UK companies adopt new office rules in response to Omicron variant

UK companies scrambled to reinstate or review restrictions over office working after the government imposed fresh rules on travel and wearing masks in public places following the outbreak of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Many companies have begun asking staff to wear masks again in public areas and lifts, having relaxed rules as bosses sought to encourage more people back to the workplace after previous lockdowns eased in the summer.

Under new guidelines that take effect on Tuesday, the government has stopped short of telling companies in England to ask staff to work from home but will enforce mask-wearing in shops and on public transport.

Insurer Aviva is introducing daily lateral flow tests for employees and mask-wearing in communal areas, while EY is asking staff to wear face coverings when moving around offices.

“In line with government guidance, we are introducing new measures to prevent the spread of the Covid virus,” said Aviva.

“Over recent months, we have seen more people coming into all our offices — and we have seen benefits of being together and working in the same place. We don’t want to lose this momentum and the benefits, but we will make sure we do it as safely as possible.”

Law firm Ashurst said masks must be worn by staff unless exempt in all client and internal meetings, while a lateral flow test must be taken before joining any gathering of a large number of people in one room.

Lynn Dunne, Ashurst’s co-managing partner for London, said: “We are monitoring the situation very closely and . . . have made certain changes in policy.”

Boston Consulting Group said it was identifying staff who had travelled to the UK from red-listed countries before quarantine restrictions were imposed and was asking them to take a PCR test and avoid coming to the office for 10 days.

Virgin Media said it was reviewing its office measures, while BT said it would reiterate its rules over wearing masks in customers’ homes and the need for regular testing. Many companies have retained rules over mask-wearing in public areas, alongside other safety measures such as hand sanitisers, Covid-19 tests and temperature checks.

Martin Sorrell, chief executive of ad agency S4 Capital, said the company was now giving “even more attention to testing, masks, vaccination, office layout, working from home and embedded client meals”.

Executives told the Financial Times that external meetings were already being cancelled, in many instances because clients and colleagues were no longer able to travel to the UK, or were being forced to self-isolate after travelling.

Travellers coming to the UK from overseas need to self-isolate while waiting for the results of a PCR test, which can take two days to be returned.

Banking and insurance executives said non-essential travel was being limited given the self-isolation requirements. “I do not want to have to sit at home for three days waiting for a test result,” said one executive, who had just cancelled a trip to see colleagues in Brussels.

One UK bank had also imposed a ban on travel to South Africa, where the variant was first identified, while others told the FT that travel had always needed to be approved by managers.

“If travel requires more quarantine, then managers are unlikely to allow it, unless it is essential,” said one banking executive.

Daniel Thomas, Ian Smith, Michael O’Dwyer, Harriet Agnew, Kate Beioley, Stephen Morris, Owen Walker


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