The use of face coverings and masks is an important defence mechanism in the fight against coronavirus. However, the phased rollout of usage in some, but not all, public settings has caused confusion. It has left some people wondering who needs to wear one and when?

Who needs to wear a face covering?

Currently, everyone over the age of 11, unless exempt for legitimate reasons, must wear a face mask in shops, takeaway venues and on public transport. Employees may also be exempt whilst at work if other protective measures, such as screens and social distancing, are in place. A COVID-Secure risk assessment will be needed to determine this.

From this Saturday, face coverings will have an increased presence as more public indoor settings will be added to the mandatory list. This includes museums, galleries, cinemas, and places of worship.

Face coverings create a physical barrier for good reasons, but they also present a new challenge for communication. So, as they become a legal requirement in more places, we can’t help but ponder: what might the implications be for customer facing businesses?

Have face coverings changed the way we work?

From eye smiles to raised voices, it’s fair to say that yes, face coverings have impacted the working world a fair bit. If your business involves customer service onsite, you may benefit from the following tips on people management and customer service in the new age of face masks.

Service with a smile

Most customer service roles involve greeting a customer when they enter the business. Typically, this is done with a smile and a verbal greeting, but that might not be reciprocated or acknowledged as easily through a face covering.

To avoid employees feeling as though they need to overcompensate with a song and dance, some well-placed signage that welcomes customers could help. Failing this, brief eye contact shows a person they have been acknowledged. So long as it is brief, stare downs could see people running in the opposite direction.

How can I help?

Open ended questions are often used by sales assistants to determine the needs of a customer, and usually help to start up a conversation. But unless you have a mind reader on your team, you may find this process becomes a little strained in the presence of face coverings and social distancing.

To overcome this, consider arming your team with a few useful closed questions that get straight to the point if conversation proves difficult. Customers may appreciate being able to nod their response through fear of not being understood through a face mask. Remember, if your employees are wearing masks, they can remove them temporarily for a deaf person to lip read.

To reduce the risk of misunderstandings, try turning down any background music, ambience is nice but having your needs met is nicer.

This way please

We mentioned already the benefit of having signage to welcome customers, but indoor signs will also help them to successfully navigate within your business during COVID-19. Clear signage for social distancing and one-way systems will help to inform customers and should prevent employees from feeling as though they need to emulate the police.

Prepare and protect

Some people are exempt from wearing face coverings and it’s important that your employees are made aware of this to avoid a potentially hostile or discriminatory situation. For example, a sunflower lanyard is a clear identifier that a person has a hidden disability.

Many well-known retailers have publicly said that they won’t challenge customers not wearing masks, as there may be a good reason. Others have stated that they will use signs to politely remind customers of the rules on face coverings.

If you are concerned about potential altercations between customers over the wearing of masks, some training for your supervisors on how to safely deal with confrontation could help.

Whatever your policy, make sure it is well communicated to employees and reassure them of the measures in place to protect their health and well-being.

Time to talk

With that in mind, we would suggest increasing one on one time with employees during this time. Your customer service agents are often the frontline of your business and they are going to need a sounding board for the new and unusual challenges faced at work due to coronavirus.

A helping hand for your HR

You may find that you also have new challenges to overcome and could do with a helping hand. Our HR professionals have been advising businesses on best practice people management throughout the coronavirus crisis and are well equipped to help. There is no problem too big or too small, so get in touch with your local HR Dept office today.