As governments around the world progressively look to re-open their economies, companies are assessing whether and how to re-open their premises. Caution is required as employers are under obligations to safeguard the health and safety of their workforce and most government authorities continue to encourage remote working. Key areas of concern include the different social-distancing measures and/or technology solutions companies are expected to implement for the safe re-opening of their premises and re-integration of employees into their workplaces. The relevant restrictions and requirements are often significant and difficult to navigate because they vary substantially depending on the jurisdiction and the setting.
Below, we review some of the main features of these restrictions and requirements across a number of key jurisdictions surfaced in our Re-Opening under COVID-19: Data Privacy and Security Survey.
One common feature across all surveyed jurisdictions is the implementation of general social and physical distancing measures, though the criteria for appropriate social-distancing vary greatly across jurisdictions and settings. Most jurisdictions require or recommend spacing of between 1 meter and 2 meters in company premises, which is actually quite a significant divergence in practice, considering that the difference between a 1 meter and a 2 meter distancing requirement could determine whether it is viable to re-open a workplace at all.
Out of the surveyed jurisdictions, we see the smallest social-distancing requirement adopted in Argentina, Austria, Malaysia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, with people required to maintain a minimum distance of just one meter. In contrast, jurisdictions such as Colombia, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, the UAE, United Kingdom and Slovak Republic have taken a more conservative approach, requiring individuals to keep at least two meters from each other. And in Abu Dhabi, there are guidelines to maintain a 2.5 meter distance between tables in food outlets (although specific re-opening requirements have not yet been issued for private sector companies in the Abu Dhabi Global Market). Other jurisdictions such as Australia, Germany, Poland and South Africa have adopted a middle ground based on 1.5 meter social distancing.
Alternative measures for implementing physical distancing are also being adopted in some jurisdictions and settings. For example, in Australia, there must be no less than four square meters of floor space per person in any workplace and, in the Slovak Republic, grocery stores must have at least 25 square meters of floor space per customer. In the UAE, private sector establishments must limit the percentage of workers who are physically present on company premises to a maximum of 30% of the total workforce, regardless of the size of the workplace.
This material variance in the calibration of the social-distancing requirements across jurisdictions and settings has significant practical implications for how workplaces and company premises are set up for returning employees and other persons who may need to access them. In many cases, creative solutions are needed to accommodate re-entry on a socially distant basis.
For instance, offices may require reconfiguration to ensure that employee desks are spaced more than the minimum distance apart; employee movements may need to be reviewed to ensure that a safe minimum distance can be maintained by employees in the ordinary course of their duties; the direction of flow through corridors may need to be reviewed and strictly defined to limit the risk of two-way traffic in narrow passageways in breach of proximity limits; for company premises in multi-tenant buildings, lift-based access may need to be strictly limited and coordinated amongst tenants to enable adequate spacing at all times; phased or staggered re-entry of employees may be needed to ensure that only a proportion of a company’s employees are at the company premises at any given time. The size and shape of a company’s floorplate may present further challenges that require creative solutions to enable compliance with strict distancing requirements.
In many jurisdictions, the social-distancing requirements outlined above are supported by enhanced sanitization and cleaning measures and requirements for the use of personal protective equipment such as face masks while on company premises.
Sanitization and cleaning
Due to the potential for surface contact transmission of COVID-19, many governments have imposed measures requiring workplaces to go through regular and extensive cleaning and sanitization. Such measures range from recommendations that the workplace is cleaned regularly, to Singapore’s requirement that employers ensure that all workplace premises are thoroughly cleaned, all areas with high human contact are regularly disinfected, and that disinfecting agents (e.g., hand sanitizers) are installed at all human traffic stoppage points (e.g., reception, entrances, lift lobbies). It is also mandatory in South Africa and the UAE for employers to supply cleaning agents and hand sanitizer in the workplace, and this is recommended as good practice for employers in most of the surveyed jurisdictions in which it is not mandatory to do so.
Personal protective equipment
We are not seeing a widespread requirement for workers to wear personal protective equipment such as masks in occupations or settings that are not associated with unusually high risks of exposure to the coronavirus. However, in a number of jurisdictions, such as the Czech Republic, Germany, Malaysia, South Africa and Switzerland, the use of personal protective equipment, mainly face masks, is or may be required by employers in certain workplaces in order to protect employees and those around them from the potential spread of the coronavirus. Additionally in South Africa, if employees are required to work at company premises, two face masks must be provided to each employee and the employee is required to wear a face mask at all times.
Authorities in other jurisdictions such as Argentina, China, the UAE and the US have also released general guidelines encouraging the use of face masks in certain settings which may apply to the re-opening of company premises.
In most jurisdictions, it is not mandatory to implement technology solutions to re-open a workplace (such as requiring readings of COVID-19-related QR codes for admission to premises). However we anticipate that companies might opt to use technology to track certain information, such as the number of people in an area, to assist with monitoring and compliance with social-distancing related requirements described above.
Additionally, China in particular has been using a QR code system in which unique QR codes show the health status of citizens and are used to ensure compliance with quarantine and movement restrictions. In the system, citizens show their QR code at checkpoints, including as a mandatory requirement before entering buildings or work premises. A green code indicates those allowed to move more freely, while yellow indicates those under a seven day quarantine and red those under a 14 day quarantine.
Some other notable technological measures being implemented in connection with re-opening of company premises include temperature checks, such as mandatory twice-daily temperature checks on all private company employees in the UAE.
The requirements imposed in different jurisdictions around the world to enable company premises to re-open while combating the spread of COVID-19 vary markedly. While there are common high-level requirements across jurisdictions, such as the presence of social-distancing measures, at a more granular level, these requirements vary greatly between jurisdictions and their implementation in practice requires a case-by-case approach depending on the jurisdiction and setting. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
As companies seek to re-open their premises, they must be guided by the latest applicable local requirements and guidelines and by an overriding concern for the health and wellbeing of their people and patrons, remaining vigilant to the ever-changing dynamics of the crisis.