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Should we be going back to the office?

From today, 12 April 2021, lockdown rules have been relaxed. But what is the current position in England on reopening offices and holding in-person meetings?

Although some sectors of the economy have been given the green light to open today, the guidance for offices remains that employees, “should work from home if they can” but anyone else who cannot work from home should attend their place of work.

The guidance then goes on to state that you should consider whether homeworking is appropriate for employees “facing mental or physical health difficulties”, or those with “a particularly challenging home working environment” and advises that you consult with employees to determine who needs to come into the workplace, giving extra consideration to those at higher risk. It also adds that you should encourage a mix of home and office-based working where full homeworking isn’t possible.

This guidance will remain in place until at least step four of the government’s roadmap (currently expected to be 21 June 2021), when it will then be considered as part of the wider re-view on social distancing, meaning restrictions on office workers are likely to be amongst the final restrictions to be lifted.

However, the guidance isn’t statutory and it’s no longer a criminal offence to go to the office if you can work from home. That said, you do need to follow it as part of your coronavirus-related health and safety duties to staff. If you do consider that some workers should now attend work, you need to reflect this in your workplace risk assessment and then take action to manage the risks of coronavirus transmission in line with the guidance, so that your workplace is COVID-Secure.

As for in-person business meetings of any size at the office, they are unlawful unless reasonably necessary, because they’re classed as a gathering. Outdoor in-person business meetings of up to six people aren’t unlawful because of the “rule of six”, e.g. an outdoor business lunch at a pub, but for over six people they’re again unlawful unless reasonably necessary.

You can reopen your office in a limited way to support those staff who are finding homeworking too difficult due to their physical or mental health or an unsuitable home environment, and for those who cannot work from home, but otherwise homeworking should remain the norm until at least 21 June 2021. Business meetings are restricted by legislation.

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