As part of easing the COVID-19 lockdown, the UAE authorities have relaxed office working restrictions. Addleshaw Goddard (Middle East) LLP and the global management consulting firm Mercer have collaborated to compile a checklist of the key points UAE employers need to consider in order to facilitate employees' return to work, comply with UAE government guidelines and create a safe, productive and energizing working environment for employees.

UAE Government Guidelines

The UAE Government has issued guidance which encourages employers to adopt specific measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 in line with the following key principles:

  • regularly monitoring the health of employees by carrying out employee risk assessments; 
  • taking practical steps to minimise the risk of COVID-19 spreading within the office workplace; and
  • responding appropriately to employees who may be showing symptoms of COVID-19. 
Office Working Capacity
  • With effect from 3 June 2020, all private sector offices in Dubai are allowed to increase capacity staffing levels from 50% to 100%. 
Who Should Return to the Office and When?
  • The UAE Government guidelines do not specifically address the timing of employees' return to the office. From a practical perspective, and while addressing business requirements, employers are encouraged to be empathetic to individual employees' personal circumstances as many facets of personal life are not yet fully conducive to living a normal office work-life balance. For example, employees who have childcare responsibilities are likely to be concerned by having to return to the office, given that UAE schools will maintain online distance learning until the end of the current academic year in July. In such cases, and depending on the type of work performed, employees may actually be more productive and engaged if remote working arrangements are maintained. 
  • If higher risk employees (categorised under the Dubai Health Authority guidelines as employees with underlying medical conditions or employees over 50) do return to work, they should be kept separate from other employees.
  • Balancing empathy and business requirements is key to a successful response to the pandemic. Employers should be flexible with those employees currently outside the UAE - these employees will be unable to return to the UAE until they have received specific approval from the UAE Federal Authority for Identity & Citizenship.
  • Any employees returning from abroad will likely have to self-isolate in the UAE for 14 days. 
Implement Physical Distancing Measures
  • Stagger employees' return to the office to help reduce physical contact between employees. 
  • Consider implementing a rota system whereby certain departments/members are in the office at any one time e.g. specific departments attend the office one week, and different departments attend the office the following week. 
  • Consider limiting the actual hours spent in the office as part of any phased return e.g. half office/half remote working days. 
  • Organise the way employees work to reduce contact e.g. teams can be organised so they work in small distinct groups. 
  • Implement social distancing arrangements in the office with a minimum of 2 metres between employees.
  • Re-configure spaces to avoid face-to-face to working. 
  • Introduce screens between work stations (this will be particularly important in open plan offices). 
  • Add floor markings to remind employees to maintain social distancing of 2 metres. 
  • Control break out areas/common room areas e.g. staggering lunch/break times and limiting the number of employees permitted in these areas. 
Maintaining Good Hygiene
  • Provide masks and gloves which are regularly changed. 
  • Ensure hand sanitising equipment is in multiple locations. 
  • Use screens in reception areas. 
  • Properly sanitise ventilation sources and air conditioning units. 
  • Prevent employees from using other employees' phones, desks, offices or other work equipment. 
  • Implement hygiene awareness campaigns e.g. video instructions which are issued to employees prior to their return to work, use of posters and signage to explain good hygiene practices and the importance of physical/social distancing. 
  • Manage inbound and outbound items to the office – it will be important to reduce transmission through contact with objects that come into or leave the workplace e.g. through the use of personal protective equipment, frequent cleaning of work areas, and restricting the use of high touch items. 
  • Manage the building space – employers may need to work collaboratively with other tenants to achieve a consistent approach in shared office/building space. 
Evaluating and Managing Health Risks
  • Conduct thermal scanning at the workplace entry point to screen for symptoms. 
  • Have pre-prepared isolation areas to manage scenarios where suspected cases are identified at the workplace.
  • Have a trained team in place which can: (i) appropriately respond to health concerns raised; and (ii) assess whether suspected cases should be reported to the UAE health authorities. 
  • Continually evaluate underlying health conditions of employees.
Data Privacy
  • Ensure that all employees' personal and sensitive personal data is obtained and processed in accordance with any applicable data protection laws (different rules will apply depending on where the employer is located in the UAE). 
Communicating Return to Work Arrangements to Employees
  • Whilst there is no legal obligation to consult with employees regarding their return to the office or to provide them with a specific period of notice, it will be important for employers to clearly communicate, in good time, a return to work plan to help alleviate any concerns employees may have. 
  • Return to work communications should address:
    • the timing of when employees will return, the application of rota arrangements, staggered working hours/breaks, the arrangements which will apply to employees in certain risk categories (i.e. those with underlying health conditions or who reside with vulnerable family members);
    • the health and safety measures put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 i.e. the use of personal protective equipment, the imposition of physical distancing via the reorganisation of the office space, regular cleaning etc.; 
    • who the special points of contact are, should employees wish to raise any specific concerns; and
    • the conduct expected of employees in the workplace i.e. that employees are expected to act consistently with all health and safety guidance and physical distancing measures and the potential consequences of failing to do so.
  • It has been widely recognised that prolonged periods of isolation have had an impact on employees' mental health, with some employers offering wellbeing support to assist with this. Employers should consider whether they can offer additional professional support to help employees with their transition back into the office environment.
  • A key issue will be employees who refuse to return to the office – employers should address this with employees at the outset, rather than be reactive. Different legal considerations will apply depending on the specific situation but, broadly speaking, unless the employee has a lawful reason for not attending work (e.g. approved sick leave or annual leave) an employee is required to attend work if requested by their employer to do so. However, once again, being cognizant of the impact on employee productivity and engagement is a factor to consider when employers request employees to return to the workplace.

 

In summary, while the UAE Government is setting the guidelines and requirements of how companies should resume going back to work, particularly with regards to employee health and safety; the employers bear the responsibility to follow the guidelines given the specific business circumstances, balancing economics and empathy. 

To learn more about this, please contact Ben Brown or Nuno Gomes

Key contact

Ben Brown

Ben Brown

Partner, Employment
Dubai

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