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Safe return to the office: Toolkit for firms
This guide was created in summer 2020 and may not reflect the latest government guidance.
The UK government has updated its guidance for offices in England on working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19), which covers law firms and sole practitioners.
Our practical framework for law firms and sole practitioners on return to the office is based on the government guidance.
We updated this framework in October to reflect the most recent guidance from the government.
The UK government announced new COVID-19 restrictions. For legal services this means:
- all law firms and organisations should allow their staff to work from home if they can do so effectively
- if essential staff members are required in the office, then the firm must make sure it's a COVID-19 secure workplace – read our practical framework on return to the office and follow the steps in this toolkit
- if a staff member or anyone in their household currently has symptoms of coronavirus, they must not go to work
If you’re asked to go back to the office, you're entitled to ask questions about these safeguards and policies.
If your organisation is open, there are a number of steps needed to ensure it's COVID-19 secure. This toolkit provides a risk assessment template, practical resources and FAQs.
Risk assessment template
Our risk assessment template is designed to help firms deal with the current COVID-19 situation in the workplace. It aims to support law firms and organisations in meeting the requirements set out in the government’s guidance and our practical framework.
Using the template is optional. It will not cover all scenarios and each organisation should consider its own unique circumstances.
Download the template COVID-19 risk assessment for law firms (Word 116 KB) – updated July 2020
Download our COVID-19 posters to display in your office, in English or Welsh.
- handwashing (PDF 26 KB)
- two metre distance for common areas (PDF 26 KB)
- one metre distance for common areas (PDF 26 KB)
- one person per lift (PDF 25 KB)
- one person in the toilet (PDF 24 KB)
- handwashing (PDF 30 KB)
- two metre distance for common areas (PDF 31 KB)
- one person per lift (PDF 30 KB)
- one person in the toilet (PDF 29 KB)
If you run a small firm and would like a pack with printed and laminated copies, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lewis Silkin has produced a flowchart to help employers decide which employees should return to work when reopening workplaces. This is reproduced with permission.
Frequently asked questions
We've worked with practitioner David Glimore and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to compile the most frequently asked questions on return to the office that we're hearing from members.
The UK government guidance states that from 8 August, members of the public will be required to wear a face covering when visiting premises providing professional, legal or financial services.
The HSE has confirmed that this requirement 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, for example those who only see clients by appointment, do not require their clients or visitors to wear face coverings in their premises. Other rules on social distancing, cleaning protocols and information set out in the government guidance and our practical framework will apply.
Staff are not required to use face coverings in law firms. The use of face coverings is discretionary.
Yes: all employers, irrespective of whether they feel they need to re-open their office at this time, must conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment.
If your firm has fewer than five workers, or are self-employed, you don’t have to write anything down as part of this risk assessment.
If you have five or more workers, the assessment must be documented in writing.
The guidance suggests that, if possible, employers should publish the results of their risk assessments on their website, but this is not said to be mandatory.
If a business has over 50 employees, the government 'expects' the employer to publish the results in this way, but again, it does not say if this will be enforced.
The assessment is not intended to risk-assess individual home-working arrangements, but to provide an overall assessment of the risks to staff and other people from your current arrangements and, importantly, any change to working arrangements, such as a return to office working.
The government’s guidance is designed to operate within the current health and safety employment and equalities legislation.
In particular, all firms already have a statutory duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to undertake a health and safety risk assessment. Where a firm has more than five or more employees, there is a duty to document this risk assessment in writing.
The assessment process must be conducted and any control and protective measures implemented before the office re-opens. This may take many weeks, so any rush to implement any recommenced office working is clearly not advisable or practical.
We've produced a template risk assessment, which you can use to document the results of your assessment. The HSE has also launched an office risk assessment tool.
Download the template COVID-19 risk assessment for law firms (Word 116 KB) – updated July 2020.
The risk assessment must be carried out in consultation with your workers (or trade unions if relevant), to establish what guidelines and practical measures to put in place. This is especially important for any return to office working, whether this is envisaged by you to be implemented soon, or at some point in the coming months.
