Via Yahoo Finance

Despite further relaxations in the coronavirus lockdown regime, millions of office workers are still being urged to work from home where possible. But some employers are slowly reopening workplaces – and the slight easing of lockdown rules in England (there are variations across the UK) could have implications for offices getting back to work.

Here is what the easing will mean for them.

1) Are office workers allowed to return to their place of work?

The guidance, available on the government’s risk-assessment tool for England, on who should return to the office has not changed since the very start of lockdown: anyone who can work from home should do so. There are no restrictions on the types of office work that are allowed for those who cannot work from home, as long as they can observe physical distancing where possible.

However, workers who are vulnerable or shielding should not go to the office, and employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace. Anyone with Covid-19 symptoms must stay at home.

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2) What changes must offices make?

Every company returning to work has a legal duty to carry out a written risk assessment if it has more than five employees, and employers must consult elected staff representatives.

Many offices that do reopen borrow measures already pioneered in factories and shops that have remained open, with screens or barriers to separate people, one-way systems and staggered arrival times.

And, of course, the frequency of handwashing, hand-sanitiser stations and the cleaning of all touch points (such as doors) will increase dramatically.

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3) Will the physical distancing change make a difference?

The big change for workers on 4 July will be on physical distancing rules. Employers must still make “every reasonable effort” to allow workers to stay apart, but the government guidelines have been tweaked from spacing employees 2 metres apart at all times to “1 metre with risk mitigation where 2 metres is not viable” – also known as “1-metre-plus”.

This means workers are still urged to stay two metres apart where possible, but with some leeway if measures such as face masks, protective screens or making people face away from each other are introduced. This could mean, for instance, that two people could theoretically pass each other in a narrower corridor, or more people could fit in lifts – although it is likely many businesses will not risk it until rules ease further, given the legal and health concerns. Businesses who spoke to the Guardian said they were confused over how the guidelines should be implemented in offices.

Simulations by engineering consultancy Arup suggest a 1-metre-plus rule could allow many offices to return to 100% capacity – compared with less than a third with two metres. However, it would also dramatically increase the time workers spent in close proximity, the consultancy said, potentially increasing transmission risk.

Canary Wharf Group, which runs the financial district in London’s docklands that houses many of the UK’s bank headquarters, estimates that it can run at 50% capacity at 2 metres, but “significantly more” at 1-metre-plus.

4) Are any companies returning to office work en masse?

Some professional services firms have started the phased return of small proportions of workers where they feel comfortable, including law firm CMS, accountancy Deloitte, advertising company WPP, and investment banks Barclays, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs.

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Yet many businesses have expressed caution over a full return to the workplace any time soon. Edwin Morgan, director of policy at the Institute of Directors, said there had not been a “mad rush back to the office” and that “many directors will err on the side of caution”.

The Confederation of British Industry said that most British offices would stick to 2 metres’ distancing and that only businesses where employees could avoid public transport would gradually return – and only if people still can’t work from home.

5) How big a problem are commuting restrictions?

Transport remains one of the main obstacles to a wholesale return to offices.

The government advice is for people to avoid public transport where possible, and capacity in London is running at only 15-20% of normal levels. That would make a mass return to offices unviable for some time – although an increase in cycling and walking could help significantly.

“The government has been very effective at discouraging people from travelling on public transport,” says Howard Dawber, managing director of strategy for Canary Wharf Group. “The next challenge is to get people to use public transport [again] where necessary.”