30th April, 2020
Social distancing has become the new normal in 2020. With COVID-19, any close contact is an opportunity for the virus to spread. But how can social distancing work, at work? Here are 10 ideas for putting some physical distance between you and your team.
Social distancing has become the new normal in 2020. With the COVID-19 lockdown still in force and much uncertainty ahead, it's clear that many restrictions are likely to stay in place for the foreseeable future. For many businesses, the coronavirus has seen forced closures. But for essential work, one of the ways to stay safe is to bring the governments social distancing guidance to the workplace.
Of course, people with symptoms should be self-isolating at home, but even seemingly healthy people could be spreading the virus. They might just not have developed symptoms yet, but be contagious. Close working relationships are something that is usually encouraged. But during a pandemic of a contagious disease like the coronavirus, any close contact is an opportunity for the virus to spread.
But how can social distancing work, at work? Here are 10 ideas for putting some physical distance between you and your team.
If you can work from home, you should. Because the safest way to avoid spreading illness is through no contact at all. Especially while scientists are still researching how far the virus can spread from person to person. If you can work from home you are already keeping a social distance, and you don't need to follow the next 9 items!
But not all workers can do their job from home. Construction workers, factory staff, warehouse teams, delivery drivers. Many jobs simply cannot be done at home. So let's look at how we can social distance in the workplace.
Entrance and exit points are key areas where people gather. If your workplace has one point of entry and exit, this is a danger zone for close contact. We've seen it at supermarkets, people queueing across the car park, 2m apart, waiting for their turn. But no one wants to queue to get into work. And they shouldn't need to. If you stagger start times, you can avoid frustration and tailbacks at the gate, and help keep people separate.
Open offices are all well and good until there is an infectious disease doing the rounds. The shared canteen was a great place to socialise and unwind at lunch pre-coronavirus but not such a good idea now.
What normally works for your business might need to be re-thought about in the current crisis. If you have enough space, you could spread workstations further apart. If you don't have space, you might need to reduce staff levels and keep every other work area empty.
Should we have a meeting about whether or not to cancel meetings? Probably not. Getting everyone together in a room for a chat, however important, is the opposite of social distancing.
What can be said in a meeting that can't be said over email? Or a phone call? Or a video call? And if you really do need a meeting, there's Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and a whole range of other online video chat software for businesses.
Maybe you don't normally let people work flexible hours. Or do remote work. Or start late. Or finish early. But these are not normal times. Many people are having to juggle childcare with schools closed, and looking after those in the highly vulnerable groups. And flexibility with your work patterns can help to stagger shifts (item 2) and stagger breaks (item 6). So it could be great for you and your team at this difficult time.
Just like staggering start times, breaks are a time when everyone can end up bunched together at the entrance and exit points to your workplace. Or visiting the canteen or welfare facilities at the same time. And just like no one wants to queue to get into work, they don't want to queue to use the toilet either. Stagger breaks along with shift patterns to keep the day running smoothly and avoid bottlenecks.
Zone off work areas can be another way to keep a social distance at work. You know exactly the number of people present in a zone, so you can be sure that there's not overcrowding in specific work areas. Maybe certain employees only need to access one zone. Limiting access to other areas means that if there is any illness, it is contained.
We've already covered how technology can be used to eliminate in-person meetings, using messaging and video platforms. But what else can technology do? Could technology replace a process in your business that requires close physical contact? Could a system be automated? Or could technology be used as a reminder or enforcer of the social distancing rules? For example, some workers at the NHS Nightingale Birmingham used proximity alarms in backpacks to trigger if they got too close to each other.
Floor markings have been used effectively in supermarkets to mark out acceptable distances. Could this be used in your business too? And what about routes and walkways? Could a one-way system be put in place and marked out to further reduce the risk of people passing each other.
In addition to floor markings, barriers and screens are other useful tools to mark out walkways or work zones and to enforce the social distance rules you have put in place. Signs and guidance information can also be displayed.
Some of these social distancing measures might mean you need to slow down. Some work may be delayed. Some deadlines may have to be extended. And some workers may need to be furloughed. But putting in place these measures now hopefully mean that, when work can return to normal, no one is missing.
Social distancing should only be part of your response to the coronavirus at work. For more information see our blog post on the coronavirus and health and safety at work.
Download the free coronavirus toolbox talk to raise awareness of the control measures you can use to help slow the spread of the virus. And our free coronavirus risk assessment template can be used to help you control the risks if your business is required to stay open.
*As this is a fast-developing situation, please follow the NHS and government information sources while the situation is evolving for the latest guidance.
This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.
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