Staff risk disciplinary action if they work from home – or a police fine if they go to work

Staff at a RIBA chartered architecture practice have been told they must go into the office each day or face potential disciplinary action, despite the nation being plunged into lockdown and ordered to work from home as infection rates soar.

On Architecture, a practice with studios in London and Kent, has told staff to continue working in its offices and open the windows despite the prime minister instructing people to work from home unless it is “unreasonable” to do so. This is widely understood to mean key workers and those with jobs in manufacturing or on construction sites.

By telling their 40-odd staff to come in, the practice is potentially putting them at risk of being fined £200 by the police if they are stopped and found not to have a lawful reason to be going to work.

The firm, which insists it is acting reasonably and in compliance with government guidelines, has warned staff who refuse to come in that they must either use annual leave, take unpaid leave or face disciplinary action.  

Staff told Building Design they feel they have been put in an impossible position.

One, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “I don’t feel safe in the office and I haven’t felt safe since returning to the office in the summer.”

Staff from both offices said that while they are seated more than 2m from the person next to them they are within a metre of the person facing them. There are no screens between desks, they added.

Other allegations made by the staff include:

  • The London office has recycled air ventilation systems, like on cruise ships, which are believed to increase the risk of covid spread. 
  • Staff were not told when colleagues in both offices were sent home with covid symptoms.

As part of what it called an ongoing consultation, the firm has told staff to wear masks, to santitise regularly - and to open the windows for five minutes every hour to refresh the air. Bosses issued a statement (in full, below) which outlined the measures they have taken to make the offices covid-secure. But it did not dispute the staff’s claims.

In a series of emails seen by Building Design the practice told staff they were required to come into the office both during the November lockdown and when Boris Johnson announced the latest national lockdown on 4 January.

Email 04-01 (name removed)

An email sent to all staff after Boris Johnson’s announcement on Friday

In an email on 5 January they said they were looking into opening the offices seven days a week and from 6am to 9pm to allow staff to work their core hours around other commitments such as childcare. Schools were also shut this week, leaving parents juggling work and home-schooling.

The email said: “This will allow more flexibility for staff to work around childcare and travel restrictions, and at the same time, potentially allow for reducing the number of staff in the studios throughout the day.” In March On opened its offices 24 hours a day ”to ensure that everyone has access to the office in order to fulfil the contracts and workload that we are currently committed to”, with co-director Luke Harrison adding that this might ”mitigate and reduce more drastic action being required”.

Emails sent to staff members who raised concerns at the start of the November lockdown said the business could not operate remotely.

One said: “On Kent and London need to remain open as they are currently, under the government guidelines as they stand at the moment, because it is not effective for us to work from home. We can only go on the evidence of the four months that we spent working from home in Kent, and the five months for London. In order for our business to sustain, it is critical that we continue working as we are.”

It added: “Should this not be satisfactory for yourself, and you choose not to report to work, then we would need to mutually agree a period of unpaid leave based on individual circumstances, or it could be treated as unauthorised absence, which could result in disciplinary action.”

It provided a link to government guidance which listed firms that could remain open at the time. The list does not appear to include businesses such as architecture practices, although construction is mentioned.

Staff at both the London and Kent offices were allowed to work from home during the first lockdown in the spring, before being told they had to return to full-time office working in July and August respectively. 

As infection rates spiked in Kent staff became increasingly concerned but during the November lockdown the firm emailed staff saying: “Further to some concerns raised by a small number of staff, I just wanted to confirm that until further guidance is given, our business decision is to keep the offices open and to work from the office.”

Correspondence from 2 November showed the practice had concerns about staff productivity when working from home.

It said: “As part of the construction industry, we are at a critical point in terms of business continuity. We found that turnover and productivity during the earlier lockdown reduced dramatically, and so it is vital that we keep business operating under its current terms.”

After the prime minister’s announcement last Monday the company reiterated its offices would not be closing, saying: ”We have carefully worked through the updated guidance following Boris’ briefing earlier tonight. Please be reassured that we have discussed and considered thoroughly the options currently available to us.

”The studios will continue to remain open as they are currently as covid-secure workplaces. Please wear either a mask or face shield at all times; we appreciate that there are certain health conditions which prevent this.”

An email from 5 January conceded that the practice had the ability for staff to work from home and would allow it in certain circumstances.

It said: “We appreciate that, at certain points, there may be extenuating circumstances where homeworking may be accommodated for a short period of time, eg cases of self-isolation or isolating prior to being a birth partner.

“Please be reassured that we are maintaining a covid-secure workplace. There are appropriate health and safety measures in place, and we are grateful for your cooperation with these.”

The latest government guidance says: “From 6 January, a national lockdown applies in all of England. You can only leave home for work purposes where it is unreasonable for you to do your job from home.”

In November this guidance was ”anyone who can work from home, should.”

Russell Curtis, of the London Practice Forum, said practices had to prioritse the wellbeing of their staff. He would not be drawn on this specific case but said: ”I am shocked if any practice is compelling staff to attend the studio if they don’t want to. It raises all sorts of red flags.

”We have to be acutely mindful of the wellbeing of the people we are responsible for. To prioritise the practice over people’s wellbeing is not acceptable.”

On Architecture statement

An On Architecture spokesperson said: “We have taken expert health & safety and HR advice in order to ensure our offices in London and Canterbury comply with the everchanging covid-19 guidelines in order to support our clients in the construction industry.

“Our staff have been given clear instructions, and training, about entering our offices and how to work as individuals, and also as members of our team, in order to reduce the risk of transmission.

“To date we have had no covid-19 cases that can be traced to our operations but remain vigilant and continue to make the health of our staff a priority.”

On Architecture has adopted an extensive range of measures and undertaken a detailed risk assessment, including:

  • Sanitising stations are positioned throughout the offices and at the entrances, and in every toilet and kitchen
  • Staff are also encouraged to open windows at all times if they want to
  • The offices are heavily sanitised each evening
  • Staff are required to wear masks or face shields at their desks, unless the staff have health conditions
  • Hot desks is forbidden as is the sharing of any office consumables
  • Every desk has a cleansing station – wipes, paper towels, sanitiser, bins, etc
  • Toilets cleaning stations and procedures are in place
  • Meeting room and kitchen procedures are in place with clear instructions and these are observed

With regards to the specific claim of: Staff have not been told when a colleague has been sent home with covid symptoms, On Architecture was advised to follow the government advice below:

  • Employers are encouraged to keep staff informed about potential or confirmed covid-19 cases amongst their colleagues. However, they should not name individuals, and should not unlawfully share anyone’s personal data (including anyone’s test results).

The spokesperson added: “Throughout the pandemic, staff have been informed that if they have any covid-19 symptoms that they are to stay at home, self-isolate and if necessary have a test.”