Over the weekend, the Government announced that the country was heading towards a position where lockdown measures could be eased slightly and those who were currently unable to work from home, could return to their workplace.
This has led to a lot of confusion for employers, and a lot of worried employees, posing questions like: how can I keep my employees safe in the workplace? What should I be doing now in readiness for their return? What if staff do not want to come back?
Unfortunately, the Government has not produced a lot of comprehensive guidance on the practicalities of implementing a return to work strategy, but in this blog, we will talk about what an employer should be doing now, how to manage the health and safety of employees once they have returned, and how to plan for the future in a post Covid-19 world.
What should I be doing now?
The key is to start planning now. Think about:
Undertake a Covid risk assessment and involve your employees where you can. When conducting your assessment have regard to the Government’s scientific research in respect of particularly vulnerable employees and those who need to shield. As Government insist that their guidance is followed as closely as possible to ensure such vulnerable categories who may still be working are protected, you need to take their needs in to account.
Review the workspace – can you implement and maintain social distancing measures when your staff return? Is it practical to have employees work 2 metres apart or work back to back? Should you now implement a policy stating that face masks must be worn at all times? Implementing such methods help reduce the risk of employees being exposed to the virus but will also go towards alleviating any concerns your employees may have about returning to the workplace.
Think about who you need to come in – if your staff can work from home safely, keep them there. If not, carefully consider who should be asked to return and if it is practical for them to do so. For example, many employees may have current childcare commitments;
Consider whether you need to buy additional PPE to keep staff safe. If so, do it now so that it can arrive on time for staff returning.
Write a Covid policy – detail what measures you have put in place to keep employees safe, and how you will maintain those standards over the coming months, together with what you expect staff to be doing to ensure the workplace is kept infection-free. This should be circulated amongst those who are returning, to give them ample time to raise any questions or queries, or even make suggestions about how the workplace could be kept safe.
Can I change employees working patterns to ensure fewer people are in the workplace at any one time?
If you have the employee’s agreement, you can alter working patterns to ensure that fewer people are in the workplace at any one time. This could be on a temporary basis and must only be implemented with the employee’s written agreement. This is because changing working patterns (for example start and finish times) will constitute a variation to their contractual terms, which must always be in writing and with their express agreement.
What if I want to bring furlough to an end and have employees return to the workplace?
Depending on your furlough agreement, you should be able to simply notify the furloughed members of staff with reasonable notice that their furlough is to end on a particular date, and they are to revert back to their original terms and conditions of employment.
You should also take steps to notify your accounts team that you are ending employees’ furlough so that they can ensure to have their claim submitted and be ready to pay un-furloughed staff at their usual rate.
What do I do once my staff return?
Keep reviewing your Covid risk assessment – make sure that it is still fit for purpose.
Make sure staff are familiar with the Covid policy and also how to report symptoms and/or absences relating to Covid. Given that the priority for every business should be managing a safe return to the workplace for staff, it’s crucial that you work in close collaboration with your health and safety and occupational health teams wherever possible as well, to ensure a consistent and clear process is communicated to staff.
Ensure staff are reminded of the key hygiene measures that they should abide by as they continue to apply. This includes regular hand washing, minimizing contact with colleagues and ensuring they keep to the 2-metre distancing, to minimise the spread of infection.
Allocate a mental health first aid officer or an individual which an employee can go to if they have anxiety or concerns about being at work during the pandemic. Thousands of people have been affected by Co-vid, with some losing loved ones to the infection. Many will be worried about returning, and support should be given to alleviate those concerns.
What if my staff do not want to return to the workplace?
If staff can’t work from home, you can now require them to attend the workplace, as long as it is open and you can ensure the health and safety of your staff when they do return. Employers have always owed their staff a duty of care, and this duty is even more prevalent now.
Communicating with staff regularly and in advance of any return to work will also help ensure that they feel safe to return to the workplace when the time comes.
Notwithstanding that, your staff do have an obligation to return to work if you need them. Should they fail to do so you may need to consider some other form of action.
Some of my staff are self-isolating due to having symptoms. I want them to return to work now, what can I do?
Employees that exhibit Covid symptoms should not be required to return to the workplace. They must stay at home and self-isolate for the requisite period (7 or 14 days) in accordance with Government guidance.
What if, upon their return, staff ignore the Covid policy and breach the social distancing measures that we have put in place?
It will depend on what your Covid policy says and the severity of any breaches. If the breaches are severe and cause a serious risk to other members of staff, you could consider implementing sanctions in accordance with your disciplinary policy.
What if I have to reduce my headcount?
You may need to consider making redundancies. There is a process you must follow, and alternatives should be considered, such as agreeing reduced working hours with some or all staff, furloughing staff again if the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is still available or offering alternative vacancies to those affected.
Should I take this opportunity to vary my employees’ contractual terms, so that if there is a second pandemic, I can lay off staff, rather than being reliant on another Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme?
You may find that now is an opportune time to review your existing contracts of employment, to ensure that they contain a lay off clause and/or short-time working clause. Without such clauses, you must always have the employees’ agreement to implementing such measures. Having these clauses added to the contract can make it easier in the future for employers.
What other issues should I consider when staff return to the workplace?
Consider if your business requires staff to travel – if they are required to travel, check the most up to date travel guidance from the Government to ensure that they are safe, or if travel can be avoided where possible.
Regularly communicate with all staff about how the business is doing, what you are doing to keep them safe and regularly remind them to abide by social distancing measures.
If allowing staff to work from home is working for you, keep it up – the Government said that if employees are able to work from home, they should continue to do so. There is even discussion around making a right to work from home a statutory right.