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Practical framework for law firms and sole practitioners on return to the office
The UK government has published detailed guidance for offices in England, which covers law firms and sole practitioners.
We've updated this framework to reflect the most recent guidance from the government on ensuring a COVID-19 secure workplace, changes to the rules on working from home, when to wear face coverings, ventilation and work-related travel.
These are the most relevant points for legal services.
In September 2020, the UK government announced new COVID-19 restrictions. For legal services, this means that all law firms and organisations should allow their staff to work from home over the winter if they can do so effectively.
However, if essential 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. 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
Firms should also consult information on local alert levels to identify the COVID-19 local restrictions.
Priority actions law firms have to take to be COVID-19 secure
- 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
- Conduct a risk assessment (including how to manage an outbreak)
- Manage risks and compliance
- Look after your staff who are on-site and working from home
- Protect people who are at higher risk
- Support staff who need to self-isolate
- Ensure you comply with measures required for staff members with protected characteristics
- Put in place measures for social distancing at work
- Adapt workplaces and workstations
- Adapt your meetings
- Adapt your common areas
- Managing client visits and contractors
- Be clear on personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings
- Manage your workforce who are on-site, track and trace duties, and managing an outbreak
- Minimise work-related travel
- Keep communicating with your staff
- Review your policies and processes
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.
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
- from 1 August, clinically extremely vulnerable individuals can go to the workplace as long as it's COVID-secure, but should carry on working from home 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)
- redesigning tasks to avoid people needing to unduly raise their voices to each other
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|
Protect people who are at higher risk
- From 1 August, clinically extremely vulnerable individuals can return to their workplace provided that COVID-secure guidelines are in place. However, they should work from home wherever possible
- If clinically vulnerable individuals cannot work from home, they should be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles, enabling them to maintain social distancing. It may be appropriate for clinically extremely vulnerable individuals to take up an alternative role or adjusted working patterns temporarily
- Attention should also be paid to people who live with clinically extremely vulnerable individuals
Support staff who need to self-isolate
- Staff members who are advised to stay at home under existing government guidance to stop infection spreading should not physically come to work. 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 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
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
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
- 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
The UK government guidance states that from 8 August, members of the public are required to wear a face covering when visiting premises providing professional, legal or financial services.
The Health and Safety Executive 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. They should follow other rules on social distancing, cleaning protocols and information set out in the government guidance and our practical framework.
Staff are not required to use face coverings in law firms. 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
- 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
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
- Assist the 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
- 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.
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.