The government’s guidance states as follows:
“Employers have a duty to consult their people on health and safety. You can do this by listening and talking to them about the work and how you will manage risks from COVID-19. The people who do the work are often the best people to understand the risks in the workplace and will have a view on how to work safely. Involving them in making decisions shows that you take their health and safety seriously….
“At its most effective, full involvement of your workers creates a culture where relationships between employers and workers are based on collaboration, trust and joint problem solving. As is normal practice, workers should be involved in assessing workplace risks and the development and review of workplace health and safety policies in partnership with the employer.
“Employers and workers should always come together to resolve issues.”
The assessment does not need to be cumbersome.
The government’s guidance clarifies that a risk assessment “is not about creating huge amounts of paperwork, but rather about identifying sensible measures to control the risks in your workplace. … Your risk assessment will help you decide whether you have done everything you need to.”
In particular, the firm should:
- identify and evaluate the risks to health and safety from COVID-19 in the workplace and in other locations where employees, homeworkers or others may operate from or visit in the cause of the business
- analyse what the firm is already doing to control those risks
- consider other possible measures to reduce, avoid or transfer the risks
Focus on real risks that are most likely to cause harm, rather than attempting to consider every eventuality.
Once you have formulated a list of the risks, undertake an impact/likelihood analysis for each risk.
For each risk, consider whether the impact would be high, medium or low, and whether its likelihood is high, medium or low. This will help you determine the severity of each risk.
Where you determine that a particular health and safety concern would have a high impact and is highly likely to occur, you should prioritise the measures you put in place to address that risk.
Once the risks have been identified and evaluated, consider the steps which need to be put in place to mitigate each risk.
Consider what you are already have in place to control the risks, and what additional measures need to be implemented in order to properly control the risks.
Once you have identified the risks and what you need to do to control them, put the appropriate measures in place before they are needed.
It's entirely possible that your risk assessment may determine that the risk to health and welfare of returning to the office would be so severe that it would be very difficult to implement sufficient measures to mitigate against the risks at the current time. This would rightfully mean that your current home working arrangements would have to continue for the foreseeable time.
Firms in this position (as many will be) may need to conduct a re-assessment at a later stage, perhaps when the pandemic situation improves and/or the government’s guidance is updated.
Section 3.3 of the guidance states that firms should “avoid use of hot desks and spaces”.
The principle is that workstations should be assigned to an individual and not shared with others. If this is not possible, then other controls should be put in place such as additional sanitation or barriers.
Workstations should allow employees to maintain social distancing where possible, either two metres or one metre with a mitigation of risks.
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 and not mandated by law.
Law firms should support staff members who have to take public transport.
This could be done by:
- 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 bikeracks to help people walk, run, or cycle to work where possible
- providing more storage for workers for clothes and bags
Firms may have to revisit and redraft their evacuation policies in relation to fire and bomb evacuation.
Fire marshals and their responsibilities are not enforced by the HSE. See guidance from the National Fire Chief Council.
If there will be fewer fire marshals on site, firms should review occupancy limits to ensure that proportionately there are enough fire marshals. They should also review mustering and social distancing at muster stations.
Firms should also:
- review incident and emergency procedures to ensure they reflect the social distancing principles as far as possible
- consider the security implications of any changes intended to make to the firm’s operations and practices in response to COVID-19, as any revisions may present new or altered security risks which may need mitigations
- follow government guidance on managing security risks
First aiders may have to take steps beyond the usual expected low risk office support.
The HSE has updated its first aid guidance on sufficient numbers and the way first aiders should respond, for example delivering CPR.
See the HSE’s guidance on first aid during the coronavirus outbreak.
The government has clarified 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 the provision of assistance to others should pay particular attention to sanitation measures immediately afterwards including washing hands.
Our practical framework suggests the following steps:
- as far as possible, split staff into teams or shift groups made up of the same people
- make sure that all employment records are up to date, including contact details
- assist the NHS test and trace service by keeping a temporary record of your staff shift patterns for 21 days and assist NHS Test and Trace with requests for that data if needed. See further guidance
- if there's more than one case of COVID-19 reported in your organisation, 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
Temperature checks are not mandatory. They are imprecise and only give partial information. Law firms have discretion to put them in place or not.
