In February, COVID restrictions officially ended almost two years after they were first introduced. Despite this, the anticipated rush to return to the office never materialised. Although there has been a general inclination to return after prolonged periods of working in isolation, there is widespread inertia, highlights Professor Denis Kinane.

This is driven by constantly evolving variants, a general uncertainty about whether a return to the office is needed and more recently the beginning of a fifth wave. COVID cases have risen by 29% across the UK over the past week and unsurprisingly, this is having a knock-on effect on businesses, with absenteeism costing them hundreds of millions of pounds.

London, in comparison to other world capitals, has been hit harder with attendance in offices down a staggering 30 percent on pre-pandemic levels and nearly a quarter of British workers would rather quit or find a new job than go back to the office.

As a result, it is crucial to understand that, while businesses are optimistic about the future of the workplace, there is a significant number of people who remain wary. There are many who prefer working from home for much of the time, to avoid long commutes or to achieve a better work/life balance. But for many, there are continuing COVID worries, whether due to ongoing fears of infection for themselves or vulnerable relatives, along with waning immunity due to extensive time periods between booster roll outs.


The need for action before a second Autumn surge  

The long-anticipated Employment Bill was set up to offer clarity on flexible working rights and the return-to-office mandates. However, this was omitted from the Queen’s Speech so that leaves it to businesses themselves to determine how best to handle hybrid working or those who want to work from home on a more permanent basis.

As the number of people testing positive remains persistently high, it makes sense that employers are looking to do all they can to ensure the workplace place remains a safe environment. A comprehensive COVID prevention plan will help employees understand which measures are in place to mitigate the spread of COVID and to keep one another safe. For example, encouraging vaccinations and regular testing, and importantly, having a comprehensive plan for dealing with employees reporting positive, are critical measures to take.

Having clear and comprehensive protocols in place will also enable them to be better prepared to deal with the additional surge in cases we are expecting later this year. Given that we would normally expect to see a surge of this kind in the Autumn, the current surge in summer can mean one of two things: that the surge will enhance natural immune resistance and the Autumn surge will be less, or that there is worse yet to come and the modified variants will have immune escape and be much more contagious, which is the pattern we have seen up to now, thus immediate planning action is required across society.


Guard against Covid-19 with simple, practical measures 

From a practical perspective, employers can take a set of easy-to-adopt precautions to COVID-proof workspaces. Ideas like ensuring that only a certain number of people work from the office every day to maximise social distancing measures, modifying office seating arrangements to allow for more space between desks and colleagues, maximizing ventilation, and setting up multiple hygiene stations with hand sanitiser and wet wipes, are all steps that can prevent rapid spread of the virus. An issue for all CEOs is how to encourage employees back but not at the same time enhance virus spread by this mixing of people, and the subsequent illnesses and lost days. A big issue is that employees could be over cautious and take unnecessary time out of the workplace, or the opposite, they may come back to work too early or not isolate at all, and spread the virus endangering others: these scenarios are made infinitely worse by the absence of testing and of protocols for handling positives and return to work.

In truth, businesses face a choice: either they can retain some social distancing in their offices, mask wearing for those who want it and even increased ventilation where that is possible, though that means they are likely to use more office space for fewer people than pre pandemic; or they can have offices working as before but with some kind of testing programme in place that isolates positive individuals early and prevents workplace spread.


Can testing be a solution? 

Encouraging regular testing, and having a firm isolation policy and back to work strategy for those testing positive, will reassure employees that businesses are prioritising their health and wellbeing. That is why many businesses continue to encourage paid-for tests before coming into the office. A well-rounded testing system enables employers to plan for multiple contingencies, including how to deal with individual or group outbreaks, as well as mitigating against outbreaks triggered by those who are asymptomatic. Asymptomatics spread the virus as effectively as those clearly affected by the virus which underlines the need to test all staff.

As free test kits funded by the Government ended earlier this year, businesses must decide if they are going to provide free tests themselves to fill that void. With more than half of Londoners believing that regular self-testing formed part of the ‘new normal’, it seems likely that businesses that fund free testing will get higher numbers of staff to return to the office and it could be viewed as a ‘duty of care’ for CEOs.


Bespoke Covid-safe environments and protecting business travellers  

Over the course of the pandemic, Cignpost Diagnostics has set up COVID-safe bubbles and testing protocols for the film and television industry, elite sport, banks and defence contractors. Indeed, the ‘COVID years’ 2020 and 2021 saw more movie making revenue generated in the UK than in prior non-COVID years, which is testament to the efforts of production teams working with companies like Cignpost during the pandemic. We worked with multiple businesses to create COVID-safe environments and effectively guide employees through the chaos created by a constantly mutating virus. There is a definite value in instituting proactive measures to protect employees against the virus and businesses that have taken the initiative to protect employees have been observed to have maintained better business continuity.

Moreover, following the return of international business travel and with COVID infections rising across the globe, clarity in information around differing preventive measures will play a vital role in reassuring and protecting staff as they travel around the world. Businesses need to provide accurate and timely information, keeping on top of changing guidance and legal regulations, to ensure individuals can travel in a hassle-free manner.


Hybrid working is here to stay and so is a focus on personal health 

While there is much media discussion around the benefits of hybrid working, most businesses will require their employees to return to offices at some point, for reasons of productivity, cohesion, and training. Responsible businesses can take the opportunity to implement a comprehensive COVID surveillance programme through regular testing and a prevention plan to help mitigate against future outbreaks. One additional benefit of these kinds of arrangements is that, over time, it is likely to drive a wider shift toward businesses using more preventative diagnostic testing that could ultimately have a profound impact in improving health outcomes for their staff.