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Worklife with face mask policy – big battles ahead

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Myfwl Post Latest Updates 17/7/2020: Worklife with face mask – Boris Johnson says he hopes for ‘return to normality, possible in time for Christmas. Unveils £3bn of funding for NHS in England, along with ‘biggest ever’ flu vaccination programme and new powers to impose local lockdowns.

  • Health Minister, Matt Hancock orders urgent review of PHE Covid-19 death figures.
  • Oxford vaccine team aim to start lab-controlled human trial soon.

“It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November at the earliest possibly in time for Christmas.

If we continue to pull together, as we have done so far, I know we can beat this virus. We are hoping for the best, but planning for the worst. And it is in that spirit that we must carry on waging this long, hard fight against coronavirus.” – Boris Johnson

In something of a surprise U-turn, the government of UK has announced (on 14th July) that it will be mandatory to wear a face mask in shops in England after 24 July. That is, having worklife with face mask. This is prompting much furore over whether shop workers could reasonably be expected to help the police enforce this.

At the same time, Downing Street said it would keep the guidance on worklife with face mask or coverings in other settings, such as offices, under review, with conflicting messages from different ministers on this then ensuing.

The big question is, will office staff be required to wear face mask – and would this work?

So just how likely is it that the government will mandate mask wearing in the office? And what would be the effect on the timescale in which desk-based workers are likely to return to their workplaces? 

Is it looking likely that office workers will need to wear face masks?

Health secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News the government has no plans to make people wear face coverings in offices. However, environment secretary George Eustice said he hadn’t ruled out the idea of telling people to cover their faces in offices and other workplaces, according to The Telegraph. 

The most up-to-date government guidance states that everyone should still work from home where possible, and that the evidence of the benefit of using a face covering to protect others is weak.

Latest update:

“From 1 August, we will update our advice on going to work.

We’re going to give employers, more discretion and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely. That could mean continuing to work from home. This is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees. Or it could mean, making workplaces safe.” – Boris Johnson

However, the government’s position on face mask wearing has radically, and in some instances rapidly, changed over the course of the crisis, particularly in relation to retail settings. In the early days of the pandemic, the government insisted there was no, or weak, evidence that masks worked.

Not all worklife with face masks

Not all worklife with face mask, except those in the health sector, some claimed. So they privately scrambled to source enough of face mask for health and social care workers. And this was followed by their mandatory introduction on public transport, but in no other settings. 

Regarding shops, cabinet minister Michael Gove remarked as recently as the weekend that wearing face coverings in shops was “basic good manners” but not an appropriate area for legislation. This was swiftly followed by the announcement that they would be compulsory in stores from the end of July.

But Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, is still sceptical. She highlighted that “there’s no indication yet that the government will change its guidance on face coverings for offices”.

She adds that ”current guidance makes clear one could be marginally beneficial as a precautionary measure in terms of protecting others. But wearing one, is not a replacement for other ways of managing risk of Covid-19 infection at work”.

What would the benefits be?

Rachel McCloy, associate professor in applied behavioural science at the University of Reading, says wearing face masks could help efforts to reopen offices. Getting business back is something government is reportedly very keen to make headway on to preserve the economic prosperity of city centres.

It is reported that Johnson is expected to announce a ‘roadmap’ for getting people back to offices as soon as this week. (see latest updates inserted)

“Wearing masks in situations where we cannot easily adhere to strict social distancing may help businesses. It will reduce social distancing from two metres to one metre, making the prospect of reopening more realistic,” she says. 

What would the drawbacks be?

“Mask wearing at work (or worklife with face mask) is likely to be more uncomfortable for people than it is for shorter periods while shopping or on public transport. It can impact social interactions. Facial expressions are less easy to read and conversations may be harder to follow,” McCloy says.

