Physical distancing maybe challenging in our workplace, what should we do?

Employers need to put people first and safeguard their health and well-being; homeworking should continue for every role that can be carried out remotely.  If physical distancing can’t be done properly or safely, employers should act responsibly in line with their legal obligations to ensure the health and safety of both their employees and any visitors to their site. This could mean staying closed. Employers should consider who really needs to be physically in the workplace. It may be possible to reorganise any non-essential workplace based work, as people’s health and safety is paramount. Employers should listen to people’s concerns about returning into the workplace and allow for a period of adjustment and putting plans in place. For many businesses, easing lockdown restrictions will be a more challenging, complex and drawn-out process than the original lockdown.

Employers with health and safety and occupational health and facilities management teams should work closely with them and refer to the government website for the latest advice, including the Covid-19 secure workplace guidelines. They should also communicate and consult with employees about the measures to be introduced, including with any recognised trade unions and/or employee representatives.

As social distancing is likely to continue to apply for some time, to ensure that staff numbers allow for this employers can consider:

  • shift working in teams
  • office redesign
  • home working 
  • alternative working patterns 
  • These methods will reduce the number of people in the workplace. Changes to contractually agreed working hours will usually need employees’ agreement.

Government advice

Everyone should follow the new government ‘Covid-19 Secure’ guidelines. As well as attempting adjustments to help maintain social distancing, guidance on hygiene is essential as evidence suggests that the virus can exist for up to 72 hours on surfaces. The preliminary government advice has suggested:

  • Rigorous social distancing on public transport and avoidance of public transport at peak travel times
  • Wearing a face covering at all times when travelling as a passenger on public transport which is required by law in England
  • Wearing face coverings in enclosed spaces where social distancing isn’t possible and “where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet”. This applies to short periods indoors in crowded areas, for example on public transport or shops. Medical standard PPE including masks should continue to be reserved for health and care workers
  • Frequent cleaning, especially communal and high impact surfaces like door handles or lift buttons and communal areas like bathrooms, kitchens and tea points
  • Ventilation of indoor spaces, as evidence suggests the virus is less likely to be passed on in well-ventilated buildings and outdoors. As well as leaving windows open, external extractor fans can maximise the flow of fresh air
  • Washing clothes regularly
  • Avoiding crowds where possible, and allowing the use of more entrances and exits to buildings and staggering entry and exit points
  • Reduction of the number of people in a work environment by changing shift patterns and rotas. Space plan your offices to allow for 2 metre distancing between each workplace settings, or '1 metre +' with risk mitigation where 2 metres is not viable – Talk to the Avison Young team about creating a COVID-19 office space plan.

Other practical steps

Safe work practices to limit exposure to Covid-19 at work include both overall control measures and minimising workers exposure to each other. Flexible leave and remote working should still be encouraged wherever possible to limit presence at the workplace. The following are just some examples of control measures depending on the nature of the role and workplace.

Reducing numbers

  • Ensure staff who can work from home continue to do so
  • Anyone with symptoms (or who lives with someone with symptoms) should stay at home
  • Coordinate return to work procedures with any other businesses who share the building via the landlord or building management
  • Consider delivering some services remotely so that only workers who are essential to the job are present at the workplace
  • Adjust working hours (by agreement) or stagger start and end times. There could be two staff groups with half working from home one week and half in the office the next
  • Reduce large unnecessary meetings and minimise the presence of third parties such as clients or customers. Many business are preventing any physical meetings and visitors for at least the first 30 days after the reopening of offices
  • Limit numbers entering toilet facilities so that only one person at a time enters
  • Vulnerable workers should still work from home including older people, pregnant women, those with chronic conditions (including lung or heart problems, diabetes, or undergoing cancer treatment). Workers with close family members who are at high risk may also need special arrangements.

Phyiscal barriers

  • Reduce physical contact between workers and distance or isolate workers whenever possible
  • Reassess the layout of work stations to ensure 2 metre distances, or '1 metre +' with risk mitigation where 2 metres is not viable
  • Reassess how many workers can be accommodated and use spare offices and meeting rooms to spread staff out
  • Consider barriers and empty desks between workers in the workplace as well as 2 metre distances between staff (Or 1 metre + with risk mitigation). Plastic sheeting, partitions, and solid storage units may be appropriate
  • End hot desking and all shared equipment
  • Encourage pick-up or delivery of goods outside the premises leaving goods to quarantine for a period where possible.

Safety equipment and facilities

  • Provide anti-bacterial gel, sanitation gel and wipes for all staff
  • Facemasks and gloves are recommended by the government where PPE would normally be applied i.e. labs, clinical settings. Some organisations are recommending or providing face-coverings for confined spaces or travel but this is not a government guideline.

Training and communication

  • Communicate and consult with all employees on plans to reopen and about any new rules and policies that apply
  • Involve and consult with recognised trade unions and/or employee representatives where appropriate, especially where changes to working hours and other terms and conditions are needed
  • Send email reminders and display signs around the workplace to raise awareness of measures adopted.


  • Increase the regularity of deep cleaning, especially desks, surfaces, door handles and other surfaces that people touch regularly. Leave doors open (subject to fire risks)
  • Advise workers to wash their hands frequently and effectively and restock facilities regularly
  • Ensure waste bins are lined with plastic bags so that they can be emptied without touching the contents.

For more advice on reopening your workplace, navigate left and right through this resource centre and read our Q&A document.

This webinar and Q&A document reflects our professional opinion of the factors impacting workplace transition in the context of our role as workplace specialists. It does not constitute formal advice and we recommend engagement with specialists, including your own internal or external health and safety advisors, if you are transitioning your workplace to a 'Covid secure' standard. Please also note that the Q&A contains responses to specific questions which therefore may not be appropriate for all types of businesses or workspaces. The spread of COVID-19 and the containment policies being introduced are changing rapidly, and some of the views expressed herein may not reflect the latest opinion of Avison Young. We strongly recommend that you continue to monitor the relevant UK Government advice, and any supplementary local advice. These sources provide regularly updated information on the COVID-19 outbreak: World Health Organization, Government of Canada, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UK Government, Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Case Tracker.