By Julie Bann, Partner at Sharpe Pritchard LLP
As of 1 August, the Government will relax the working from home guidance and employers will have the “discretion” to ask staff to return to the workplace.
At the same time, the guidance on shielding for high-risk groups will also be relaxed and employers will not be able to claim Statutory Sick Pay for those employees who have been unable to work due to specific vulnerabilities.
The onus is firmly on the employer to ensure that they can provide a ‘Covid Secure’ workplace. The real risk, therefore, is that because it is a discretionary reopening, the blame will land firmly on the employer if there is a spike in Covid-related issues in the workplace or an increase in mental ill-health connected with returning to work.
If you are thinking about reopening on 1st August it is vital that you consider the following:
You are responsible for not only making your workplace Covid Secure but also satisfying your staff that it is the right time to return and that they can do so safely. Your staff have to be confident that the measures you propose to implement will be sufficient to keep them safe.
This is not a situation in which we would suggest you instruct staff to return irrespective of their views or fears. The Covid pandemic and lockdown have created a huge amount of anxiety and for some reason the move to hardly leaving the home to returning to the workplace will be a step too far at the moment for some.
3. Phased Transition
Consider a phased reopening, especially if you have already taken advantage of the furlough scheme. You can use flexible furlough to offer a staggered start as a means of reintroducing staff to working from the office or use varying shift patterns to reduce the number of people in the workplace.
4. Avoid a blanket approach
This is not a ‘one size fits all’ type of situation. You will need to take into account individual concerns, childcare issues and health conditions when considering how you can adjust the workplace or working hours to suit each employee.
5. Staff refusal to return to work
If you communicate and consult and you still have staff who refuse to return to work because of Covid-related issues (and not just because they have realised the joy of not commuting) then discussion and compromise are the key words. Consider whether people can remain working from home for a further period or remain on furlough. If that is not possible, you should discuss the option of a period of leave, either using up annual leave or even a period of unpaid leave.
6. Do not pressurise employees
The danger is in employees feeling pressurised to return to work when they do not feel safe. This could lead to a breakdown of trust and in cases where a person believes your actions amount to discriminatory behaviour, you could be subject to legal challenge.
Ultimately, we have to return to our new ‘normal’ at some point. The question is are you confident that you have a Covid Secure workplace, that you are not subjecting your staff to additional risk by asking them to travel to work and that you have the support of your employees?
Employers looking to return to work as ‘normal’ from 1 August now have just a few weeks left to consult with employees and make the necessary arrangements to ensure that staff are confident enough to return to the workplace.
It is, however, important that they do not rush or make hasty arrangements that place staff at risk or leave them adversely affected.
If employers are unsure about how they should bring more employees back into the workplace or they run into issues they should seek professional help and legal advice.