Is the office really a hotbed for COVID-19?

Greg Davies

Greg Davies
Director of Market Development, Assurity Consulting
8th February 2021

“The data showed there were more than 500 outbreaks, or suspected outbreaks, in offices in the second half of 2020 - more than in supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafes combined.”

More than 60 suspected Covid outbreaks in offices were recorded in the first two weeks of the current lockdown in England, a BBC investigation has found.”

On the face of it this information is alarming for both employees and those responsible for managing office workplaces, but is it a true reflection of all?

 The article, published at the end of last week on the BBC News website, also carries accounts of employee experiences where:

  • “They used hot-desk, share toilets and the windows are always closed.”
  • The office "is small and stuffy” with people “coming in and out throughout the day.”
  • "I just stepped out of the office, and when I came back, somebody was sitting at the workstation on the computer and using the phone."

In relation to “call centre and office work” a further part of the article continues:

  • "They have high occupational densities with little social distancing and are often sealed, with air con just recirculating pathogens like COVID-19."
  • "Hot-desking is commonplace and cleansing is hit and miss. It's a toxic combination."

Firstly, while I am of course unaware of the procedures put in place at these offices and the accuracy of the comments made, these examples are significantly below current COVID-19 Secure requirements and guidance.

Secondly, they are most certainly not reflective of what we are seeing in the workplaces we are visiting (as part of keeping them more generally safe and healthy). Occupation densities are low, cleaning, and social distancing measures are in place and information is posted everywhere, encouraging good hygiene and procedures for “office use/etiquette” during the pandemic.

Also, remember that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are actively inspecting premises to check that, “that business have put measures in place, and everyone is following them to manage the risks from Coronavirus.” Figures we saw last year indicated over 80% of those business inspected met COVID-19 Secure guidance.

Rather than a failure of sector, in this instance offices, what this report is highlighting is a failure of ‘process’. These organisations, regardless of workplace, do not have suitable and sufficient procedures in place to adequately manage their work in a COVID-19 secure manner.

As with any health and safety related activity, workplaces such as offices, shops and schools are comparatively “low hazard” environments, but the actual risk they pose will depend on the 'controls' you put in place to manage them.