Practical framework for law firms and sole practitioners on return to the office

The UK government's step two of the roadmap out of lockdown is now in place in England.

We've updated this framework to reflect the most recent government guidance on COVID-19 secure workplaces (March 2021).

These are the most relevant points for legal services.

Overview

  • Office workers should continue to work from home where they can
  • Offices, law firms and organisations can remain open (or re-open if they have been closed) provided they follow the government's COVID-secure guidelines (as set out below)
  • Calls or video conferences should be encouraged to avoid in-person meetings with external contacts or colleagues outside someone's immediate team wherever possible
  • Staff who have to go to the office should do so. If they need to use public transport, they should consult the government guidance on how to travel safely
  • Staff who need to travel internationally for work are able to do so (quarantine restrictions may apply)
  • Staff who need to stay in overnight accommodation for work purposes are allowed to do so
  • If face-to-face business meetings are required, these can take place not limited to the rule of six, and indoors. This does not include social gatherings with work colleagues
  • The government has committed to publishing new social distancing, face mask and other long-term measures ahead of step four (pencilled in for 21 June)

The government's COVID-secure office guidance has not changed in a significant way from autumn 2020. It includes new provisions on ventilation of spaces and non-mandatory lateral flow tests.

If your organisation carried out a COVID risk assessment in 2020, we encourage you to review it and cross-reference it against this framework. This will enable you to check that the measures you have put in place are working and identify any further improvements.

Basic principles

Law firms and organisations should allow their staff to work from home if they can do so effectively.

However, if staff members are required in the office, then the firm must make sure it's a COVID-19 secure workplace.

This guidance:

  • is non-prescriptive – each law firm will need to translate the guidance into specific actions, depending on its size, management and structure
  • complements legal obligations – organisations need to comply with legal obligations relating to health and safety, employment and equality

Priority actions law firms have to take to be COVID-19 secure

Priority actions law firms have to take to be COVID-19 secure

  • Work from home if possible – staff that can work effectively from home should do so
  • Arrange work spaces to keep staff apart – consider using barriers to separate people and introduce back-to-back or side-by-side working
  • Reduce face-to-face meetings – encourage calls or video conferences to avoid in-person meetings with external contacts, or colleagues outside someone’s immediate team, wherever possible
  • Reduce crowding – consider how many people can be in each space while remaining socially distant, consider using booking systems for desks or rooms and reduce the maximum occupancy for lifts
  • Communicate and train – make sure all staff and visitors are kept up to date with the safety measures

Understand the legal framework

The legal areas that need to be understood when deciding how to manage a workforce and work systems during the pandemic can be split into those that are specific to COVID-19 and those that continuously apply to workplaces and staff management.

The former includes:

The latter includes requirements that existed pre-COVID:

You should give special consideration to equality and discrimination law as many decisions need to take into account people’s individual challenges while also avoiding being indirectly discriminatory.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published guidance for employers on how to apply the Equality Act 2010 to challenges presented by COVID-19.

Check the different rules and regulations in Wales

The devolved administrations have responsibility for public health in their countries. This means that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may choose to have different levels of restrictions to England.

For example, in Wales, employers are under a specific legal obligation to take all reasonable steps to enable social distancing within the workplace.

This guidance applies to England only.

If you have offices in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, you’ll need to understand the rules that are in place in these countries when designing your work systems.

Conduct a risk assessment

The firm needs to carry out an appropriate COVID-19 risk assessment, just as it would for other health and safety related hazards.

As part of your risk assessment, you should make sure that you have an up-to-date plan in case there's a COVID-19 outbreak. This plan should nominate a single point of contact who should lead on contacting local public health teams.

This risk assessment must be done in meaningful consultation with staff groups.

  • If the organisation has fewer than five workers, there's no need to write anything down as part of the risk assessment
  • Firms must consult on the risk assessment with their nominated health and safety representative
  • The assessment should have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to COVID-19
  • Firms should share the results of the risk assessment with their workforce. If possible, firms should consider publishing it on their website (and the government expects all businesses with over 50 employees to do so)
  • When employers consider that workers should come into their place of work, this will need to be reflected in the risk assessment and actions taken to manage the risks of transmission in line with this guidance
  • The risk assessment should consider higher-risk groups including: older males, people with a high body mass index (BMI), people with health conditions such as diabetes, and people from some Black, Asian or minority ethnicity (BAME) backgrounds

If you've already conducted your risk assessment (and have opened your offices), you must review it regularly and cross reference it against this practical framework to check that the measures you have put in place are working and identify any further improvements you should make.

