Face masks in the office?

Jul 17, 2020 editor

The government recently announced that it will be mandatory to wear a face mask in shops in England after 24 July. At the same time, Downing Street said it would keep the guidance on face coverings in other settings, such as offices, under review. So just how likely is it that the government will mandate mask wearing in the office?  

With working from home advice set to be scrapped from 1st August, Rachel McCloy, associate professor in applied behavioural science at the University of Reading, says wearing face masks could help efforts to reopen offices  according to People Management Daily. “Wearing masks in situations where we cannot easily adhere to strict social distancing may help businesses reduce social distancing from two metres to one metre, making the prospect of reopening more realistic,” she says. 

“Mask wearing at work is likely to be more uncomfortable for people than it is for shorter periods while shopping or on public transport, and can impact on social interactions, as facial expressions are less easy to read and conversations may be harder to follow,” McCloy says.

With an inevitable expectation on employers to provide masks rather than assume employees will buy their own if this is mandated, this could also be financially burdensome for many companies at a time when they need to reduce costs. Reducing cost could be critical to survival, and if more things have to be bought that’s prohibitive. For a large office with hundreds of people, if they provide two or three masks to each employee per day the costs quickly escalate dramatically. 

There will also be issues to overcome regarding enforcement, particularly where employers share a building with others.

Of course none of these drawbacks necessarily mean the government won’t eventually enforce this if it’s deemed necessary to get people back to offices safely. 

Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London, argues that the introduction of face masks in the workplace will in fact incentivise workers to return. “One thing putting people off going back to work is the feeling that the world outside their home isn’t safe. If masks help give people a greater sense of safety, I expect it may encourage rather than discourage employees from returning,” he says. 

“One thing we are learning during this crisis is that, on the whole, people are quite good at working out how to get the same things done but in different ways. It’s bound to feel strange to begin with, but the strangeness soon wears off and we just get on with it.”

However, others feel mandatory face mask wearing could be yet another reason putting employers off returning staff to offices any time soon. Why after all suffer uncomfortably in a mask all day, with colleagues unable to take advantage of true in-person interaction because they can’t properly see your facial expressions, when you could conduct even face-to-face meetings quite happily, and in fact more effectively, via Zoom? 

McCloy says the positives of coming together in an office will need to outweigh such inconveniences if mask wearing isn’t to deter office workers returning even further – with careful thought needed on this from employers.

“Whether it impacts on a return to work will depend on there being other positive benefits to working from the office as opposed to more remote working,” she says.