Safe return to the office: Toolkit for firms

The UK government has published 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.

There are a number of steps that your firm needs to take to reopen safely. This toolkit provides a risk assessment template, practical resources and FAQs to help you get ready to return to the office safely.

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 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 law firm should consider its own unique circumstances.

Download the template COVID-19 risk assessment for law firms (Word 94 KB)

Posters

Download our COVID-19 posters to display in your office, in English or Welsh.

English versions:

Welsh versions:

If you run a small firm and would like a pack with printed and laminated copies, email coronavirus@lawsociety.org.uk.

Staffing decisions

Lewis Silkin has produced a flowchart to help employers decide which employees should return to work when reopening workplaces. This is reproduced with permission.

Flowchart showing who should return to the office

Frequently asked questions

The following questions and answers are based on a session attended by the Law Society, along with a core group of experts, with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and officials from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Law firms should publish their risk assessment on their website. They could also publish it on their intranet, if they wish. The rationale is to assure clients as well as staff that the firm has done the risk assessment and taken the necessary actions.

Firms can publish a less detailed version of the risk assessment, without sensitive commercial information.

The last bullet point on the government’s risk assessment poster states: “Where people cannot be 2m apart, we have done everything practical to manage transmission risk”.

The government has been asked whether there is a reason why the wording “everything practical” has been used rather than “so far as is reasonably practicable”, the standard in the Health & Safety at Work Act.

The guidance is about providing assurance, and this has guided the wording. It is not an enforceable standard. The language and phrases are designed with this in mind.

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.

The HSE is looking at the consequences of use of public transport at the moment. The key message remains that only those who need to be in the office should attend.

Other ideas to support travelling include varying the start and end of working days to minimise the number of colleagues travelling at the same time. Responsible employers will go further with supporting their employees. For more information see the Department for Transport guidance

The government has been asked for guidance for employers to ensure that normal onsite safety requirements for staff remain in place, such as appropriate numbers of first aiders and fire marshals on site.

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.

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

Guidance has been issued by local authorities based on controlling the number of infections locally. Law firms should consult their local authority's resources.

As part of the risk assessment, law firms should consider the consequences of a positive test in the workplace. Preventative measures to be taken should include minimising the number of people mixing by creating cohorts, then if there is an infection less people are impacted. Keep teams separate where possible. More details are in the government guidance. 

It is currently unclear what the employer’s obligation is to inform other places if there is an infection at the firm, however informing other staff members is advised.

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 remains to stay at home if you can, and only go to the office if you must.

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 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.

The government guidance states that before reopening offices, a risk assessment should be conducted, measures on cleaning and social distancing should be in place and a protocol developed on visitors which includes signing in and out, having a host and conducting briefings. There are also rules on meeting rooms.

For further information see our practical framework for return to the office.


Other resources

High street firms

In an article for our Law Management section, David Gilmore looks at what high street law firms should consider when returning to office working, including how to conduct the mandatory COVID-19 risk assessment.

Read the article

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

Read IOSH’s guidance

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.

Read the office return preparation guide (PDF 124 KB)

Download the planning for the future checklist (PDF 742 KB)

Wesleyan resources

Wesleyan gives insight into how to redefine your work and the steps needed to return to a 'new normal'.

Download the guide on planning to return to work (PDF 320 KB)