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Returning to the Workplace in 2021: Key Considerations for UK Employers

It really does go without saying that 2020 has been quite the year! From an employer perspective, it has presented enormous challenge and business owners and managers, almost without exception, have needed to deal with more HR issues than ever before: a sudden need to send all employees home; a sudden need to understand a whole raft of new legislation regarding furlough schemes; a sudden need to understand the ever-changing rules around self-isolation, Rules of 6, tiers and what to do if an employee contracts COVID-19.  And all of this whilst trying to steer your business through some of the toughest times in recent history.

Firstly, congratulations!  You made it.  It’s almost the end of the year. But…

We think 2021 is going to be just as challenging.

There was no way that we could possibly have predicted this time last year what was going to happen in 2020.  As we go into 2021, however, there are some challenges that we can now foresee and that’s the purpose of this piece.  We’re here to help you to start thinking about and preparing for the HR challenges ahead.

What are our options for getting people back to the workplace?

For some businesses, employees have been working remotely for much of 2020.

As you go into 2021 you need to be thinking about whether the 2020 working practices are going to become your new normal or whether you are going to get people back to the workplace, or something inbetween.

What if working from home is going to be our new normal?

We’ve spoken with lots of clients who are considering moving to permanent, full-time home working.  Because businesses had to adapt so quickly to home-working this year, it can be tempting to think that making this a permanent arrangement will be straight forward and present huge cost savings to the business.  For some businesses this may be true, but moving to permanent, full-time home working is not quite as straight forward as you may think.

Firstly, you should consider the demographic of your workforce.  Without wanting to make too many generalisations, if you have a workforce who are just starting their careers you should consider whether they are really able to work from home on a permanent basis.  Throughout this year, we’ve heard many stories of employees living in shared accommodation where they pretty much just have a bed.  They’ve managed this year because they have had to, but this doesn’t constitute a safe working environment and is not something that would be permissible long term.

Secondly, have you made hires during this year?  If you have and you’ve found a way to successfully induct people into your business and get them trained, then that’s great.  If you haven’t (and lots of businesses won’t have hired at all in the last 12 months), then do give careful consideration as to how easy this will be.  How will you help new hires to feel part of your team?  How will you train them in your ways of working?  Even down to the more basic questions of how will you get their IT equipment to them? 

Thirdly, will the people that you need to attract to work in your business actually want a full-time, permanent home-based role?  Will not having an office be a barrier for some people and will you be able to attract the talent you need if all roles are remote?  Home working just isn’t for everyone.  One of the key elements of being engaged with your employer comes from the relationships that you build with your colleagues.  That’s not so easy to achieve when you never meet anyone face-to-face.  You will need to put significant effort into team building and communication if your team is going to be remote.  Covid has clearly been devastating this year but one thing it has achieved in many areas is a sense of all being in it together.  That has potentially led to people reaching out to colleagues more, keeping an eye on how people are doing and putting effort into continuing to build relationships with their colleagues even if that is only via video chats.  As the threat of Covid starts to diminish (which we really hope happens over 2021!), will people continue to look out for each other?  How easy will it be for a newcomer to get support from colleagues if no one really knows much about them?

Finally, you can’t just decide to move someone’s place of work to be their home.  This would amount to a fundamental change to their terms and conditions of employment.  They will have joined your business on the basis of the role being office-based and may not have taken the job had they known that they would be permanently home-based.  If you are going to look to make this change, you will need to go through a consultation process and potentially offer a redundancy package to those individuals for whom home-working is not a viable option.

What about health and safety considerations for working at home?

During 2020, the health and safety obligations on employers for the employees working from home were diminished due to the circumstances but, as we go into 2021, this will change.  If you have employees working from home on a regular basis then you will have additional responsibilities to ensure that their home working environment is safe.  You will be required to go to their homes and conduct health and safety assessments.  You then need to consider what you’ll do if you do that assessment and the home working environment isn’t up to standard.  There’s one thing paying for desks and chairs for people but what are you going to do when someone doesn’t have anywhere to put a desk and chair?  Are you going to end their employment on health and safety grounds? 

For new joiners this will be easier to manage.  In the same way as you can make an offer of employment dependent on positive references being obtained, you will be able to make future offers of employment dependent on a successful health and safety assessment of the home working environment.

For existing employees who never expected to be permanently home-based, however, this is going to be far harder to navigate and you’ll need a plan.  As an example, one of our clients is making such a significant cost saving from no longer having an office that they are looking to increase salaries of employees to allow them to rent larger spaces. 

What if we need everyone back to the office?

