Returning to work after lockdown: Considerations for Employers

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The Prime Minister has set out the ‘roadmap’ for easing lockdown, the Scottish First Minister has also launched the ‘path out of lockdown’ and it is expected that Wales and Northern Ireland will also be outlining their plans in due course. In addition, the vaccination rollout seems to be progressing at breakneck speed.

Whilst the dates for easing lockdown restrictions are not set-in stone and are largely dependent upon vaccination rates and rates of transmission, as attention turns to the reawakening of the economy, employers are also tentatively looking towards planning their own routes out of lockdown. Whether that is the re-opening of workplaces in the hospitality sectors or the migration of the workforce back to the office after 12 months working from home, in this article we look at the challenges employers are likely to face and how best to combat them.

The end of home working?

It is important to bear in mind that at the time of writing, the current advice to ‘work from home if you can’ remains in place and it is not expected to change at least until 21st June 2021.

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak told a podcast for business newspaper City AM in January 2021 that working from home will not be the ‘new normal’- presumably fearing the inevitable impact a permanent shift in working patterns post-lockdown would have, particularly on businesses who rely on cities and high streets being full of office workers.

In practical terms, whilst employers have had to adapt to allowing home working, this continues to present challenges and many employers are very keen for their workforce to return to the office- as are many of the workforce.

However, employers are likely to see some resistance to the re-opening of offices. There are several factors to consider here:

1.Travel and travel costs

To many people the commute to the office is often fraught with battling through endless traffic jams, paying extortionate rates for parking, or paying a small fortune for rail fares whilst enduring an overcrowded and often unreliable service.

The last 12 months have eliminated the above stresses and costs and many employees are understandably questioning whether they really want that back. For many, not having to pay for travel costs has been a welcome and unexpected benefit to working from home, especially if they have been furloughed or a partner has lost their job.  Will employees want to resume the burden of those costs? Likewise, public transport is often crowded and is likely to result in health concerns regarding social distancing.

Are the above valid reasons for employees refusing to attend their places of work?

The place of work is largely dictated by the contract of employment and custom and practice. It is the employee’s responsibility to get themselves to work, however, just as it would be unreasonable to expect employees to make a dangerous journey to work in adverse weather conditions, the threat of COVID-19 is still very much out there.

Whilst the employer has no control over safety measures on public transport, if employees are concerned about the dangers of traveling on public transport then it is advisable to see if a mutually agreeable solution can be found, such as varying the shift patterns to avoid rush hour for example.

2. Safety in the workplace

It goes without saying that the workplace should be COVID-secure before any staff members are expected to return.

Please see our previous article which sets out the legal position on employees refusing to return to work as well as practical advice and tips. (read more)

3. Phased return

It may be that you seek to manage the return to work in stages. For example, you may gradually increase the numbers of staff who are in the office or reintroduce office working on a rota basis, or have staff work some of the week at home and the rest of the week in the office.

This will benefit the employer as well as the workforce. If the office has been shut for 12 months, then everyone will need a period of readjusting to the office environment.

It is likely that many social distancing measures will remain in place for some time, so being able to control numbers, rather than having everyone back at once, will help you to manage everyone’s safety.

By having a phased, staggered, or partial office return this also means that the costs of travel will also be phased in. It will also assist employees who may be caring for relatives who may still be advised to shield or assist in dealing with childcare problems which may arise if there are further school closures.

As always, it is important to get to the bottom of an employee’s reasons for refusing/being reticent to return to the office and to seek advice from our experts before taking action.

4. Requests to work from home – flexible working.

A return to the office is likely to trigger an increase in flexible working requests.

Its vital that if an employee does make a request to be allowed to work from home on a permanent basis, that this request is given due consideration. If you can’t agree to the employee’s specific request, you may be able to reach a mutually agreeable compromise.

Please see our guide to flexible working requests here.

Re-opening of premises

Those sectors for whom home working has not been possible, such as the service, entertainment and hospitality industries, will face some of the issues as set out above but also some challenges of their own when it comes to re-opening. Here are our top tips to assist with the transition:

  • Uncertainty surrounding customer numbers.

Most of us are itching to get back to the pub and enjoy a meal out with family and friends. However, rates of unemployment being at record highs and the fact that the full two-vaccine rollout will not be completed for some time, means that relying on usual seasonal trends may not be an accurate indicator of expected customer numbers. This will make planning staffing levels difficult. Remember- flexible furlough could be an option to assist with the return-to-work transition, especially as the scheme has been extended to the end of September 2021.

  • Plugging the skills gap.

Your staff may have been out of the workplace for a full year, you will need to make sure that any training requirements have been met such as refresher training for use of certain equipment and especially training regarding any changes to the workplace to make them COVID-secure for customers. Remember- if your staff are on furlough, they are able to take part in training.

  • Communication, communication, communication.

You know how hard you have worked to make your premises COVID-secure but do your staff? Make sure they are being kept up to date with the measures which are/will be in place on their return and make sure that if you are working to re-open your premises in line with government’s proposed dates, that your staff are aware of this. This makes sure they have time to plan for their return to work. A Zoom meeting, text message or email will suffice.

  • Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP).

Everyone has been affected by the pandemic in some way but for those with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders, the pandemic has presented additional challenges to managing what can be very serious conditions. Some people have even developed mental health problems for the first time in their lives during the pandemic, this will add an additional obstacle when planning for a return to the workplace, especially for those working in customer facing roles.

As an employer you have a duty of care to your staff and also have a duty of care to make reasonable adjustments for disabilities under the Equality Act (many mental health conditions are classed as disabilities). We have an excellent Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which many of our clients and their employees have found invaluable, particularly during the pandemic. If you have an EAP then make sure staff are reminded of this by regularly distributing the EAP literature. If you don’t have one, then now is the time to look into this- contact us today for more information.

And finally…. as usual, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing staff. We here at Avensure understand the needs of our clients and will provide practical, straight forward advice to help you navigate your way out of lockdown. Call us today. Please quote your Client Account Number on all correspondence and telephone calls. 24-hour client advice line: 0800 151 2935.