2 Stagger shift start & end times

Your team might be used to the standard nine to five, but in order to reduce contact between employees, you're probably going to have to stagger their start and end times — and that means building a rota.

The easiest way to go about staggering shifts is to decide on set shift patterns, and have small groups (or cohorts) start at different times – or work on different days.

How you create your rotas is up to you — will you use a spreadsheet? Rota planning software? Old fashioned pen and paper? Whatever method you use, your rota needs to be quick to build, clear, and easy to adjust.

#3 Communicate who’s in & when

More than ever, your staff need to be kept up to date about when they're working, and should be made aware of any last-minute changes to the schedule as quickly as possible.

Rather than pinning your schedule to your staff room wall or taking dozens of phone calls from staff asking when they're next in, we recommend distributing work rotas online.

This in itself is simple enough to do with platforms like WhatsApp, Slack, and email, but bear in mind that your staff will need to know whenever there's been a change to the rota — and you as their boss need to know that they've received said update. If you don't, you risk staff lateness, absences, and could even put the health of your team at risk as people arrive at work when they're not supposed to.

Choose whatever communication method your team will be most responsive to – and have processes in place for acknowledging shifts, or changes to shifts.

#4 Maintain social distancing in the workplace

We might have passed the peak here in the UK, but the risk of you, your staff, or one of your customers becoming ill is still a genuine concern. For this reason, social distancing must be practised, even in the workplace.

This will mean big changes for those of us who work in office environments, hospitality, and non-essential retail, but some possible social distancing measures to consider are:

Space out desks/workstations. You'll need to increase space between desks so that staff are at least one metre apart while working (with added protective measures), and two metres apart if at all possible. If you're short on space, this can be achieved by having staff work alternating shift patterns, or asking others to work from home.

Provide protective equipment (PPE). If your employees have no option but to work in close proximity to one another, or regularly engage with members of the public, it may be necessary to invest in some protective equipment such as masks or face shields. Make sure to provide training on how to use this PPE safely and effectively.

Set up one-way systems. Similar to how many supermarkets currently operate, it may be helpful to set up a 'one-way' system for movement around your shop, office, or workplace to prevent people's paths crossing unnecessarily. Similarly, if your workplace has banks of desks, ensure they can be entered from either end — otherwise, you end up with some team members sitting at the end of a thoroughfare of sorts.

Consider entrances, exits, and lifts. No matter how well physically distanced your team are in the workplace, all of your hard work will go undone if staff funnel through tight corridors or regularly pass at natural bottlenecks such as doorways. To avoid this, designate different doors for coming in and going out where possible, and use markers (a bit of tape will do!) on the hallway floors to direct 'traffic' on either side. If you need to use a lift in your building, be sure to stagger shift start times (see above) to reduce congestion, and follow the government's advice on limiting the number of passengers at any one time. As odd as it may seem, you may also have to ask staff to face away from one another while inside the lift.

Lastly, for any public-facing businesses, it's also a good idea to designate a member of staff whose job it is to watch the door and limit numbers entering the premises, for everyone's safety. During the risk assessment process, you should have worked out a suitable maximum number of customers for your premises.

#5 Make working from home an option

With social distancing rules to consider, it might not be possible for your entire workforce to come in at once. In such a scenario, it could be worth running (or continuing to run) a work-from-home scheme.

This could be operated on a rotational basis, with teams taking it in turns to work from home, or you could invite those who live nearby (and who wouldn't have to rely on public transport) to work in the office, while the rest work remotely.

Whatever approach you take, communication is key, so make sure your home-working team have all the equipment and tools they need to work efficiently.

#6 Log sickness & attendance

More so than ever, you'll need to keep a clear log of any sickness and absence in your team. Any instances of staff falling ill or displaying any symptoms of COVID-19 should be recorded, with said staff asked to remain at home for as long as NHS guidelines state.

It's also worth keeping an attendance record for all staff (your rota will only tell half the story!) so that you can easily identify — and inform — any staff who've worked alongside someone who has begun to show symptoms of the virus. In addition, individual staff timesheets will make it much easier to run payroll and ensure that your team are showing up only when they're supposed to if you decide to operate shift groups or stagger starts.

Even if you previously didn't ask your staff to clock in and out each day, there are plenty of good reasons why you now should.

#7 Keep clocking-in hygienic

If you do require your staff to clock in and out of their shifts, it's essential that they do so hygienically.

Most clocking-in terminals (also known as punch clocks) are located near the entrance to the workplace, with staff interacting with them immediately after coming in from the outside world. This, combined with the fact that entire teams handle them, make these terminals a potential hotspot for germs.

One option is to place hand sanitiser at the entrance to the building and ensure that your staff get into the habit of sanitising whenever they enter or leave, thus keeping your terminal (or even log book, if you're keeping it old-school) clean.

Another solution is to make use of a time and attendance platform that allows staff to clock in using their own smartphones. As well as ensuring that employees' clocking data is accurate and that their timesheets are automatically populated, this hands-free method will help keep staff safe.  

#8 Clean & reduce contact points

The advice remains similar to that for preventing the spread of colds and flu, but should be followed even more stringently.

Desks & shared surfaces. Clean these regularly and frequently – remember your door handles and light switches!

Kitchen facilities. We might all be washing our hands more frequently, but workplace kitchens are known problem areas for germs, with employees touching the same surfaces (the kettle; the fridge or microwave door; milk cartons...) multiple times a day. Even with regular sanitising, it's safer to make these areas out-of-bounds for a while.

Break/chill-out areas. Sorry, but these too should probably be added to the no-no list, especially if your break room is home to shared amusements like games consoles or a pool table. By all means, if you have the space you can allow your staff to take some time out away from their desks, but if you do, be sure that they keep a good distance away from each other.

Hot-desking. Common in office-based work environments, hot-desking is when staff work from any available space, usually different each day, rather than having their own regular spot in the office. This practice should be temporarily halted to reduce the risk of viruses spreading, with your staff asked to use only the space and equipment assigned to them. If they're working on a rotational basis, staff should sterilise their workspace and equipment at the start and end of every shift.  

#9 Take communication online

If the last few weeks have taught us anything, it's that much of what we do — whether it's working from home, holding meetings, or just hanging out — can be done online, even if just as a temporary measure.

Even after we return to work, this online approach shouldn't be abandoned.

To keep contact to an absolute minimum, meetings and interviews should still be held online whenever possible. Rather than visiting our teammate's desk to ask a question or share some useful info, it's safer to use a platform like Slack or Teams to — however silly you may feel — make a phone call or start a video chat.

As a manager, your communications, too, should be done online as much as possible — use memos, email, and chat to convey vital information rather than speaking face to face or holding meetings.

#10 Look out for your staff

We've saved this point until last simply because it's so important.

We know you care about your team but when there's so much to think about, it's easy to forget that your staff will also be feeling pretty anxious as they return to work or start to interact with more people than they have for weeks or months on end.

As a manager, it’s your job to be there not just to offer instructions to your staff, but to support their mental health and wellbeing through frequent communication, sharing advice, and letting them know that their safety is being constantly considered.

You need to make sure your staff feel safe. If that means furloughing, extending work-from-home schemes for those who are anxious about using public transport or whose family members might be vulnerable, or assigning certain staff to quieter locations or shifts, every opportunity should be taken to look out for employee wellbeing.

And of course, let's not forget the importance of taking a well-earned break during all of this! It's vital that your staff make full use of their holiday allowance in order to stay both physically and mentally strong. Keep a close eye on the number of days your staff are taking off work, and give anyone a nudge if they look like they could do with a short break.

Wrap-up

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