Return to the workplace: five considerations for employers
As some businesses start to ask employees to return to the workplace, Coodes Solicitors employment specialist, Philip Sayers discusses five of the key considerations for employers.
While many businesses, including those in the retail and hospitality sector, remain closed and others continue to ask staff to work from home, some are now preparing for employees to return to the workplace.
Every organisation is unique and each employer will therefore have to adapt in their own way to meet the challenges of bringing staff back into their premises. Here are the key factors employers will need to consider.
1. Protecting employee safety during the pandemic
Safety is likely to be the primary concern for every employer. Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act states that employees can refuse to return to the workplace where they have a reasonable belief there is ‘serious and imminent danger’ to health and safety. Whether or not a belief is reasonable may significantly depend on what steps an employer takes to ensure safety in the workplace.
The Government has issued guidance for employers to ensure their staff can work safely during the Covid-19 pandemic. This covers a range of sectors and working environments. However, every workplace is different so employers will need to carry out detailed risk assessments to ensure they consider and address any potential hazards and then document the steps they have taken.
The Government guidance states that employers must maintain social distancing in the workplace, wherever possible. This means staff staying two metres apart at all times, not only while working but also when entering and exiting a building and in break rooms and canteens. The guidance also highlights the importance of frequent hand washing and surface cleaning and outlines where PPE is required.
To maintain social distancing, many employers will need to make modifications to the layout of the workplace, as well as potentially operating staggered shifts and changing break times.
2. Supporting employees returning to work
Many staff will have to adjust returning to work after being on furloughed leave or following a period of working from home. Employers will need to be prepared for some staff finding the transition difficult and should ensure they are prepared for dealing appropriately with any mental health concerns. Some may ask their employer for a phased return and others may want to continue with an element of homeworking or may request flexible working.
3. Considering homeworking in the future
The lockdown has forced many businesses to adapt and embrace new technology and different ways of working, to enable employees to work remotely. The pandemic has proved that home working is feasible and could even be beneficial for many companies. The CEO of Twitter recently announced that his staff can work from home forever.
Some may want to continue with a level of homeworking in the future to provide employees with a better work-life balance and to reduce overheads. It is likely that some staff will want to continue to work from home, at least some of the time, or perhaps alter their working patterns. To prepare for such requests, employers should ensure their flexible working policies are up to date and fit for purpose.
4. Dealing with some employees not returning to work
It is inevitable that, after an extended time away from work, some people will not want to return, perhaps deciding to retire or pursue a different career. These employees will have to give notice in the usual way and employers will then have to decide whether or not to ask them to work their notice period.
Employees with some health conditions will need to continue to self-isolate, as their colleagues return to the workplace. Employers should prepare to make arrangements for some staff to continue homeworking if that is possible or to extend their furloughed leave.
5. Restructuring teams
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which allows employers to place staff on furloughed leave, was recently extended in its current form to the end of July. It will then continue until the end of October 2020, but with some changes, which are yet to be announced.
While the extension of the furlough scheme will provide employers with some breathing space, businesses are facing a significant hit to their cash flow. Some are now likely to be considering what staffing levels they might need in the future and whether or not redundancies will be necessary.
The lockdown has also resulted in some job roles changing, perhaps as a result of streamlining systems, diversification or tasks being reallocated as a result of some employees being on furloughed leave. Employers will now have to consider whether they want to make any more permanent changes to roles and responsibilities.
Employers must ensure they reflect any substantial changes in employment contracts and in the staff handbook.