Download the template COVID-19 risk assessment for law firms (Word 116 KB)

A meaningful consultation means engaging in an open conversation about returning to the workplace before any decision to return has been made. This should include a discussion of the timing and phasing of any return and any risk mitigations that have been implemented.

Manage risks and compliance

Employers have a duty to reduce workplace risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level by taking risk mitigation measures, including consulting with other employers that share the same workplace. To protect the health and safety of your workers and visitors, employers are advised to consider the following steps in order:

  • ensuring both workers and visitors who feel unwell stay at home and do not attend the premises. From 28 September, by law businesses may not require a self-isolating employee to come into work
  • in every workplace, increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning
  • businesses and workplaces should make every reasonable effort to ensure their employees can work safely. This may be working from home or a COVID-secure workplace
  • when in the workplace, everyone should make every reasonable effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines set out by the government

Where the social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full, in relation to a particular activity, firms should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and, if so, take all mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between staff.

Mitigating actions include:

  • increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning
  • keeping the activity time involved as short as possible
  • using screens or barriers to separate people from each other
  • using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible
  • reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ (so each person works with only a few others)
  • redesigning tasks to avoid people needing to unduly raise their voices to each other
  • if your building has been unoccupied for a period during any lockdowns, consider legionella risk and HSE advice

If people must work face-to-face for a sustained period with more than a small group of fixed partners, an assessment is needed on whether the activity can safely go ahead.

Display a notification (90 KB) in a prominent place in your business and on your website to show the firm has followed this guidance. 

The government has clarified that failure to complete a risk assessment that takes account of COVID-19 or completing a risk assessment but failing to put in place sufficient measures to manage the risk could constitute a breach of health and safety law.

Enforcing authorities can issue enforcement notices to help secure improvements. Serious breaches and failure to comply with enforcement notices can constitute a criminal offence, with fines and even imprisonment of up to two years.

Inspectors are carrying out compliance checks nationwide to make sure that employers are taking the necessary steps.

Law firms and practitioners must follow instructions from authorities in the event of new local lockdowns and restrictions.

Look after your staff who are on-site and working from home

You should consult with your staff to decide who can come into the office safely. In doing so, you need to take account of a person's journey, caring responsibilities, protected characteristics and other individual circumstances. Extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk.

If you consider that your staff should come into the office, then this will need to be reflected in your COVID-19 risk assessment and actions taken to manage the risks of transmission in line with this guidance. It's vital that employers engage with their staff to make sure that they feel safe returning to work, and they should not force anyone into an unsafe workplace.

Steps that will usually be needed include:

  • considering the maximum number of people who can be safely accommodated on site
  • planning for a phased return to work for people safely and effectively
At home At the office
Monitor the wellbeing of people who are working from home and help them to stay connected with the rest of the workforce, especially if the majority of their colleagues are on-site Help on-site members to be connected with those working remotely
Provide support for workers around mental health and wellbeing. This could include advice or telephone support Provide support for workers around mental health and wellbeing. This could include advice or telephone support
Provide equipment for people to work at home safely and effectively, for example, remote access to work systems As far as possible, where staff are split into teams or shift groups, fix these teams or shift groups so that where contact is unavoidable, this happens between the same people
Consult, communicate and engage Identify areas where people directly pass things to each other (for example, office supplies) and find ways to remove direct contact, such as using drop-off points or transfer zones

There is no express obligation in law for an employer to fund the set-up of a home office.

However, if certain equipment is necessary to meet a health and safety duty, it’s the employer’s responsibility to make sure such equipment is provided.

Watch the HSE’s video on creating a safe home office set-up

Some organisations have offered budget to workers to spend on office equipment while suggesting what should be bought, as they’ve identified equipment that meets their health and safety requirements.

