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Coronavirus – Guidance for Employers:
Getting Employees “Back to Work” (Updated)

The government has announced the next wave in the relaxation of lock down measures and it’s the news that many employers have been waiting for: from 1st August 2020, employers are able to get people back to offices where it is safe to do so.

Many of our clients have started to move towards this anyway as there have been rumblings for the past week around what the measures are for those people who continue to remote work.  If this isn’t something that you’re already thinking about and planning for, then now might be the time.

The purpose of this guidance note is to help prepare you for some of the challenges that this is likely to present.  This guidance note is an updated version of the note issued on 30 June, updated to include the new announcements and with additional questions and answers.

We strongly advise you to get in-touch with us on 0203 319 1649 to seek tailored guidance before you take any actions.

As with all of the guidance with coronavirus, we need to remind you that these are unprecedented times and it is unclear as to how employment law will be applied in these exceptional circumstances.

The information that follows has been compiled with input from government websites, Acas and HMRC (the only official resources that we’re happy to use as these are the institutions who will be responsible for enforcing the rules as we move forward), but the reality is no-one really knows for certain how actions that businesses need to take now will be interpreted later.

This post is part of our Returning to Work series of posts we have created over the past few days regarding the issues associated with getting employees back to work.

Can people come back to the office now?

From 1st August 2020, employers have more flexibility in how they manage their employees and where they ask people to work from.  The guidance is that, from 1st August 2020 employers can bring staff back to workplaces where it is safe to do so.

Of course, if you’re going to ask people to return to the office then you MUST be able to provide a “Covid Secure” workplace.  There’s a great deal of information on what this entails on the government website and also on the HSE website.  Before people return, you will need to complete a risk assessment which you should share with your employees. 

We’ll be issuing a post in the coming few days regarding the things you should consider doing before you have employees back to your office.

Can my employees refuse to come back?

Employees cannot refuse to return to work if you are operating within the law, providing a safe working environment and you have a reasonable reason for asking them to attend the office.

The biggest concerns that we are hearing being raised at the moment relate to the use of public transport.  Again, the messages around the use of public transport has changed.  As of right now, the message is that you can use public transport for journeys.  It is worth still encouraging employees to use alternative transport (walk, run, cycle, car) if possible as these clearly carry less risk.  You should also remind employees that it is mandatory to wear face coverings on public transport and, from 24th July 2020, it is also mandatory to wear face coverings in shops.

Another area of confusion has arisen from employees who are living with individuals who are shielding.  Some of these people believe that the requirement is for them to shield too.  Again, that isn’t the case: People who are living with individuals who are required to shield can go to work with the idea being that they put appropriate infection control measures in place in the home environment.

What about people who are shielding?

The current plan is that shielding will be paused from 31st July 2020 at which point individuals will be expected to return to work.  The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is continuing unchanged until the end of July so you should continue to furlough individuals who have been required to shield.  (Refer to our previous guidance for key dates associated with the Job Retention Scheme).

My team have liked working from home and some of them don’t want to return to the office when we do re-open.  What do I do?

We are already seeing an increase in the number of clients who are receiving emails like “I’ve been thinking and actually, I’d like to move to working from home on a permanent basis” and there will be lots more to come.

A request to work from home on a permanent basis is a request for flexible working and should be dealt with in line with your flexible working policy. 

Every employee who has worked for you company for more than 26 weeks has the right to request flexible working.  A flexible working request can be a request to reduce hours, change to working pattern or change to work location.  Therefore, if someone wants you to consider making home their permanent place of work then they need to submit their request in writing, from which you need to hold a meeting with them to discuss their request and then you have 3 months to consider the request.

You can agree to the request on a trial basis.  When a request is agreed, it becomes a permanent change to the terms and conditions of employment.  Note: only one request for flexible working can be submitted in any 12-month period.

Clearly, during the past 4 months, many organisations have had to adapt, and quickly, to a totally different way of working.  There could have been a real reluctance to allow home working prior to Covid-19 and you may even have turned down home working requests because home working didn’t work for your business.  But you’ve now proved that it does.  Before you rush to make decisions on this, we’d encourage you to be a little cautious.

