After four months of being told to work from home wherever possible, the government changed its stance on 1st August, with the Prime Minister actively encouraging people to return to work. While some people are eager to get back into an office environment as soon as possible, there certainly hasn’t been a huge surge in returns yet, with many employers still sifting through the guidance to try to ensure that a return to work is as safe as possible.
To help address any concerns, we got together with the employment law team from Roythornes Solicitors to host a webinar on the subject. Here are some of the key points from the Q&A session:
After being inundated with questions on this subject when the scheme was first launched, the Roythornes team reported that businesses were on top of it now, but need to be aware of some key dates on the horizon – see this handy timeline. On 1st September the government contribution will drop from 80% to 70% and on 1st October it drops again to 60% before finishing at the end of October. It seems unlikely that the scheme will be extended.
Returning to the workplace
There are likely to be some challenges in convincing staff that returning to the workplace is safe. The legal advice is to ensure that there is a clear process within your business:
Appoint somebody as chief COVID officer
Read the guidance
Consult with staff
Put together a plan to get people back to the office
Get the plan approved by directors
Review the plan regularly.
Can you use a ‘bubble’ format in offices similar to schools? Could a weekly rota work with a deep clean in between? Would a suggestion box be helpful for employees to share ideas of how other businesses are adapting?
What if an employee doesn’t want to return to the office?
If an employee feels vulnerable to COVID-19, or has somebody at home who is, an employer should obviously show a degree of compassion to their situation. It becomes difficult if the individual is not as effective doing their job from home, however it was confirmed that employees do not have the right to insist that they continue to work from home. If this situation arises, the advice is to demonstrate the steps that have been put in place to make the office a safe place to work.
Working from home is more productive for some people, but for others it’s just not practical or it can be affecting their mental health. Don’t just assume that you know individual preferences, go ahead and ask your employees whether they prefer to work in the office, from home, or a mix of the two. Would it work if everybody adopted their first preference?
Flexible working is bound to be requested more going forward, but it has to work for your business. Check that your flexible working policy is still fit for purpose and update it asap if not. The key advice is to be consistent with all employees and their requests, and to document discussions. The same advice is recommended for any disciplinary investigations with staff who are working remotely.
What if schools are forced to close again?
This is a burning question and one where it is difficult to predict what the guidance will be should it happen. As it stands, taking time off as emergency dependants leave, paid leave or even unpaid leave would be options for people who are unable to work from home. It is expected that the onus will be on parents to make alternative childcare arrangements.
Unfortunately, making redundancies will be a reality for many businesses in the coming months. It was clarified that the usual redundancy procedures need to be followed, regardless of whether an employee is currently on furlough or not.
The advice given was to prepare to be challenged, document everything and ensure that there is a minimum of three months before you start recruiting for a similar role again, should the need arise. If you actually end up re-employing somebody who you made redundant, their employment should be treated as if they are new to the business.
With all of these changes going on, one thing you may not have considered are the cultural implications of reuniting employees who have been furloughed with those who have been working throughout. You need to be aware of individual experiences so that you don’t end up with a two-tier workforce.
For example, non-furloughed staff may have been expected to do more work than usual to compensate for the reduction in staff. Furloughed staff, on the other hand, may have been feeling anxious, vulnerable, bored or just out-of-touch with the business. It is important for management to understand the different pressures that people have faced and identify ways to smoothly bring teams back together.
You can watch the full webinar at: https://youtu.be/RZ0kUlyGbNg
If you have any questions or feedback on any of these issues, please do not hesitate to get in touch.