Mental health

Employers have a duty of care towards the mental health of their workers.

The legal expectation is that managers conduct themselves in a way that a reasonable and prudent employer would, taking positive thought for the safety of those who work for them, in light of what the employer knows or ought to have known.

Organisations should have processes in place to make sure that workers can raise mental health concerns. They should also consider the nature and extent of the work done by the employee, including:

  • whether their workload has increased
  • whether the mental strain on the employee has increased
  • how intellectually demanding the work is
  • whether the demands being made on the employee are unreasonable compared to demands being made on others

Protect people who are at higher risk

You should consider what reasonable adjustments can be made to help those classified by the government as vulnerable to work in an acceptable environment.Failure to do so could result in a claim for negligence or discrimination.

The government recognises two groups of vulnerable people:

  • those who are clinically extremely vulnerable
  • those who are clinically vulnerable

Clinically vulnerable people who cannot work from home can return to work but must take extra care with social distancing and, in line with the government’s guidance, should be “offered the option of the safest available on-site roles”.

Clinically extremely vulnerable people are advised to work from home where possible but can still attend work if they cannot work from home.

Familiarise yourself with who the government defines as clinically extremely vulnerable and clinically vulnerable.

Read more about high-risk individuals on the Acas website

Support staff who need to self-isolate

  • Ensure any workers who have symptoms of COVID-19, a high temperature, new and persistent cough or anosmia-however mild, should self-isolate for at least 10 days from when the symptoms started
  • Workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 should self-isolate for at least 10 days starting from the day the test was taken
  • Where a worker has tested positive while not experiencing symptoms but develops symptoms during the isolation period, they should restart the 10-day isolation period from the day the symptoms developed
  • This includes staff who have symptoms of COVID-19, those who live in a household or are in a support bubble with someone who has symptoms, and those who are advised to self-isolate as part of the government's test and trace service
  • Your organisation should enable workers to work from home while self-isolating if appropriate
  • Ensure any workers who have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace follows the requirement to self-isolate

Ensure you comply with measures required for staff members with protected characteristics

  • Understand and take into account the particular circumstances of those with protected characteristics
  • Involve and communicate appropriately with workers whose protected characteristics might either expose them to a different degree of risk or might make any measures under consideration inappropriate or challenging for them
  • Consider whether you need to put in place any particular measures or adjustments to take account of your duties under the equalities legislation
  • Make reasonable adjustments to avoid disabled workers being put at a disadvantage and assess the health and safety risks for new or expectant mothers
  • Make sure that the steps taken do not have an unjustifiable negative impact on some groups compared to others, for example, those with caring responsibilities or those with religious commitments

Take steps to ensure you are complying with equality in the workplace

In practice this means:

  • taking into account the particular circumstances of those with protected characteristics
  • involving and communicating appropriately with workers whose protected characteristics might either expose them to a different degree of risk, or might make any measures you are considering implementing inappropriate or challenging for them
  • considering whether you need to put in place any particular measures or adjustments to take account of your duties under the equalities legislation
  • making reasonable adjustments to avoid disabled workers being put at a disadvantage, and assessing the health and safety risks for new or expectant mothers
  • making sure that the steps you take do not have an unjustifiable negative impact on some groups compared to others, for example, those with caring responsibilities or those with religious commitments

Put in place measures for social distancing at work

You must make sure that your staff maintain social distancing guidelines (two metres or one metre with risk mitigation where two metres is not viable) wherever possible, including:

  • while arriving at and departing from work
  • while in work
  • when travelling between sites

The government has emphasised that social distancing applies to all parts of a business, not just the places where people spend most of their time. This includes entrances and exits, break rooms, canteens and similar settings. These are often the most challenging areas to maintain social distancing and workers should be specifically reminded.

