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Workplace return – how should employers manage this?



Following today’s briefing by Professor Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, there can be no doubt in the coming weeks and months, there will be more developments which impact on employers. It is up to employers to keep pace with the latest guidance and regulations and to reassure staff that the necessary safety precautions are in place. HR Consultant Lucy Cotterell discussed the key areas that need to be addressed.

Vulnerable or anxious employees

In England, the government’s general shielding scheme came to an end on 1 August 2020 and, while the government guidance remains that extremely critically vulnerable employees should work from home wherever possible, it also states that these individuals can also now go to work provided their workplace is COVID-Secure.

Employers should be mindful that despite the ending of the general shielding scheme, employees may continue to be shielded by a GP letter to that effect, or may live in a local lockdown area where shielding guidance continues to recommend staying at home.

Employers will need to consider their approach to this. Even with COVID-secure measures in place, there may be many vulnerable and non-vulnerable employees who feel very anxious about returning to their workplace. In these circumstances, open discussion with the employee to understand and address their concerns is key before taking any further steps.

Furlough (until the end of October 2020), flexible working and continued home working are potential options in this situation and should be explored before enforcing a return to the workplace.

Health and safety

Employers must ensure that any return to work is done in a way which allows appropriate social distancing and is consistent with the evolving guidance from the Government and Public Health England. For many workplaces this is likely to mean not all staff can return at once. Employers should have in place a health and safety risk assessment which has been consulted on with employees and safety representatives, and the results of which have been published on the employer’s website. The risk assessment may also need updating to reflect the larger numbers of staff as they return to the workplace.

Communication and training

Employers will need to give careful thought to communication and training strategies, both to inform staff of new safety procedures but also to ensure staff are confident that it is safe to return. It is also important for employers to consider how they will manage staff who remain reluctant to return, despite safety assurances or are unable to return because they are shielding.

Homeworking

Many businesses are looking at continued homeworking as alternative to, or in parallel with, a return to the workplace. For some employees working from home has worked well, increased productivity and provided a better life work balance and so are keen to not return to the workplace.

Education and childcare provision

The reopening of schools in England at the start of the autumn term and the renewed availability of registered childcare provision for pre-schoolers has facilitated the return of many workers to the workplace.

However, the ongoing provision of education and childcare is by no means guaranteed, with many factors potentially impacting on its future availability. Employers will need to consider how to respond to childcare issues as they arise.

For example, employees may be unable to work at short notice due to children being sent home from school or nursery following a suspected or confirmed case of coronavirus in their education ‘bubble’. A local lockdown preventing two households from meeting at home may remove the availability of unregistered childcare provided by family members and this could prevent employees coming to work for a pre-longed period.

Potential solutions include obtaining employee agreement to continue a period of furlough (up until the end of October) until their childcare provision is reinstated; consider whether the leave meets the statutory requirements of unpaid emergency time off for dependents; allowing, or requiring (with requisite notice), the employee to take holiday; agreeing a period of unpaid parental leave; or agreeing changes to working hours or days as part of a flexible working request.

Facilitating and encouraging open communications with employees will assist both employer and employee to achieve a satisfactory solution in these circumstances.

In all these situations as well as practicalities there are many staff welfare issues to consider.  This has been and continues to be a challenging time for everyone for many different reasons. For support, advice or more information contact Lucy on 01225 750 000 or email lucy.cotterell@mogersdrewett.com.