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

12 May 2020

The UK government has published detailed guidance for offices in England, which covers law firms and sole practitioners.

These are the most relevant points for legal services.

Basic principles

  • Non-prescriptive. Each law firm will need to translate the guidance into specific actions, depending on its size, management and structure
  • Legal obligations. The guidance does not supersede any legal obligations relating to health and safety, employment or equalities. Existing obligations must be complied with, including those related to individuals with protected characteristics
  • Work from home if possible. Law firms should make every reasonable effort to enable working from home as a first option. No one is obliged to work in an unsafe work environment
  • Distancing. If staff have to be in the office, they should stay two metres away from each other, if at all possible

What practical steps does the firm have to take?

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.

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

  • If the organisation has fewer than five workers, or is a sole practice, there is 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)

Manage risks

  • Where working from home is not possible, firms should make every reasonable effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines set out by the government (keeping people two metres apart wherever possible).
  • 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)
     
  • 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 notice in the workplace to show the firm has followed this guidance (PDF 423 KB)

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

  • Staff should work from home if at all possible. Consider who is needed to be on-site. For example:
    • workers in roles critical for business and operational continuity, safe facility management, or regulatory requirements and which cannot be performed remotely
    • workers in critical roles which might be performed remotely, but who are unable to work remotely due to home circumstances or the unavailability of safe enabling equipment
     
  • Plan the minimum number of people needed on site to operate safely and effectively
  • Monitor the wellbeing of people who are working from home and helping them stay connected to the rest of the workforce, especially if the majority of their colleagues are on-site
  • Keep in touch with off-site workers on their working arrangements including their welfare, mental and physical health and personal security
  • Provide equipment for people to work at home safely and effectively, for example, remote access to work systems
  • Provide support for workers around mental health and wellbeing. This could include advice or telephone support

Protect people who are at higher risk

  • Clinically extremely vulnerable individuals have been strongly advised not to work outside the home
  • Clinically vulnerable individuals, who are at higher risk of severe illness (for example, people with some pre-existing conditions), have been asked to take extra care in observing social distancing and should be helped to work from home, either in their current role or in an alternative role
  • Enable workers to work from home while self-isolating, if appropriate

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
  • 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

Put in place measures for social distancing at work

  • Stagger 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
  • Provide additional parking or facilities such as bike racks to help people walk, run, or cycle to work where possible
  • Reduce congestion, for example, by having more entry points to the workplace
  • Providing more storage for workers for clothes and bags
  • Use markings and introducing one-way flow at entry and exit points
  • Provide handwashing facilities, or hand sanitiser where not possible, at entry and exit points and do not use touch-based security devices such as keypads
  • Define 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
  • Reduce movement by discouraging non-essential trips within buildings and sites, for example, restricting access to some areas
  • Introduce more one-way flow through buildings
  • Reduce maximum occupancy for lifts, providing hand sanitiser for the operation of lifts and encouraging use of stairs wherever possible
  • Make sure that people with disabilities are able to access lifts
  • Regulate use of high traffic areas including corridors, lifts turnstiles and walkways to maintain social distancing

Adapt workplaces and workstations

  • Avoiding use of hot desks
  • Review layouts and processes to allow people to work further apart from each other
  • Using floor tape or paint to mark areas to help workers keep to a two metre distance
  • Only where it’s not possible to move workstations further apart, arranging 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, using screens to separate people from each other 
  • Manage occupancy levels to enable social distancing
  • Adapt your meetings
  • Using remote working tools to avoid in-person meetings
  • Only absolutely necessary participants should attend meetings and should maintain two metre separation throughout
  • 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
  • Stagger break times to reduce pressure on break rooms or canteens
  • 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
  • Provide packaged meals or similar to avoid fully opening staff canteens
  • 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

Managing client visits and contractors

  • Encourage visits via remote connection/working where this is an option
  • Where site visits are required, site guidance on social distancing and hygiene should be explained 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 providing any necessary training

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

  • 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
  • Wearing a face covering is optional and is not required by law, including in the workplace. 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
     

Manage your workforce who are on-site

  • 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
  • Identify areas where people directly pass things to each other, for example office supplies, and finding ways to remove direct contact, such as using drop-off points or transfer zones

Minimise work-related travel

  • Minimise non-essential travel –consider remote options first
  • Minimise the number of people travelling together in any one vehicle, 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

Read our press release

 See further guidance on cleaning and inbound/outbound guidelines

This sector-specific guidance applies to England only. In Wales, similar guidance is being developed and not yet available.

Our Wales office is having ongoing discussions with the Welsh government and we'll update members when we have further insight.

Law firms in Wales should continue to operate remotely, and staff should work from home as default.

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