10 May 2021

Vickie Graham DipM ACIM ACIPP, CIPP’s business development director, outlines the Chartered Institute’s evolving policy for its office-based staff

From 23 March 2020, all CIPP employees were working from home. Some were remote workers prior to the pandemic, but most had been phased out of the office in anticipation of a national lockdown. At the time we had an office sweepstake with the majority anticipating us being back by June – but no one imagined that would be June 2021!

The senior leadership team (SLT) started communicating with colleagues, daily initially, via email to confirm what discussions were being had regarding returning to the workplace, and how to keep positive during difficult times. These emails would sometimes include a video message, as well as positive messages for colleagues. As the working conditions became the ‘norm’ we reduced the frequency to twice a week.

In addition, following announcements made by the prime minister, Ken Pullar, CIPP’s chief executive officer, would write to colleagues to advise on the SLT’s thoughts regarding what they would mean for those looking to return to the office.

Through these communications to the team, we issued surveys asking what employees would like to see to make them feel safer when returning to the office. Following the feedback, along with timely government guidance, we made plans to phase a return of employees from 20 July to 4 September 2020. To do this in a covid secure way we conducted a risk assessment and made the following changes.

Health and safety checks were completed in the office, including legionnaires’ disease checks for the water and servicing of our air conditioning and fresh air systems.

A deep-clean of the office was organised for the week before employees returned, including a clean of the air conditioning units.

Introduced a policy so all employees were aware of what had changed and their obligations and responsibilities to their colleagues, such as to clean surfaces in communal areas if used and to maintain social distancing at all times.

Temperature checks on entering the building.

Contactless hand sanitisers were placed at all doorways where hand washing facilities were not available, and colleagues were encouraged to use these prior to touching surfaces such as door handles or rails in stairways. In addition, we placed hand sanitiser bottles in all meeting rooms.

Face coverings and gloves were provided.

Antibacterial wipes were provided for wiping desks during the day, as well as in communal areas to maintain the cleanliness of surfaces until our nightly clean.

Although our desks are 2 metres wide and 1.5 metres deep, enabling social distancing, screens were erected between them to provide extra protection following feedback from employees.

As mentioned, we phased the return over an eight-week period. This allowed for us to test the changes and policy without having everyone being back at once, and made people feel more comfortable. Which phase a person returned in was determined by job role and therefore requirement to be in the office.

In determining who returned during which phase, consideration was given to vulnerable employees and their families. This did not just consider health but took into consideration how people travelled to the office and those within their households.

The phased return was successful, and we issued surveys to determine how employees felt once they had returned, with those who completed the survey confirming that the office felt safe and covid-secure.

Shortly after returning, we went into lockdown two and as government advice was to again work from home where possible we moved employees out again during October. However, there was more emphasis on mental health and wellbeing, and recognition that not everyone could work from home, so the office remained open for those who needed an office environment; and this has been the case from 29 March 2021 during lockdown three.

Approaching the end of lockdown three, the SLT are discussing what a return would look like. We are planning to return from 21 June and, again, this will be phased. We are having discussions with our teams and keeping on top of government updates to ensure we are covid-secure and that the teams are comfortable in their working environment. Where roles allow, there will be a degree of flexibility moving forward, but this carries its own challenges when considering hardware and software requirements, and changes to contracts.

Generally, there is much debate regarding whether employers can insist upon their employees being vaccinated before returning to an office environment. Whilst this is understandably something employers would consider, we acknowledge that not all employees will be willing, nor able, to be vaccinated. There are some groups who have been advised not to have the vaccine due to potential risks, others will have personal or religious reasons for choosing not to be vaccinated, and as an employer we cannot discriminate because of this. Therefore, the issue is not how we enforce vaccines in the workplace, but how we make it secure without them. 

Featured in the June 2021 issue of Professional in Payroll, Pensions and Reward. Correct at time of publication.