Covid, the lockdown and the subsequent re-opening of our offices
By Shirley de Roché
Covid19 and the extraordinary restrictions imposed by governments around the world have meant that businesses have had to re-think how their staff can operate safely and efficiently. Pinsent Masons, a global firm with 25 offices across 4 continents has had to adapt swiftly, managing each offices’ closure and re-opening. Pinsent Masons Property & Facilities Director, Shirley de Roché explains the work and processes involved during such extraordinary circumstances.
Turning Off the Offices
From the moment Pinsent Masons’ offices across the globe were each closed due to the Covid lockdown, our focus has been the safety and wellbeing of colleagues and the how and when we would re-open the offices when safe to do so.
We were all placed in a totally unknown world full of uncertainty and isolation and we had to apply our crisis response processes to effectively manage the issues arising. Little did we know how unique the crisis would be in that it has required a protracted response and change in working practices.
Beneficially for us, we have operated in an agile manner to varying degrees in our workplace with 80% agility in the UK and 50% across the whole portfolio. This enabled us to leave the office knowing that we could work effectively from home.
Our first concerns were the safety and wellbeing of our colleagues as we focused on a communication plan which was applicable to all the jurisdictions we work in. Our first offices to close in China had established a clear, central communication channel which we adopted across the globe. We needed to give our colleagues clear direction and support for what was happening, how we were following the respective government and/or jurisdictional guidelines on lockdown and the return to office, alongside keeping them connected with each other and being aware of the resources they could call upon to assist with mandated home working, such as ensuring their home set-up complied with best practices and keeping connected with their colleagues, teams and clients.
Immediately procedures were put into place to monitor the wellbeing of our colleagues and record who was in isolation, who had Covid symptoms, who was at greatest risk and particularly vulnerable people so that we could ensure that we knew our risks and any actions which needed to be taken.
Every day occurrences such as the delivery of post or hard copy information which was in the office were reviewed and volunteer groups from within the facilities team came into the office to provide essential printing tasks, sending specialist equipment to colleagues and scanning mail to recipient email addresses – a process we were intending to introduce later in the year as we were moving to a more technical services solution.
Our plans for returning to the office included reaching out to our colleagues to find out what their views were, what concerned them most and what we could do to help. This was extremely well received.
Social distancing was mandated across all jurisdictions to varying degrees but as a team we recommended that we would work to the maximum restrictions to ensure our return to office was as safe as possible. We worked side-by-side with our in-house health and safety professionals to ensure that we were following and interpreting all government and safety guidelines correctly. Weekly planning meetings were held with one focused on operational and logistical requirements for the return to office and another specifically on health and safety.
All office spaces had to be changed to reflect the Covid secure guidelines including carrying out a Covid risk assessment, ensuring cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures were in line with guidance, ensuring all reasonable steps were taken to maintain the social distance in the workplace and where people could not be 2 metres apart, we had to do everything practical to manage transmission risk alongside taking all reasonable steps to help people work from home.
These were not straight forward tasks during the beginning of the pandemic as supplies of anti-viral gels and wipes, face masks and cleaning products were in short supply but we worked closely with our suppliers to ensure that we had what we needed. In addition to this, the appropriate and safe disposal of such items also needed to be considered and led to an introduction of a new waste stream for Personal Protective Equipment items managed through our cleaning contractors with special, dedicated bins placed in our reception areas for use when entering/exiting our offices. Other cleanliness measures included high touch points such as doors and push button entry/exit systems which need increased cleaning, but rather than just increased cleaning of these items we questioned how we could minimise the risk further. For example, we replaced the push button systems on exit doors within some of our offices and introduced contactless sensors.
Office layout plans were reviewed and marked up to see how many of us could return to the office with the measures in place to maintain the social distancing. One way systems were put into the offices where possible and where we were not able to do so we had to make sure that adequate signage and guidelines were in place for movement around such space. It must be remembered that social distancing is not just about how far your workspace is from someone else, it includes walkways, how many people can use the washrooms/shower facilities, reception, breakout areas and meeting rooms at any one time, such as a meeting room that usually seats 8 people is then only suitable for 3 – all of these spaces had to be carefully calculated and communicated.
Simple things such as; ‘do we order standard social distancing signage or make our own?’ were considered and we decided that where we could, we would produce our own so that we could personalise it for Pinsent Masons and to allow for flexibility. We wanted to make returning to a Covid secure office environment as secure and welcoming as possible. We arranged for facilities/workplace representatives to be on site to give that reassuring welcome back to the office as well as to address any concerns for returning colleagues, that they knew who to speak personally, in addition to email correspondence or alternatively using the return to office scribble board where colleagues can write comments or give feedback.
While following the respective office guidelines there is no one fit for all and it was extremely important to work with each Head of Office to ensure that, where practical, local tweaks could be made.
In With the New
As offices started to re-open, we put our own track and trace system in place by using an advance booking system for those returning to the office and allocating an individual desk alongside communications on what the Covid secure office looked like via a video walkthrough for each office, an induction guide and a health status and individual’s responsibility statement. We wanted all to feel part of the return to office and understand what their personal responsibilities were.
Our first offices to return did so on a phased basis with Team A working the first week and Team B working the second, on a recurring basis whereas some offices opening after the initial opening chose to return on a volunteer basis. Feedback and data from the initial days/weeks being recorded to ensure any lessons learned were addressed immediately. Due to our collaborative approach the return to office feedback has been extremely supportive.
Service contracts needed to be altered to reflect Covid requirements with cleaning and waste services being increased as well as required safety procedures and building maintenance tasks, such as water inspections, taking place to ensure a safe return to offices that had been empty for months.
Many lessons have been learned about responding to a people-based event of a pandemic and we are currently undertaking the capture of these lessons and associated recommendations in an interim Post Incident Report so that we better understand what should be considered to better manage a possible second or third wave of the virus.
Those who have returned to the office have been very impressed and positive about the measures we have put in place to create a Covid secure workplace, with their biggest concern being how they actually travel to the office. There was almost a sense of relief among those who came in and had some semblance of normality returned to their working lives. Most people who had come in expressed a desire to do so again and were advocating to their colleagues how good it was to be back.