COVID-19 update for charities 18 May

Over the recent bank holiday the Government announced the easing of lockdown, with a focus on those returning to work who are unable to work from home.

For many charities, this will mean thinking about how to re-open offices and other sites in a controlled, measured and safe manner. Maybe not this week, but at some point in the future, charities, as all other organisations, will need to be prepared to return staff and volunteers to physical workspaces and interact with clients and colleagues in the non-digital world.

In this, the first of two updates, we look at the Government’s guidance and reflect upon some of the questions trustees will need to consider if they are to successfully support a safe and organised return.

  • Government guidance
  • Working practices
  • Developing the recovery plan

Government guidance

In the week starting 11 May, the UK Government produced guidance for specific sectors and the general public on how best to maintain social distancing whilst starting the process of re-opening some parts of the UK economy.

The core document, Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy is available here and provides a general overview of the ways in which lockdown provisions will be eased in the coming months. There is, in addition, guidance from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) which provides more specific detail for employers and employees. The Guidance to help employers, employees and the self-employed understand how to work safely during the coronavirus pandemic 

incorporates eight specific guides, which cover:

  • Construction and other outside work
  • Factories, plants and warehouses
  • Labs and research facilities
  • Offices and contact centres
  • Other people’s homes
  • Restaurants offering takeaway or delivery
  • Shops and branches
  • Vehicles.

Many charities will need to read more than one of the guides, though some of the general guidance applies to all types of activity. In brief, the overarching principles include:

  • Maintain the two metre distance between individuals, as far as is practicable – and where that cannot be done, consider not performing the activity in question or limiting the time in which such close contact is required
  • Undertake a risk assessment, in consultation with staff, represented by a union official or staff nominated employee. For those charities with over 50 employees, the completed risk assessment must be published (on the charity’s website)
  • Continue to comply with equalities and health and safety legislation
  • Be aware of those individuals that are most ‘at risk’ and take the appropriate measures to mitigate risk
  • Respect and promote self-isolation
  • Minimise visitors and record those that do come on site
  • No-one is obliged to work in an unsafe environment.

The final piece of Government guidance relates to the use of public transport and other ways of travelling as the lockdown is eased. Coronavirus (COVID-19): safer travel guidance for passengers details tips to maintain social distancing and can be found here. For trustees and senior managers, the guidance will help to inform their conversations and decisions about what sites can be opened or activities re-started safely.

Working practices

The changes in working practices developed in response to the lockdown will not entirely disappear – either because they present a better way for organisations to achieve their goals, or because social distancing will be in force for some time. 

The current lack of clarity around the potential liability of employers in inviting staff back to work will mean that trustees should be seen to have done the right things. In practice, this is likely to mean that going above and beyond Government guidance to ensure the safety and well-being of staff, volunteers, clients and others will be of paramount importance.

The BEIS guidance on working safely provides details of the risk assessments employers must undertake, and offers suggestions designed to help employers with implementing social distancing and maintaining high standards of hygiene. The risk assessment poses several questions:

  • Who is needed on site?
  • What is the minimum number of staff required to be on site for operations to be safe?
  • What mechanisms are currently, and could be put, in place to monitor the health and well-being of all staff, both on site and working remotely?
  • What equipment needs to be provided to staff to enable them to perform their duties safely?
  • Do you know which individuals need to be shielded or cocooned due to underlying health and other conditions?

For trustees and senior managers, working practices will need to cover physical arrangements, and the policies and procedures in place to manage and monitor work.

The following list frames a few questions that trustees and senior managers might want to consider now when trying to formulate the best way to slowly and carefully re-start the charity after lockdown. The list is in no way exhaustive, and nor (deliberately) does it cover the ongoing issues around finances and governance.

Physical issues:
  1. Can your physical office space support colleagues working two metres apart (including workstations and social areas such as kitchens and canteens)? Can office space be reconfigured to accommodate social distancing? Is there outside space that could be utilised for some activities?
  2. Is there a need to introduce physical changes to the flow and operation of office space? And within that:
    • Does a particular space or piece of equipment need to be subject to pre-booking with additional cleaning/sanitisation between use?
    • Does a one-way system need to be introduced to ensure social distancing in busy access areas?
    • Do markers need to be placed on carpets and walkways to help identify the two metre distancing?
    • Will extra signage be required?
    • Can hand sanitiser stations be put in place, such as in transition areas between one work area and another? Is it possible to install more handwashing areas?
    • Are there specific activities which require staff to have some level of PPE?
    • Is there a need for physical barriers to be installed, such as plastic screens between workstations? Or to ensure that staff work back-to-back rather than face-to-face?
    • Can travel to and from the office be staggered to avoid rush hours on public transport? Are there other transport options the charity could support to help staff and volunteers?
    • Can staff be on-site on a rota or ‘buddying’ system, thereby keeping a minimum number of people in buildings and minimising contact? Likewise, can the charity be flexible about when people start and finish their working day – both at home and in the office?
  3. Can a ‘clear desk’ policy be introduced to ease cleaning (removing pens and other stationery in order to avoid contamination)? Are there any areas in which staff could store their personal belongings safely?
  4. Should all staff be required to bring their own food and drink, including receptacles, to avoid the transfer of the virus and any other germs by multiple use of the same mug or plate, even if put through a dishwasher between use? Can antiseptic wipes be made available to wipe down common use items (kettles, fridge doors, milk, taps etc) between use?
  5. What digital and virtual practices adopted during lockdown could be continued to support staff and clients?
  6. What physical and mental health measures will be in place to support colleagues?
Policies and procedures:
  1. Do existing policies and procedures reflect the changing work practices? This may include:
    • Health and safety practices
    • Sickness policies
    • Childcare and caring responsibilities and practices
    • Safe working protocols
    • Safeguarding requirements
    • Data protection policies
    • Digital security – for both documents and virtual meetings
    • Hot desking arrangements
    • Bereavement leave
  2. Can the site accommodate an isolation area for individuals who may become ill during the working day? Is there a plan for dealing with such incidences? Have first aiders been given specific guidance for dealing with suspected COVID 19 cases in the workplace?
  3. Are existing regulatory and oversight mechanisms fit for purpose in these changed ways of working? For instance:
    • Would the board know when a serious incident has occurred and to inform the Charity Commission?
    • Do trustees know what signs to look for to avoid fraudulent trading/trading while insolvent?
    • With an increased use of digital media, is the board assured that data protection requirements are still being complied with?
  4. Have risk registers been updated to reflect the new challenges (and opportunities)?
  5. Are our proposed actions for re-opening physical spaces in alignment with official guidance, as a minimum?

