Back to work: Govt requirements to reopen safely

Employers in Singapore that fail to comply with the measures may be ordered to shut the workplace

Back to work: Govt requirements to reopen safely

The Singapore government has announced that more employees will be allowed back to the workplace from September 28.

Accordingly, the tripartite partners have amended the advisory on safe management measures in the workplace to impose new requirements which employers must fulfil before they may further reopen the workplace.

What you need to know:

  • Many employees in Singapore continue to work from home given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with only those with a demonstrable need to work from the office being permitted to do so.
  • From September 28, restrictions surrounding office-based work will be significantly relaxed to allow more employees to return to the office at least on a part-time basis.
  • The range of activities allowed to be conducted physically in the workplace will also be expanded.

What you need to do:

  • Carefully review your business operations and consider what measures you must take to fulfil the government's requirements for the further reopening of the workplace. These measures will need to be implemented prior to the further reopening of your workplace.

READ MORE: Return to work: What employees expect from HR

The Singapore tripartite partners issued its advisory on safe management measures on May 9, 2020 to regulate the initial reopening of workplaces in Singapore.

Following the decrease in community cases of COVID-19, the government will soon allow more employees back into the workplace. Accordingly, the safe management measures have been updated to impose new requirements on employers. 

The updated measures took effect on September 28 and are intended to apply to all workplaces. However, workplaces in sectors such as construction, retail, and food & beverages will continue to be subject to additional sector-specific requirements.

The COVID-19 Regulations 2020 have also been amended as of September 28 to reflect some of the key requirements of the updated measures.

More employees are allowed to return to the office

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home has been the default mode of working in Singapore commencing shortly before Singapore’s Circuit Breaker, and this remains the case under both the updated measures and regulations.

However, more employees will now be allowed to return to the workplace subject to the following conditions:

  • Employees must spend no more than half their normal working hours working in the office. This is calculated over a period of no more than four weeks and excludes time spent on leave. This is pro-rated for part-time employees.
  • No more than half of the number of employees who are able to work from home can be in the workplace at any point in time.

These requirements apply to employees whose jobs can be performed from home and does not include employees who are, amongst other reasons, required to attend the workplace because their job requires them to operate or use machinery or equipment, or retrieve, access or use documents, information or material, which would be impracticable for the employer to provide in their home.

With respect to employees who remain unable to work from home, employers are encouraged to review their work processes, provide necessary IT equipment and otherwise adopt measures which might enable remote working for those employees.

READ MORE: Working from home to continue for 'foreseeable future'

Physical distancing and social gatherings 

The updated regulations require employers to take reasonable steps to ensure a physical distance of at least one metre between all individuals present in the workplace.

They also require employers to take reasonable steps to prevent physical gatherings of more than five individuals in common areas of the workplace, which are substantially recreational or social in nature, or are not wholly or exclusively held for business reasons — ie. not work-related.

The updated measures also require that employers not organise or encourage social gatherings between employees, even if they were to take place outside the workplace.

Meetings and events

The updated measures recommend that all work-related meetings, either between employees or with external parties, should still be conducted virtually as much as possible.

However, work-related events — those which are not substantially recreational or social in nature and are wholly, exclusively or substantially for the production of income from an authorised service provided by the employer’s business — can now take place physically in the workplace.

These events can include employees, clients, and other stakeholders of the business.

Examples of such events include conferences, seminars, corporate retreats, training sessions, townhall meetings, annual general meetings and extraordinary general meetings.

Each event can have no more than 50 attendees and a one metre physical distance must be kept between individual attendees. Employers should also avoid serving food and drinks at such events.

In exceptional cases, employers will also be allowed to organise work-related events outside the workplace.

READ MORE: Singapore firms charged for 'unsafe' return to work

Work arrangements

In order to minimise employee congregation in the workplace, employers are required by the updated regulations and measures to implement:

  • Staggered start times – The start times for all employees should be staggered with at least half of them being allowed to start work at or after 10.00 am, if possible. Lunch and other breaks should also be staggered accordingly.
  • Shift or split team arrangements – Employees must be split into teams or shifts that do not overlap. Cross deployment is not allowed unless it is critical for crowd management of customers or maintaining the orderly retail supply of goods or services. Employer must take all reasonably practicable steps to minimise physical interaction between the cross deployed-employees and other employees at the workplace. 

Apart from the above arrangements, employers must generally implement all reasonably practicable measures to minimise physical interaction between its employees in the workplace.

For example, the updated measures recommend that an employer adopt a system of flexible workplace hours to allow employees to split their daily working hours between the workplace and home.

Mask wearing

As required by the updated regulations, masks must be worn by all individuals in the workplace, including external parties such as visitors, suppliers and contractors.

The requirement for mask-wearing does not apply when carrying out, in the course of employment, an activity that requires that no mask be worn, or in certain other exceptional circumstances.

Employers are also expected to ensure that they have sufficient masks for all employees, taking into account any need to replace masks more frequently.

When organising permitted gatherings in the workplace, employers are also required to minimise the amount of time that attendees spend unmasked — for example, when consuming food and beverages.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Can you refuse to return to work?

Legal effect and enforcement

The updated regulations are legally binding and an employer may be prosecuted for failing to implement a measure required by them.

As for the updated measures, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) expects employers to implement them before their workplace may be further reopened.

Given the government's statement that it is critical that employers implement the measures to minimise what is likely to be an increase in COVID-19 transmissions once workplaces further reopen, employers should expect compliance monitoring and enforcement action to continue, if not intensified.

Employers that are found not to be in compliance with the measures may be ordered to shut the workplace.

Conclusion

While the updated measures represent the most significant relaxation of workplace social distancing rules in Singapore to date, employers should note that this does not mean a return to the pre-COVID-19 work environment.

The requirements, particularly those involving changes to work arrangements, may be challenging for some employers to implement and will require careful prior review of work processes and employment documentation before implementation to avoid unnecessary issues arising.

Karen Mitra is a senior associate at Ashurst. Dawn Tan is the founding director at ADTLaw.

© Ashurst 2020. Reproduced with permission. This article was first published in Ashursts Employment Update dated 1 October 2020.

This publication is co-written by ADTLaw LLC and Ashurst LLP who together form Ashurst ADTLaw in Singapore. Ashurst LLP is licensed to operate as a foreign law practice in Singapore. Where advice on Singapore law is required, we will refer the matter to and work with licensed Singapore law practices where necessary. The information provided is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to. Readers should take legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.

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