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Guidance for Employers: Update on Office Working

On 22 Sep 2020, the government made an announcement regarding the next wave of restrictions and rules that are being implement in order to try to slow the spread of Coronavirus.

The purpose of this post is to summarise the new rules and restrictions and to specifically address the changes as they relate to office workers.

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

What changes were announced on 22 Sep 20?

The restrictions that were announced yesterday were:

  • Pubs, bars and restaurants are to close at 10pm and are restricted to table service only
  • People should work from home wherever possible
  • Face masks are now compulsory for bar staff and non-seated customers, shop workers and waiters
  • Whereas you could have 30 people at a wedding, this has been reduced to 15 people
  • The plans to allow fans to return to sporting events have been suspended
  • The “Rule of Six” now applies to indoor team sports
  • Fines for not wearing masks or following the rules will increase to £200 for a first offence.

Can people work in offices?

This is the point that will be of most interest to many of our clients and it’s a tricky one to answer as, based on our interpretation of the guidelines, there is no definite yes or no with this one.  As a result, this is very difficult for business owners and managers.

The inclusion of the wording “wherever possible” adds a degree of ambiguity to the rule.  Michael Gove has also said in an interview with the BBC “If you are in a Covid-secure workplace, then you should be there if your job requires it.” 

So, it comes down to how people interpret “where possible” and “if your job requires it”.  It’s likely the situation will become clearer in coming days as to exactly what the intention is regarding office workers and we’ll issue an update when that happens.

In the short-term, we’d suggest taking a balanced approach:

  • If you have lots of people back in the office and they could easily relocate back to home with little to no impact on them or your business, then you may decide that reverting to home working is the right thing to do.
  • If getting people to work from home again requires extensive work to send equipment back home and has a negative impact on your business and team, as long as you are providing a Covid-secure workplace, you may decide that continuing as you are or looking for a balance between home and office work is the right thing to do.

We don’t like not being able to say “this is the rule, and this is what you should do” but on this occasion we simply can’t be more definitive.

As business owners ourselves, we know exactly what a difficult call this is.  Since the return to the office last month, we’ve seen how much members of our team have enjoyed being able to spend time together and the support that this has given them in their professional and personal lives.  The benefits that a mix of home and office working delivers to our team, our clients and our business at this time is clear, so decisions we make on office working will be based on balancing continued productivity whilst ensuring there is no detrimental effect on the health and well-being of our employees.

What does the term “Covid-secure” mean and what do I need to do in order to comply?

If you have people back in the office then, prior to their return there were a number of steps that you needed to have completed.

The requirements are:

  • Educate yourself on what “Covid-secure” means for your particular sector. There are extensive guides on the government website that cover all work settings.  The one that relates to office work can be found here (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19/offices-and-contact-centres).
  • Having understood what the requirements are, you need to undertake a risk-assessment of your work environment and address or mitigate for the risks that you identify. There is some useful information on the HSE website here (https://www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/working-safely/index.htm )
  • You need to share that risk assessment with your employees and we are also recommending that you issue all employees with a “Working Practices” guide which sets out your approach to dealing with all Covid-related issues. This can include not only the health and safety rules that you want people to follow but also reminders on the rules around isolation, what information they give if they are contacted by NHS Track and Trace, what approach you are taking if employees chose to travel overseas knowing that they need to quarantine on return etc.

We can help with all of the above so, if you haven’t completed all of these steps and need some assistance then do let us know.

I’ve a member of my team who is saying that they don’t need to come to the office because of the new rules.  What do I do?

With the lack of clarity in the language of the rule this is going to be a challenge for many employers:

  • Employees who don’t want to come to the office will interpret the rule as telling them that they don’t have to.
  • Employees who do want to come to the office will interpret the rule as telling them that it’s OK to do so.

If an employee refuses to come to the office and you need them to be there, as with all things Covid, speak with them, look to understand their position and then see if a compromise can be reached.

At this stage, with the language of the rule as it is, if someone is physically able to do their job from home with little impact on the business, then we would recommend you avoid going down the disciplinary route.  Clearly, if someone cannot work from home and refuses to come to the office then this could become a disciplinary matter.

Our suggestion with this is that you deal with this issue on a case-by-case basis and speak with us if you get stuck.  We’ll help you come up with a plan.

I’ve a team member who has called to say that their child has been sent home from school and needs to isolate for 14 days following close contact with a child who has tested positive for Covid.  The parent now can’t come to work.  What do I do?

Whilst this isn’t related to yesterday’s announcements, it’s a situation that more and more parents and businesses are going to face.

Firstly, make sure that you’re clear as to why the parent is saying that they can’t come to work.  Just because their child has to self-isolate following close contact with a Covid case, it does not mean that the parent does.  The household only has to go into isolation if someone in that household develops symptoms or tests positive.

However, our assumption in the question is that the parent now can’t come to work because they have no childcare.  This should be treated as “Time off for dependents”.  Under UK employment legislation, individuals have the right to time off to deal with emergencies relating to their dependents.  This time is unpaid.

Therefore, if you wish, you can allow the employee to take the time off as unpaid leave.  Note: You are able to ask whether there is an option for them to split the time with another adult who shares caring responsibilities.

Alternatively, you can allow them to use some of their holiday to cover some of the time if they would prefer to be paid and you can also allow them to work from home.

Whatever you do, remember that you are setting a precedent and, without wanting to sound pessimistic, this situation is likely to get more commonplace in the coming months. 

If you’d like help with HR matters related to Coronavirus, contact us on 0203 319 1649 or fill in the form below.

Contact Us

If you’d like help with HR matters related to Coronavirus, contact us on 0203 319 1649 or fill in the form below.

Contact Us

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