Some measures to implement include:

  • staggering arrival and departure times at work to reduce crowding into and out of the workplace, taking account of the impact on those with protected characteristics
  • providing additional parking or facilities such as bike racks to help people walk, run, or cycle to work where possible
  • reducing congestion, for example, by having more entry points to the workplace
  • providing more storage for workers for clothes and bags
  • using markings and introducing one-way flow at entry and exit points
  • providing handwashing facilities, or hand sanitiser where not possible, at entry and exit points and not using touch-based security devices such as keypads
  • defining process alternatives for entry/exit points where appropriate, for example, deactivating turnstiles requiring pass checks in favour of showing a pass to security personnel at a distance
  • reducing movement by discouraging non-essential trips within buildings and sites, for example, restricting access to some areas
  • introduce more one-way flow through buildings
  • reducing maximum occupancy for lifts, providing hand sanitiser for the operation of lifts and encouraging use of stairs wherever possible
  • making sure that people with disabilities are able to access lifts
  • regulating use of high traffic areas including corridors, lifts turnstiles and walkways to maintain social distancing
  • operating the office ventilation system when there are people in the building. There are different ways of providing ventilation, including mechanical ventilation using fans and ducts, natural ventilation that relies on passive flow through openings (doors, windows, vents) or a combination of the two – the risk of transmission is greater in spaces that are poorly ventilated. HSE guidance on ventilation and air conditioning explains how to identify those spaces and steps to take to improve ventilation

Adapt workplaces and workstations

  • Avoid use of hot desk spaces and, where not possible, clean workstations between different occupants, including shared equipment. Workstations should be assigned to an individual and not shared
  • Review layouts and processes to allow people to work further apart from each other
  • Use floor tape or paint to mark areas to help workers keep socially distanced
  • Only where it’s not possible to move workstations further apart, arrange people to work side by side or facing away from each other rather than face-to-face
  • Only where it’s not possible to move workstations further apart, use screens to separate people from each other
  • Manage occupancy levels to enable social distancing
  • Optimise ventilation into the building to ensure a fresh air supply is provided to all areas of the facility and ventilation is increased wherever possible. Doors and windows should be kept open if possible

Adapt your meetings and business gatherings

  • Use remote working tools to avoid in-person meetings
  • Only absolutely necessary participants should attend meetings and they should maintain social distancing
  • Avoid transmission during meetings, for example, avoiding sharing pens and other objects
  • Provide hand sanitiser in meeting rooms
  • Hold meetings outdoors or in well-ventilated rooms whenever possible
  • For areas where regular meetings take place, use floor signage to help people maintain social distancing

Adapt your common areas

  • Work collaboratively with landlords and other tenants in multi-tenant sites/buildings to ensure consistency across common areas, for example, receptions, staircases
  • Create additional space by using other parts of the workplace or building that have been freed up by remote working
  • Install screens to protect staff in receptions or similar areas
  • Encourage workers to bring their own food
  • Reconfigure seating and tables to maintain spacing and reduce face-to-face interactions
  • Regulate use of locker rooms, changing areas and other facility areas to reduce concurrent usage
  • Encourage storage of personal items and clothing in personal storage spaces, for example, lockers and during shifts

Staff canteens in law firms

In staff canteens:

  • hand washing facilities or hand sanitiser must be available at the entrance to canteens and their use should be supervised
  • break times should be staggered to ensure no overcrowding, so that staff can adhere to social distancing rules
  • queue points on the floor should be clearly marked to ensure social distancing is possible
  • minimise self-serving options for food and drink. As far as possible, food served and/or displayed should be individually wrapped to minimise contact and avoid spread of infection
  • increase the frequency of cleaning
  • plates, cutlery and glasses should be handwashed in hot soapy water or washed with detergent in a dishwasher rated for disinfection
  • canteens and restaurants should be thoroughly cleaned after each group of staff use them
  • all doors and windows should remain open wherever possible to allow greater ventilation
  • a system to reduce the use of cash for food or to facilitate the exclusive use of debit cards and contactless payment should be considered
  • where possible, cohorts of workers should be matched to zoned canteen areas

Workplace canteens providing on-site (sit-in) services must now: 

  • ask at least one member of every party of customers or visitors (up to six people) to provide their name and contact details 
  • keep a record of all staff working on their premises and shift times on a given day and their contact details 
  • keep these records of customers, visitors and staff for 21 days and make them available when requested by NHS Test and Trace or local public health officials to help contain clusters or outbreaks 
  • display an official NHS QR code poster so that customers and visitors can ‘check in’ using this option as an alternative to providing their contact details
  • adhere to General Data Protection Regulations 

This information should be collected in a way that is manageable for the organisation.

