Should you force staff to wear masks in the office?

Management Today asks business leaders whether they'll be ordering staff to wear face coverings on their return to the workplace.

by Orianna Rosa Royle
Last Updated: 03 Sep 2020

When compiling their coveted September issues last year, fashion magazines could not have guessed that 2020's biggest must have - quite literally - would be a face mask.

As the government bolsters its ‘back to work’ campaign, could face coverings also become standard business attire?

Despite being compulsory when entering shops in England and recommended in communal areas in secondary schools, masks are not required in indoor settings according to the latest government guidance, though employers may consider their use “where appropriate and where other mitigations are not in place, in line with COVID-19 Secure guidelines”.

Legally speaking, this means employers are required to conduct a risk assessment to understand the potential need for mask-wearing or other distancing adjustments, says Marie Dancer, managing partner at Richard Nelson LLP.

"From this, employers have the right to enforce health and safety procedures in their workplace, including requesting for their employees to wear masks whilst they work," Dancer says, adding that doing so makes it the responsibility of the employer to ensure masks are suitable and sufficient, and that employees are trained in their proper use.

With so much left in employers' hands, we reached out to business leaders to find out whether they will choose to enforce the use of face masks in their workplaces.

Matthew Emerson, founder, Blackmore Four

Absolutely not. We have fully flexible working arrangements for all members of our team but regularly spend valuable time together in our office. We are fortunate to be able to distance our workstations and adopt the personal hygiene, cleanliness and ventilation guidance provided. Enforcing the use of face coverings is likely to be detrimental to our enjoyment and effectiveness of working together and I haven’t seen any evidence that supports the view that face coverings – in addition to other precautions - lowers the risk of spreading COVID-19.

In fact, there is a contradictory perspective that wearing face coverings mis-leads people into thinking it is safe to be in closer proximity and discourages social distancing – which the specialists still advise to be the best form of protection against the virus. Of course, if colleagues wish to wear face coverings then I fully respect that, but not as a substitute for distancing.

Derek Ray-Hill, managing director, Cities Restart

Not wearing a face mask should be as socially unacceptable as smoking in the workplace.

Leaders do have a responsibility to enforce the wearing of face masks in the office, but we are all responsible for making them a requirement. The only way to restart our cities is to ensure everyone feels safe to return to their office. We all have to play our part. By wearing a face mask, you are reassuring your colleagues that you are committed to protecting their health, as well as your own. COVID-19 is here to stay and closing our local economies is not the way to solve the problem. Instead, we need to learn new ways of working and living – and face masks are a key part of that.

Chris Biggs, managing director, Theta Financial Reporting

Making employees feel safe in the office and on the commute is the next big challenge for employers and I think we need to listen to them and their concerns.

I haven’t pushed my team to come to the office and will not. So because the office is empty and there is lots of space, I wouldn’t enforce the wearing of masks but would respect my team’s desire to wear one if that makes them feel more comfortable.

Joe Binder, founder, WOAW

We are striving to strike a balance between health and making people feel comfortable to come back into the office. In meetings where people are working in close proximity to each other we have asked that employees wear masks. In our own personal workspaces, as long as people abide by social distancing, mask wearing isn’t something I will be enforcing on the team.

We want it to be a nice experience and as ‘normal’ as possible but we hope no one feels they have to physically come ‘back to work’.

Main image credit: Milos Dimic via Getty Images

Headshots courtesy of the subjects

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