Home working has potentially worked because all of your employees and all of your clients have been in exactly the same position.  This means that conducting video meetings has worked well as everyone is sat at home, with potentially some additional background child/pet noise, but largely on their own and able to speak freely.  This won’t be the case as people start returning to work.  You could quickly find yourself in a position where some of your team are physically present, some are at home, and you’ve not quite got the technology to deal with a meeting that is part in person and part via video links.  Your clients may have been happy with you being at the end of the video call when there was no viable alternative, but will they still feel that way when the world opens up again?  You’ve been able to take a light approach to remote home working risk assessments during Covid-19 but, if allowing people to work from home regularly becomes a permanent change then you will need to arrange for appropriate health and safety assessments to be done in people’s homes.

And, and, and…

None of these issues are insurmountable but there is potentially more to think about than you may have realised.  It was relatively straight forward to send people home with a screen tucked under their arm and you’ve managed just fine but we’re reminding you that these have been exceptional circumstances.  You may very well conclude that home working is right for your business and it’s the way you want to go.  All we’re encouraging is that you hold off making large scale, permanent changes whilst there is still so much uncertainty.

What if there’s a second wave?

We’re seeing clients get questioned about what happens if there’s a second wave and the answer we advise is that you confirm that you’ll continue to comply with government guidelines.

You also need to be thinking about what happens in local lock down situations. It’s possible that you’ll find yourself in a situation where someone is in a location that gets locked down and this will prevent them from coming to work. You need to be prepared for that – as do they!

There are still many unknowns that we’re likely to face in the coming months so it’s worth just reassuring your team that you’ll continue to comply with official guidelines and will deal with whatever happens, when it happens.

Some of my employees are saying they are too anxious to return to work.  What do I do?

It’s worth remembering that everyone’s experience of Covid-19 is likely to have been different.  You’ll have people who haven’t really taken it particularly seriously and remain unconcerned about the disease itself but unhappy about the impact that it’s had on their life.  You’ll have people who have had first-hand experience of Covid and who have seen a friend or family member struggle with the disease.  One thing to remember – what you think about the situation is not necessarily the same as what others think so you need to show some understanding.

We’d encourage you to help the more anxious in your team to get some perspective.  The number of daily cases continues to fall so the chances of them encountering an individual who has the disease gets lower every day (there were 687 newly confirmed cases across the whole of the UK on 17th July 2020.)  The risk of catching the disease decreases even further if you follow all of the guidelines around social distancing (1m plus), face coverings and hand washing. 

If employees have already chosen to go for a drink in the pub, go out for a meal, get on a plane – they have already taken more risk than you are asking them to take by returning to the office.  You clearly shouldn’t be making any guarantees that they won’t catch-it, just helping them to understand that the risk is small.

You can explore getting them to come in later on their first day back so that they are travelling outside of peak hours.  However, it’s also worth letting them know that, at the moment, the trains and tubes are quite empty.  You will have people thinking that the tubes are as they used to be and picturing themselves doing a journey with their nose in someone’s armpit.  At the moment, that simply isn’t the reality.  You can make sure that they understand if they do find themselves waiting for a tube and the first one that arrives is too busy, they can wait for the next one and not worry about being a little late.

You should try to be understanding but also firm.  As worrying as this can be for some people, there is a need to start to get back to normal.  This situation can be difficult to navigate so if you do find yourself in a tricky situation, give us a call and we can provide some guidance.

These are very challenging times and we can’t stress enough the importance of open and honest communication with your employees and in getting tailored professional guidance (preferably from us!) before you take any action.

Employment laws still apply

When making changes to working hours or other terms and conditions, assuming your employment contract does not already allow for that, normal employment law applies – refer to our post on employment law: Job Retention Scheme – Employment Laws Still Apply (23-Mar-20).

Also, the employer must be careful not to discriminate in deciding who to offer furlough too – refer to our post on furlough discrimination: Furlough Decisions – Beware of Unintended Discrimination (24-Mar-20).

“Returning to Work” Series

As businesses now start to consider how they can get back to some semblance of normal, we are providing a series of blog posts providing guidance to business owners and managers regarding the issues with getting employees back to work. The articles in this series so far are:

In the coming days we will also be publishing a post on Health and Safety considerations when returning to work.

“Guidance for Managers” Series

You can find all our guidance notes on managing your business during the coronavirus crisis in our Coronavirus COVID-19 – Guidance for Managers series.

If you’d like help with the impact of Coronavirus or any other HR matter, contact us on 0203 319 1649 or fill in the form below.

Contact Us

If you’d like help with the impact of Coronavirus or any other HR matter, contact us on 0203 319 1649 or fill in the form below.

Contact Us

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