Managing client visits and contractors

From 8 August, members of the public are required to wear a face covering when visiting premises providing professional, legal or financial services.

Under the new guidance following second lockdown, workers also required to wear face coverings when in areas that are open to the public and where they are likely to come within “close contact” of a member of the public, unless they have an exemption.

Close contact is defined as:

  • someone having had face-to-face contact (within one metre for any length of time) or skin to skin contact
  • or, has been within one metre of this person for one minute or longer
  • or, has been within two metres of this person on one or more occasions during a single day for at least 15 minutes in total (when all times added up together)
  • has travelled with this person in a small vehicle

The Health and Safety Executive has confirmed that these requirements only applies to law firms with a ‘shop front’ on to a high street, for example where members of the people can walk in.

All other law firms should follow rules on social distancing, cleaning protocols and information set out in the government guidance and our practical framework.

The use of face coverings is discretionary.

You may wish to:

  • encourage visits via remote connection/working where this is an option
  • where site visits are required, explain site guidance on social distancing and hygiene to visitors on or before arrival
  • limit the number of visitors at any one time
  • determine if schedules for essential services and contractor visits can be revised to reduce interaction and overlap between people, for example, carrying out services at night
  • maintain a record of all visitors, if this is practical
  • revisit visitor arrangements to ensure social distancing and hygiene, for example, where someone physically signs in with the same pen in receptions
  • provide clear guidance on social distancing and hygiene to people on arrival, for example, signage or visual aids and before arrival, for example, by phone, on the website or by email
  • establish host responsibilities relating to COVID-19 and provide any necessary training

Be clear on personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings

  • Wearing a face covering is optional and is not required by law to be worn by staff in the office
  • Law firms are not required to provide face coverings for their clients
  • Firms should not encourage the precautionary use of extra PPE to protect against COVID-19 outside clinical settings or when responding to a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19
  • Unless firms are in a situation where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is very high, the risk assessment should reflect the fact that the role of PPE in providing additional protection is extremely limited. However, if the risk assessment does show that PPE is required, then firms must provide this PPE free of charge to workers who need it. Any PPE provided must fit properly
  • Face coverings are not a replacement for other ways of managing risk, such as increased hand and surface washing. If staff members choose to wear one, firms should support their workers in using face coverings safely if they choose to wear one. This means telling workers:
    • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before putting a face covering on, and after removing it
    • when wearing a face covering, avoid touching your face or face covering, as you could contaminate them with germs from your hands
    • change your face covering if it becomes damp or if you’ve touched it
    • continue to wash your hands regularly
    • change and wash your face covering daily
    • if the material is washable, wash in line with manufacturer’s instructions. If it’s not washable, dispose of it carefully in your usual waste
    • practise social distancing wherever possible
  • You should provide extra bins to dispose of face coverings and other PPE safely. The government has produced further guidance on how to dispose of single use face coverings and PPE properly
  • If you'll be providing PPE to members of staff, you should have a policy around its usage and to explain what responsibilities the employee has when using PPE

Manage your workforce who are on-site, track and trace duties, and managing an outbreak

  • As far as possible, where staff are split into teams or shift groups, fix these teams or shift groups so that where contact is unavoidable, this happens between the same people
  • Make sure that all employment records are up to date, including contact details
  • If there are more than five cases of COVID-19 associated with your workplace in 14 days, you should contact your local PHE health protection team to report the suspected outbreak
  • If your local health protection team declares an outbreak, you'll be asked to record details of symptomatic staff and assist with identifying contacts. You'll be provided with information about the outbreak management process, which will help you to implement control measures, assist with communications to staff, and reinforce prevention messages
  • If possible, encourage your staff to walk, cycle or drive to work. However, if using public transport is necessary, wearing a face covering is mandatory. Some firms are offering face coverings for staff – this is discretionary