It would also pose a challenge for HR. Employees may challenge whether it’s reasonable to make someone wear a mask in the office. There’s nothing in employment law to help employers enforce this, adds Ed Griffin, HR director of consultancy and research at the Institute for Employment Studies. 

If this is mandated, there will be an inevitable expectation on employers to provide masks rather than assume employees will buy their own. This could also be financially burdensome for many companies at a time when they need to reduce costs, Griffin adds.

“Reducing cost could be critical to survival. If more things have to be bought, that’s prohibitive. For a large office with hundreds of people, the cost of providing two or three masks to each employee per day would quickly escalate dramatically,” he says. 

There will also be issues to overcome regarding enforcement, particularly where employers share a building with others. “In shared buildings, who’s responsible for enforcement? The poor person on the reception desk? And lifts are incredibly difficult to use because, in theory, they should be cleaned after every use,” says Griffin.

What would employers need to consider to make this work?

Of course none of these drawbacks necessarily mean the government won’t eventually enforce this if it’s deemed necessary to get people back to offices safely. Experts agree that employers making a success of such a policy will depend on how it is implemented. 

Organisations would need to determine who is responsible in each workplace for ensuring this is rolled out. Including what standard of mask an employer will be providing, how many masks will be issued to individual staff per day and where masks will be disposed of, says Griffin.

“Specifics around this will be incredibly important in terms of adherence,” Griffin says. “Including the use of telephones – my guess is that this will be an issue.”

Would a policy requiring face mask wearing in offices speed up or delay office workers returning to work?

Current guidance that staff should work from home if they can is still in force. Many employers are therefore reportedly reluctant to return employees to the office in a way that would contravene official government guidance. Indeed, many have said staff will be working from home until at least the end of the year. Others, such as Twitter and Shopify, have made bold statements around staff being allowed to work from home potentially forever. Especially now that home working has been proved to be such a success.

But Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London, argues that the introduction of face masks in the workplace will in fact incentivise workers to return. “One thing putting people off going back to work is the feeling that the world outside their home isn’t safe. If masks help give people a greater sense of safety, I expect it may encourage rather than discourage employees from returning,” he says. 


“One thing we are learning during this crisis is that, on the whole, people are quite good at working out how to get the same things done but in different ways. It’s bound to feel strange to begin with, but the strangeness soon wears off and we just get on with it.”

Other positive benefits to the rescue

Others feel mandatory face mask wearing could be another reason that can put employers off returning staff to offices any time soon. Why after all should any one suffer uncomfortably in a mask all day? Especially when colleagues will not be unable to take advantage of true in-person interaction because they can’t properly see your facial expressions. And why bother, when you could conduct even face-to-face meetings quite happily, and in fact more effectively, via Zoom? 

McCloy says the positives of coming together in an office will need to outweigh such inconveniences, especially if mask wearing isn’t to deter office workers returning even further. Employers need to give careful thought on this.

“Whether it impacts on a return to work will depend on, if there are other positive benefits to working from the office as opposed to more remote working,” she says.

What about people who can’t wear face mask?

Concerns are also being raised around those for whom worklife with a face mask is difficult or impossible, including people with disabilities or mental illness. For example, face masks can be a real challenge for people who lip read, Griffin says. Although there are some versions of masks appearing that have clear plastic mouth windows where people can see lip movements. “But I don’t know how clear they are – there’s certainly still an issue there,” he says. 

“Some people will say they’re unable to wear face masks all day. People will potentially feel claustrophobic, whereas for others it will become the norm.” 

And for people who are clinically more vulnerable to Covid-19, there is still uncertainty around infections in the air, he adds. And there is not enough clarity on the extent to which infected droplets stay in the air after someone coughs or sneezes. “There’s still not enough clarity for some people in terms of what equates to acceptable risk. Science hasn’t told us yet what the levels of risk are,” Griffin says. 

Myfwl Post updates on writing by Jessica Brown for People Management Magazine under the title, “Will office staff be required to wear face coverings – and would this work?”

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