The government advice is that employers should consult with their employees to determine who, from 1 August, can come into the workplace safely, taking 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.
Firms should strike a balance between complying with the government’s advice and ensuring that they are not inadvertently discriminating against people with protected characteristics.
Employers need to factor in any changes at the office and how these impact people with disabilities or other protected characteristics.
As a starting point, soft furnishings should be removed if possible.
If not possible, then soft furnishings should be covered. If it is not possible to cover them, then consider steam-cleaning or talk to cleaning contractors to see what measures are available.
See Public Health England’s information on the survival of the virus on surfaces.
The government’s temporary relaxation on working at home assessments was based on the need for businesses to make emergency arrangements to meet the guidance. It is now clear that the period of working at home will be longer than anticipated and, in some cases, the ‘new normal’.
Firms should review whether the initial measures that they took to support staff working from home are still sufficient. If an employee raises a concern about their home working arrangement, the employer should take action.
Employers may want to offer employees items no longer needed in the office, but which can support their home working environment.
The government advice is that such items should be quarantined rather than cleaned. The infection risk decreases with time – 72 hours is the best time to guarantee safety.
If possible, meetings with clients should be conducted remotely.
There may be instances and particular practice areas in which virtual meetings might not be appropriate for various reasons.
A face-to-face meeting may be needed, for example, when dealing with clients who are:
- suffering from domestic abuse
- dealing with criminal proceedings
- needing the assistance of interpreters
- executing wills (in some circumstances)
- executing lasting powers of attorney
If you need to meet a client in person at your offices, you may wish to obtain their consent to share their contact details with NHS Test and Trace , if needed, to ensure that any personal data collected is processed in line with GDPR requirements. Ideally, this consent should be obtained before the meeting by asking clients to complete this form (Word 20 KB).
You may also wish to update your privacy notices to ensure clients and third parties are aware that their personal data may need to be shared in this manner.
Before allowing clients into the office make sure that you have conducted the risk assessment and that you follow the protocol for meeting rooms and common areas. This includes:
- providing hand sanitiser in meeting rooms
- holding meetings outdoors or in well-ventilated rooms whenever possible
- for areas where regular meetings take place, using floor signage to help people maintain social distancing
- taking other steps to avoid transmission during meetings, for example, avoiding sharing pens and other objects
For further information, see our practical framework for return to the office.
We've produced detailed guidance on employment law issues raised by return to the office including on employer liability, duty of care and changes to the terms and conditions of employment.
We encourage all employers to read and consider the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) guidance, which includes some very useful guidance on working safely during the COVID-19 outbreak, including:
- the HSE’s short guide to working safely during the coronavirus outbreak, which includes advice on steps you should take to help manage the risks of coronavirus in your business. These include taking measures to work at home where possible, and maintaining social distancing, cleaning and hygiene
- the HSE’s guide on engaging with workers about working safely during the outbreak
- our practical framework on return to the office
There may be employment law-related issues to consider.
You'll need to contact those staff members who you are proposing should start working again from your office.
You may need to amend the terms of an existing arrangement, such as in relation to current home working, or to terminate an existing furlough agreement. These staff members will need to be given an appropriate notice period (such as one defined in any existing agreement), so this period and engagement process must be factored into your planning.
If you have any other concerns, you may wish to discuss them with an employment lawyer.
Returning safely – four areas to consider
We’ve partnered with the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) to support solicitors to return to the office safely. IOSH has produced information on returning safely to work, setting out four areas to consider:
- safe people
- safe systems
- safe workplaces
- safe equipment
Armstrong Watson resources
These resources provide a useful reminder of the key things that need to be in place if you're going to get your business functioning efficiently and effectively; look after your people and your customers; and move your business forward in the post-'lockdown' era.
Wesleyan gives insight into how to redefine your work and the steps needed to return to a 'new normal'.
Royal Institute of British Architects resources
We work closely with members of the Royal Institute of British Architects. These are some examples of best practice risk assessments and updated policies:
The Zoe app
This app is helping to improve the data available for analysis for local regions and can help you make informed decisions on return to the office.