Who will keep us safe at work? The new workplace rules and responsibilities

July 2020

For the last few months, Tortoise have been holding their regular series of ThinkIns online, often attracting audiences of several hundred both in the UK and worldwide. But as founder James Harding introduced this latest event in the series, he also reflected on the special energy and dynamism of the gatherings held in Tortoise’s busy newsroom in Fora’s Eastcastle Street location. The evening’s discussion focused on why these physical spaces remain an essential part of our working lives but also how the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the rules, rights and responsibilities we all have to stay safe at work. 

 

Safety First

A diverse panel of experts shared their thoughts with the audience: Gavin Davies from the GMB Union; Tracey Hudson from outsourcing specialists The HR Dept; Jarina Choudhury from charities organisation NCVO; and our own Fora co-founder and CEO Enrico Sanna, each brought their unique perspectives to the discussion. “I’m an employer of the many people who work at Fora,’ said Enrico, ‘but also we provide workspaces for our customers and Residents so I approach this challenge with a number of different hats.”

The challenge that COVID-19 has presented to ensuring workplaces are safe wasn’t underestimated by the panel. “You have to ensure that the staff fully understand the need for PPE,” observed Gavin. “If the understanding is not there they could accidentally put themselves at risk.” The union is particularly concerned that NHS staff are properly protected. They want to see a reduction in what has been termed ‘bubble jumping’ – where staff move between different contained environments and there is a risk of cross-contamination. Measures don’t just need to be taken in public spaces but behind the scenes too and companies have a clear duty to ensure both staff and visitors are safe at all times.

 

Addressing the Details

Enrico agreed that such steps are essential. “It’s very expensive to do everything we’ve done, but it needs to be done. There’s no other way around it,” he said. Fora has appointed a medical advisory board to help develop and deploy a wide range of safeguards in each location, including thermal imaging cameras to check the temperature of everyone entering the buildings. Office spaces have been transformed with new signage, one-way systems and cleaning protocols. “If the office is not a healthy and productive environment – then it has no place in a worker’s life,” observed Enrico.

Tracey Hudson of the HR Dept recognised that it is essential for companies to communicate the measures they have taken to their workers. Staff understandably need reassurance. “Companies have considered every detail but some employees have come back into the workplace and still don’t feel safe.” She advised that companies should try to understand individual circumstances that might make them feel uncomfortable. In turn, employees need to work with companies to identify issues. “Individuals need to match the level of effort made by companies to do the right thing,” said Tracey.

 

The Office’s Vital Role

Jarina Choudhury of NCVO described an experience during the lockdown that will have been familiar to many in the audience. The organisation champions the voluntary sector and usually operates from its head office in London’s Kings Cross. “We’ve proved that we can work from home. It’s been difficult but we’ve managed with the technology we have,” said Jarina. However, she also acknowledged that companies often assume everyone has superfast broadband and adequate home-office space. “I think some employers haven’t been aware that not everyone has access to the same resources.” Gavin agreed, highlighting that cramped households, with parents and school-age children all working from home, could be particularly difficult.

Ultimately the physical office space will continue to be an important part of our working lives, observed Enrico. “We cannot extrapolate the crisis indefinitely into the future,” he said. Remote working may increase but there will also be a return to the central role of the office. “There will be a need for less office space but that space will really need to work for what you need to do in an office. No Zoom, no technology can fully replace a face-to-face meeting,” continued Enrico. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the facilities and services offered by Fora. “The office has a purpose, but many offices are not fit for that purpose.”

 

Working Together Again

James Harding again referenced the environment of the Tortoise newsroom. “There are moments during the editorial meetings when no one says anything but it’s clear that everyone thinks something is a bad idea,” he said. Reading such non-verbal cues is an essential part of the workspace but something that is far harder, if not impossible, to do via a conference call. Enrico agreed. “People come to the office for social interaction; because you need to understand those non-verbal cues,” he said. “You come to the office to build a culture. I could never have built the culture of Fora via video conferences.”

That communication that a shared workspace fosters is more important than ever. People can often be poor judges of risk said Tracey. “Individual people are going to have different fears and different worries. We advise one to one calls with every employee and talk through their individual concerns,” she said. She highlighted that this is a process and not a sudden leap out of lockdown. In this way, offices can return to their vital role as creative, innovative hubs where ideas and opinions are easily shared and where supportive and effective relationships are forged and maintained.

 

The last few months of lockdown have been a busy and challenging time for everyone. Workers have had to find ways to be as productive as possible within the limitations of the home environment, often battling distractions and family commitments. Similarly companies have been hard at work behind the scenes, striving to make the necessary changes to ensure that their workplaces are safe as well as highly productive. The ThinkIns will, no doubt, return to the buzz of the Tortoise newsroom at Fora on Eastcastle Street, while keeping their new-won digital audience too. As we gradually return to the office, employers and employees will need to work together to manage risks and build reassurance and trust.