As in any time of crisis, communication will be key to the success of any actions that promise to introduce new ways of working. Staff, volunteers and clients alike will be fearful of their ongoing risk to COVID-19, and some will require additional assurance that their health and well-being is of utmost importance to trustees and senior managers. The tone of internal and external communications around returning to work needs to be finely judged, and due consideration given to the uncertainty some staff may feel from having been furloughed – and their apprehensions about what lies ahead.

So much for planning for emerging from lockdown. In the next briefing we will look at how charities can develop an effective plan for recovery.

20 June update

In this, the second of two updates in the wake of the Government’s announcement, we reflect upon some of the questions trustees will need to consider in developing an effective plan for recovery.

Developing a recovery plan

It is likely that every charity has had to change the way it works during the lockdown.

Some activities will have been delivered differently; others will have been placed on hold. Strategic plans developed before the pandemic will require updating to reflect new ways of working, and some plans will probably need rethinking entirely. Ultimately, the trustees should be thinking about how to re-engage their charity while the lockdown eases in phases, with an eye on delivering their charitable objects as safely as possible. For some trustees, indeed, the situation may have presented an opportunity to think about whether the organisation should even continue to exist at all – or at least, exist in its current form.

At the heart of any charity’s recovery plan has to be a) fulfilling your stated charitable objects (if they are still relevant), and b) doing so in a manner that protects the safety and welfare of staff, volunteers and clients.

Involving staff, clients and volunteers in discussions about the way forward and plans to re-open physical spaces will be advantageous in ensuring success – not to mention that it will be a requirement of Government guidance. Having a clear idea as to the approach that should be taken, and what subsequent actions will look like should help to focus people’s energy and thinking and ensure a more effective implementation. A simple process could incorporate the following aspects:

1. Identifying those factors which need to be in place for safely re-introducing  core activities for employees, clients and volunteers. This may take the form of a re-start working group with a brief along the following lines:

  • Gather information and expertise to inform the necessary activities that should be introduced – immediately, in the medium term and longer
  • Be prepared to consult widely in order to have the right mix of people, insights and skills at the right time
  • Assess the performance of digital practices taken up during the lockdown with a view to adopting the most effective as part of the new way of working
  • Identify the physical changes to buildings and offices required for safe working (these were discussed in the previous update)
  • Articulate the people behaviours that should be promoted to ensure the safe and successful return to physical spaces. That could include, for example, entrance/exit signage routes, logistics for different sites, the use of charity-provided masks and gloves, hygiene and health procedures, the introduction of rules for travel to sites and clients, and use of contact numbers. These will need to reflect revised organisational policies discussed in the previous briefing.

2. Putting in place arrangements for the safety and protection of staff, volunteers, clients and visitors, including:

  • Identify and implement the measures required to protect all types of people visiting or otherwise making use of the charity’s physical spaces (see above)
  • Put in place additional medical and well-being support packages to support staff and visitors, such as records of all visitors, rules on restricted movement in busier areas (such as kitchens and toilets), dedicated activity areas, thermometer checks before entering areas, requirements for the use of gloves and face masks, additional or deeper cleaning regimes, and the introduction of so-called ‘wobble rooms’ or counselling services for staff in distress, among others.
  • Investigate and implement the use of technical developments, such as downloading the Government app, that could support the ability of staff, volunteers and clients to monitor their likely exposure to individuals with COVID-19 symptoms.

3. Engaging with stakeholders:

  • Communicate to all stakeholders the actions taken to re-open physical spaces safely and in a range of ways that meet the needs of your different stakeholder groups – Twitter, e-mails, video or telephone calls, letters, webcasts etc.
  • Where an individual physically needs to attend the charity’s offices, or to have a member of staff or volunteer meet a client in their home, produce an information sheet explaining what the client or visitor needs to do to protect themselves and the staff member or volunteer, and what they can expect of the person visiting. Be clear as to what happens if either party does not feel safe.
  • Share your experiences with other organisations. Learn from the success of others and willingly share your knowledge to benefit others.

It can be a bit of a cliché for an organisation to say, ‘our staff are our greatest asset’. Even so, the way a charity goes about implementing its re-start plans in line with the relaxation of lockdown measures over the coming months could represent a significant opportunity for trustees and senior managers to ‘live the brand’ – and it’s likely to make a long-lasting impression on those who come into contact with it. This is an opportunity for charities to shine.

Related resources

Government publications
Guidance from the Chartered Governance Institute
Subsidiary Governance Summit, 20 Feb 2024 Download this year's course catalogue

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