Managing workplace social distancing & return to work challenges

workplace social distancing

Whilst most businesses still have their employees working from home or on furlough, many are thinking to the future and working out how to get their employees back to work. We know that workplace social distancing measures are likely to still be recommended (or required) for many months to come, but social distancing isn’t the only thing you’ll need to consider. With this in mind, let’s take a look at how effective planning can help you get back to business.

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” 


Implementing five key measures

The government have set out 5 practical key points for businesses, which should be implemented as soon as it is practical:

  1. Work from home, if you can.
  2. Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment, in consultation with workers or trade unions.
  3. Maintain 2 metres social distancing, wherever possible.
  4. Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, manage transmission risk.
  5. Reinforcing cleaning processes.

The potential return to work challenges

Re-organising the workplace

  • In some workplaces it might be difficult to put social distancing measures in place because of the physical location people sit or stand and/or the equipment they need to use.

Return to work

  • Although this might change, Government support currently doesn’t provide any interim measures between furlough and normal working, i.e. no short time working options as you seek to bring people back in.
  • Nervous (or belligerent) employees might resist a return to work whatever measures you put in place.

Home Working

  • With an eye on opportunity, some employees might resist a return and start pushing for permanent home working.
  • Some managers might agree to extending home working without thinking through the contractual consequences of that or the wider implications for the rest of the business.

Outside your workplace

  • Protecting staff outside the workplace e.g. when travelling or visiting other premises.


  • Balancing the protection of staff Vs the need to return to near normality as soon as possible.
  • Not making decisions through fear. A risk averse business might damage its competitive advantage if not aligned with others in their sector.

Mental wellbeing

  • Dealing with the isolation and loss of close community/teamwork that can come with social distancing.
  • Supporting those who have really struggled mentally during this period and who need specialist or individual support.

Employee Relations

  • Making socially distanced redundancies when losing the ‘human touch’ at sensitive meetings could result in more appeals or employment tribunal claims – claims often arising as a result of ‘how’ you do it, not ‘what’ you do!
  • Dealing with the difficulty of simultaneously making redundancies whilst welcoming others back on board.

Hopefully this has given you some insight into the potential problems you need to be aware of. Every business and situation is different, so whilst we can’t provide a solution to every possible problem that might arise (we’d be here all year!), below we have put together a few ideas that could help you overcome issues you might experience in the coming weeks …

You can, of course, speak to us if you need help with a specific HR or H&S issue.

A few ideas 


  • Fear has really set in in some places and that can be crippling, so be careful not to let the most risk averse person in your organisation drive the measures you introduce. Balance in all things!
  • Be clear about your intentions around redundancies, if these are needed or a wider business reorganisation. Leaving people in the dark at the current time will not go down well so think about the employee relations need to be clear in your strategy and clear in your communication of that.
  • Consider how to lead a business with some staff being welcomed back to work, whilst others are being consulted ahead of potential termination of employment. You have to manage both sides of this fence successfully. It can’t be deal with one and then deal with the other, you need to deal with both simultaneously.

Strategy and Planning

  • Create a policy on social distancing so everyone is clear on what you are doing and why (contact us if you need a policy), make sure to include policy on handwashing, use of communal areas, meetings etc. Communicate this to staff ahead of any return.
  • Consider a phased return to work or rotating staff to ease pressure on space or equipment.
  • Identify all obvious business ‘pinch points’ in respect of resourcing, delivery, admin etc for the rest of 2020.

Knowledge is Power!

  • Know what you are dealing with: survey your staff about the challenges they see themselves facing on return to the workplace to assess ahead of time their fears, anxieties, preferences, opportunities identified etc (we can do this for you in the coming weeks if necessary – a quick employee survey doesn’t have to be complicated or costly).
  • Don’t leave your managers not knowing what the internal policies, overall strategy, employment and H&S laws are on reorganisation, social distancing, external travel, dealing with those resisting a return to work etc. Train them up so they can be effective and competent, as their support is invaluable as you return to business. Incompetent managers create problems and you don’t need extra problems at this critical time. We can provide virtual training, classroom training and eLearning options.

Shielding employees unable to return right now

  • Identify who is shielding and not able to return to the workplace.
  • Identify how long different individuals are expecting to have to self shield, the reasons for that and then begin to identify how to manage them.
  • Be very careful of discrimination laws (including perceptive, associative discrimination) if you choose to select any shielding employees for redundancy ahead of anyone else.

Furniture moving!

  • If it’s possible, consider moving furniture and/or equipment moving to see if you can temporarily reconfigure the workplace to allow for social distancing.
  • Think about the set up of your reception area and consider removing any hard surfaces where germs might linger (e.g. phones and sign in books).
  • Be sensitive to how strongly people feel when their ‘personal’ space is altered so communicate what you are doing, why and give them an opportunity to comment or contribute.

PPE and other Protection

  • Identify what, if any, protective clothing (PPE) you might need and place those orders now.
  • Check with staff that what you believe is appropriate is sufficient for them to feel safe. Understanding any ongoing concerns now will give you an opportunity to reconsider or re-communicate before it becomes a bigger issue.

Employee Relations

  • Develop some socially distanced team building activities. Be under no illusion how much teams will need to be actively rebuilt when work begins to get back to ‘normal’. What we have been through and are still going through has caused enormous upset, anxiety and disruption which won’t just dissipate by simply opening up the workplace. We can support with developing activities or running team building sessions.
  • Consider offering some managing mental wellbeing courses (virtual or classroom) too. We can support with this.
  • Consider doing monthly or bi monthly staff surveys across the rest of this year so issues, worries, opportunities etc are picked up quickly.
  • Revamp your staff representative forum. These individuals can be a life saver if used properly during a period when good, regular communication is needed across the whole business. We can deliver virtual classroom or face-to-face training and team building for staff representative forum or even help with the election process if you are unfamiliar with it or lack time resource.
  • Revisit where you are at with holidays. Plan for the rest of the year knowing where your staffing pinch points will be and talk to staff about it, rather than just dictate what will or will not happen with their holidays.
  • If you use a service that provides confidential support to employees be aware that not all of these are as robust when it comes to confidentiality as employees would like. We have come across far too many breaches of confidentiality in recent months. So speak to your provider and get them to confirm in writing to you that they will not breach confidentiality, will not speak to employee’s line managers or HR if they call about them and reassure your staff that the helpline is indeed confidential. You need your staff to use these services so it is as much in your interests as theirs that they are confident and comfortable to use them.

Think about those outside your own workplace

  • Identify what you are going to communicate to your clients and suppliers. Will you be open for meetings again and how will that work? How will you ensure a consistent message is given across the whole business?


  • Identify rules for any meeting rooms you have, remember that closed spaces are more dangerous than open spaces so encourage windows to be opened wherever that is possible.
  • Identify any new approach to meetings in your business. What will you discourage or encourage, how can you manage social distancing within meetings.
  • Consider putting in place if not already done so, a virtual meeting etiquette guide.

Managing Staff

  • Lastly, we are aware that throughout the last few months a fair few under performers have slipped through the net and gone unmanaged. Now is the time for managers to step up and start to manage these employees as the dangers of not managing them are huge including high performers losing confidence in the business.

How we can help

For HR support (contract free ad hoc or monthly payment) or training enquiries, please call 01425 479888 or email us.

For access to our template document service, Docs Wizard, which includes a social distancing policy (redundancy, lay-offs, contracts and other policies, letters and documents) please email us to sign up. Membership starts from just £149+VAT per year.

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