Duty of Care: The Four H’s

On 12 May 2020 the UK Government released its guidance on how to safeguard offices for COVID-19 (see link below). This article explains the key themes of the government’s guidelines and provides best practice actions to cost-effectively comply. In summary, offices should follow the four H’s: Hygiene, Hours, Horizontal separation and Home working.

The UK Government’s 11 May 2020 guidelines require organisations with over five staff to conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment, which should be done as soon as possible and in consultation with your HSE representative and staff. Below are four themes that need to be addressed in your risk assessment to make sure that your office is safe.

 1. Hygiene

As the starting point for COVID-19 office safety, organisations are increasing their hygiene with hand wash, hand sanitisers and more frequent and thorough cleaning and sanitising/disinfection. Face masks and tissues should also be provided – along with more regular emptying of the bins into which they are disposed.

Signage helps to remind staff how to maintain COVID-19 office hygiene.

Increased air exchange rates and opening windows ensure air is as clean as possible.

Some organisations are checking staff temperatures as they arrive at work so they can be sent home prior to entering the workplace. Recording temperatures, along with work attendance, is also a good idea for tracking and tracing infection. Clear protocols must be in place for dealing with high temperature/symptomatic staff.

2. Hours

Staggering start times and break times ensure that staff are not all arriving, leaving or flooding the kitchen at the same time. It also minimises queues at the entrance while temperature checking, hand sanitising, donning of masks and signing in occur.

COVID-19 office shifts are a more extreme form of changing hours to minimise contact.

Staggering hours also helps staff to avoid transport peak times, which reduces travel times on congested roads and better enables social distancing on public transport.

3. Horizontal separation

There is a wide array of methods being adopted to achieve social distancing (at least 2m) in the office, including:

  • Only having a percentage of staff back in the office
  • Instructing staff to not use conventional tactile greetings
  • Using every second desk (enforced by taping off or removing the intermediate desks)
  • Reorienting desks to face walls instead of staff facing each other
  • Using meeting rooms as offices (organisations should have a no visitor policy so meeting rooms should not be needed for external meetings)
  • On-line meetings
  • Spacing out tables and reducing the number of chairs in kitchens, canteens and breakout areas
  • Encourage staff to eat at their desks
  • Increasing the size, seating spacing and butt receptacle spacing in smoking areas
  • Opening more doors for staff access and egress
  • Establishing one-way routes, for example with floor arrows
  • Using visual separation cues like lines 2m apart in front of the coffee machine, fridge, photocopiers and other equipment
  • Buying more equipment to avoid queues of users
  • Establishing a queuing system for congregation or pinch points in an office with clear signage (e.g. toilets, locker areas, kitchens)
  • Encouraging the use of stairs
  • Reducing the maximum occupancy of lifts
  • Increasing parking for staff cars and bike racks to enable cycling to work.

A range of screen products are now on the market that can stop the transmission of droplets containing the virus within the office. Note that these are not a sustainable solution – using petrochemicals to create acrylic that will be disposed of at the end of the COVD-19 crisis. The government notes that screens can be used to mitigate risk only if a social distance of 2m can be achieved.

 4. Home working

Working from home remains the best way to shield staff. And, of course, fewer staff in the office creates more space for those who do attend.

Employers need to also recognise that some staff rely on public transport and may therefore be coming into close contact with others while commuting.

To work productively and comfortably at home, staff must have, as a minimum, an ergonomically adjustable chair with arms, and a screen height just below eye level (see 5 Tips for Home Office Productivity).

The additional equipment required has seen an increase in demand for high quality remanufactured office furniture and electronics, as companies and individuals seek best value-for-money and the lowest environmental footprint. The added advantage of remanufactured items is that they can be returned to the seller for further remanufacturing – avoiding landfill and disposal costs.

Equipping staff for home working will ensure that the organisation can continue operating effectively should further lockdowns occur in the future.


To enable staff to work in offices, organisations need to change their offices while the threat of COVID-19 remains. Best practice is to appoint a Project Manager and roll out the changes at once as the ‘new normal’ way of working.


Author’s note: this article was updated on 12 May 2020 to reflect the UK Government’s guidelines ‘Working safely during COVID-19 in offices and contact centres: Guidance for employers, employees and the self-employed, 11 May 2020’ to which readers should refer. Organisations who have followed the government’s guidelines should display this sign to signal their compliance to staff and visitors.


About the author

Dr Greg Lavery is an expert in sustainable buildings. He is the Managing Director of Rype Office, a sustainable office furniture company that is helping organisations to improve their COVID-19 office health and safety.