For some employers, whilst the home working has been just about OK this year, they need people back to the office in the longer term.  There are many reasons for this but from the people we’ve spoken to, a lot of it comes down to the need to collaborate more as a team, to support training and development of staff and to really make sure that everyone is pulling together to help businesses to get back on track.

In the same way as for some business owners it will feel like moving to a permanent home-working model will be easy, for some business owners it will feel like getting everyone back to the office will be easy.  Afterall, everyone was working in the office before all of this, so why will there be any issues with getting them back?

If your plan is to get everyone back to the office when rules allow in 2021, you should prepare yourself that it may not be quite as simple as you think!  For some people, they will be desperate to be back, but for others, they will have become very comfortable working from home.  They are potentially financially better off having lost the commute cost and general cost of going to work (slippers are cheaper than shoes after all!).  Without the commute time, they may have achieved a better work-life balance that they will be reluctant to give up.  Also, you may have staff members who are really very happy to work in isolation as they prefer not being distracted by office chitter chatter and a need to be sociable. 

The first thing to do is prepare yourself to receive a number of flexible working requests when you announce that you’d like people back in the office.  Everyone has the right to request flexible working, and you need to adequately consider the request and have solid grounds for turning it down.  As you go into 2021, make sure that you are clear on the process for managing a flexible working request and that you assess each case on its merits. 

We’d also suggest that you consider a phased return for people and give as much notice as possible.  By the time that you can start to get people back to the office, they may have been working from home for a year.  It’s going to be quite the shock for some people to go from full-time home working to a full-time return to the office.  We’d strongly recommend that, when Covid restrictions allow, you start to get people back in for two to three days a week initially, and then build up to five days a week.  We know that this isn’t practical for businesses where equipment has been shipped to employee’s homes and they really do need to be in one place or another, but where you can do a phased approach then you should. 

For those people who can’t do a phased approach, you could consider some visits to the office for meetings/catch-ups for a couple of weeks before moving them back completely.  This may all sound a little unnecessary to you but the more aware you can be of the different experiences people will have had during Covid and the enforced home working, the more likely you are to get through this next phase with minimal issues. Ultimately, this will mean that you’ll spend less of your time dealing with HR matters and more of your time focusing on the business.  A slower, more considered approach may result in achieving a settled and engaged workforce in a more timely fashion.

What do I do if employees won’t come back to the workplace?

You need to remember that you are allowed to instruct people to return to the workplace.  The workplace will be listed (in their employment contract) as the normal place of work for most people and, even though they have worked from home for a year, this hasn’t changed anything.  They are still contracted to attend their normal place of work.

If you do find yourself with employees who are refusing to return, you need to act reasonably.  Find out why they won’t return and you can take it from there.  These are difficult situations to manage so we do suggest you seek professional guidance if you find yourself dealing with a particularly challenging individual.  What is and isn’t acceptable is going to be heavily dependent on individual circumstance, and in order to assess your legal options you’ll need to look at case law that may be applicable, and that’s probably not something that you’ll have time to do.

You don’t have to navigate this alone

2020 has been extremely challenging from an HR perspective and if you’ve been trying to navigate it alone then you will likely have found that it’s taken up a lot of time. 

For issues that have been experienced in 2020, there’s a sense that there will be a lot of sympathy from employment tribunal judges as cases come to hearing, as allowances will be made for the fact that business owners were dealing with unprecedented situations where it was unclear what the employment law position would be.

Those allowances, however, won’t be made forever.  As we go into 2021, the legal risk of getting these things wrong will increase again, even though you’ll still be navigating situations that haven’t been experienced before.

You don’t need to go it alone. 

You’re going to be facing enough challenges as it is in 2021, you don’t need to carry the HR burden on your own.  We’re here to help and our Outsourced HR service can support you. 

We can provide you with the guidance that you need to manage the many HR challenges that 2021 will present and we can take care of all of the HR administration that goes with them. 

Our Outsourced HR packages are created to provide you with the mix of HR support that’s right for your business.  The includes support with managing day-to-day employee matters and dealing with the HR administration processes, as well as guidance to business owners and directors in the longer-term plans and strategies.

You choose how many hours you want each month.  Need more hours, we can turn the level of support up; Need fewer hours and we can turn it down.  And there’s no long-term tie-in period (unlike many providers) as we believe you’ll stay with us because you want to, not because you have to!

With our Outsourced HR service, you have maximum control of the cost of your HR support, can get the very best advice and can free up your time to concentrate on steering your business through the challenges ahead.

You can find out more on our Outsourced HR Service page or give us a call on 020 3319 1649 and we can chat about your needs and tailoring a package to meet them.

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Outsourced HR

Outsourced HR | Flexible Service To Suit Your Needs | Lighter HR

An expert HR service that fits the size and shape of your business…

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0203 319 1649

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