Minimise work-related travel

  • Minimise non-essential travel. Encourage people to walk or cycle where possible
  • Minimise the number of people who are not in the same household or support bubble travelling together in any one vehicle by using fixed travel partners, increasing ventilation when possible and avoiding sitting face-to-face
  • Clean shared vehicles between shifts or on handover
  • Where workers are required to stay away from their home, centrally logging the stay and making sure any overnight accommodation meets social distancing guidelines

Keep communicating with your staff

  • Provide clear, consistent and regular communication to improve understanding and consistency of ways of working
  • Engage with workers through existing communication routes and worker representatives to explain and agree any changes in working arrangements
  • Develop communication and training materials for workers prior to returning to site, especially around new procedures for arrival at work
  • Engage with workers (including through employee representative groups) to monitor and understand any unforeseen impacts of changes to working environments
  • Use simple, clear messaging to explain guidelines using images and clear language, with consideration of groups for which English may not be their first language
  • Use visual communications, for example whiteboards or signage, to explain changes to schedules, breakdowns or materials shortages to reduce the need for face-to-face communications

Review policies and processes

  • Review your policies, including health and safety and incidents management
  • On health and safety, the government guidance states that in an emergency – for example, an accident, provision of first aid, fire or break-in – people do not have to comply with social distancing guidelines if it would be unsafe
  • People involved in providing assistance to others should pay particular attention to sanitation measures immediately afterwards, including washing hands
  • Consider the security implications of any changes you need to make to your operations and practices in response to COVID-19, as any revisions may present new or altered security risks, which may need mitigations

We recommend that you also update policies on whistleblowing, data protection and flexible working, and create new ones on video conference protocols and how to notify if someone is displaying COVID-19 symptoms.

Protect data privacy and confidentiality

You owe workers a duty of confidentiality and data privacy obligations that would ordinarily mean that you should not disclose details about their health.

On the other hand, you have a duty of care and statutory health and safety responsibilities towards your other workers.

Employers have to balance these obligations.

Read the government’s guidance on testing for coronavirus: privacy information, which includes recommendations on what information should be disclosed to one’s employer.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued guidance on data protection and workplace health monitoring.

It states that while data protection laws do not prevent employers from monitoring health data, they must make sure that they have a lawful basis for processing the data, taking account of the fact that health data is classed as ‘sensitive data’.

The key is to not reveal more information than is reasonably necessary.

If it’s possible to warn individuals who have been in contact with a case of COVID-19 without revealing the name of the colleague who has to self-isolate, then do so.

If this is not possible, ask those who know the identity of the person who has had to self-isolate not to disclose this information to anyone else.

Record keeping and track and trace

Law firms should keep a record of staff and visitors coming in and out of the premises.

Although law firms are not among those businesses required to keep a temporary record of staff patterns for 21 days (to assist NHS track and trace), it may come within scope if:

  • the business contains several individual venues, for example several businesses or if it has a workplace canteen.
  • the law firm has a significant amount of visitors coming in and out

If the firm falls into that category, it should display a NHS QR code poster and have a visitor log, to help NHS test and trace if the need arises. The guidance states:

“Businesses and venues that are not currently expected to maintain staff, customer and visitor logs are encouraged to display official NHS QR code posters if they have indoor areas where individuals are likely to congregate or sit-down in close contact."

"By displaying an official NHS QR code poster and encouraging people to use the NHS COVID-19 app, businesses will be helping to protect their customers, staff and themselves from the impact of the virus."

"Official NHS QR posters can be generated online. Organisations can find out more about NHS QR codes and how to generate them on the NHS COVID-19 app website.”

Lateral flow tests

Testing employees is not mandatory.

Employers can order rapid lateral flow tests to test employees with no COVID-19 symptoms. These can be accessed through private providers and community testing sites.

Regular testing, alongside control measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and the government guidance, states that they will have a key role to play in future.

Read the government's guidance on workplace testing

In addition, anybody in England can order rapid lateral flow tests to be delivered to their home or pick up test kits from their local pharmacy.

Find out how to order rapid lateral flow tests

Resources

Read our toolkit on safe return to the office

See our employment law guidance on return to the office

Find out more about our Reset, Resilience and Recovery campaign

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