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Going Back to Work After the Coronavirus: Help & Advice for Employers

What happens when we go back to work after the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown? This question is currently being asked by employers and employees alike, and points to a wide array of potential concerns.

While we don’t know yet when the current lockdown measures will end, being prepared for an eventual return to work will benefit everybody in the business.

Employers will find it helpful to consider strategies to make the return to the physical workspace easier, including ways of reassuring employees who may be circumstantially unready to return, as well as employees who are feeling especially reluctant or fearful. In businesses where employees have taken well to working remotely, employers may be faced with an onslaught of flexible working requests and will benefit from preparing for this eventuality.

The answers on this page will be responsively updated in the coming days and weeks as the Government update their guidelines in response to developments in the coronavirus situation. Keeping up to date with the latest developments is essential to employers for ensuring that they are operating in compliance with employment law during this unprecedented time, as well as for minimising preventable disruptions to their business.

When will it be possible for employees to return to work?

An end date to the current situation is unknown. The current lockdown measures have been in place since 23 March 2020, requiring all businesses deemed non-essential to close their physical premises. These measures will be reviewed every three weeks, and lifted partially and/or completely when it is deemed safe to do so.

When it is declared safe for businesses to reopen their physical premises, this is likely to happen in a staggered fashion, rather than the entirety of the UK’s workforce returning to work all at once. Businesses from different sectors are likely to receive specific recommendations to help ensure the smoothest possible return.

You may feel an obligation to provide your staff with a concrete plan for the coming months, but employers and employees alike are working within the limits of what is possible, given the unknowns at play in the current situation. Assuring employees that you will keep them updated on how governmental decisions affect business operations and their roles in real time is the best employers can do. Having clearly defined guidelines and policies in place around how information will be disseminated – as well as setting up specialised processes related to working from home – will inspire the confidence of your workforce.

How should employers handle staff who are fearful to return to work?

It is highly likely that several members of staff will feel fearful of returning to the workplace due to the coronavirus, even after it has been declared possible to do so. This may be due to fear of being infected themselves, or of infecting loved ones. Employers should handle concerns from individual staff sensitively, as well as devising clear policies to reduce the risk of infection within the premises.

Employees who are fearful of returning to work are likely to be imagining workplace operations as they were before the coronavirus. While it is important to address each employee’s specific concerns in a reasonable manner, reassuring the workforce as a whole that safety measures will be in place to prevent contagion should help reduce fears about returning among staff. Having a company policy in place stating the possible options for employees who are fearful about returning to work will also serve to make the eventual transitional period easier for hesitant employees.

If employees are reluctant to return to work, what courses of action are open to employers?

Fear of infection may not be the only reason that employees would prefer to continue working from home. Understanding why employees might be reluctant to return to the workplace and devising policies for handling this advance will help employers to avoid related disagreements during an already challenging period of time for the business.

Employees may have legitimate reasons for being reluctant to return to the workplace, such as lacking the childcare options that had been available to them before the advent of the coronavirus. Being in good communication with all staff while the current measures are in place, as well as basing possible alternatives to returning to the workplace on their known needs, will help reduce preventable clashes of agenda between employees and employers on this issue.

Across the entirety of the UK’s workforce, it is inevitable that some employees will be reluctant to return to the workplace without a legitimate reason. Creating a strong corporate culture based on holistic HR practices that fosters wellbeing among the workforce — even when employees are furloughed or working remotely — will help prevent this. When employers concentrate their efforts on ensuring an open dialogue on welfare with employees, including safeguarding their mental health, this fosters goodwill among the staff and creates an environment in which they are more likely to want to work.

What particular challenges may parents and carers face in returning to work?

Parents and carers are likely to face additional challenges during the current lockdown measures, whether they are working from home or furloughed. Employers should be aware that these challenges may also need addressing with a view to affected employees returning to the workplace. Lack of childcare is an anticipated problem for many parents.

While it is to be hoped that schools, daycare centres and other forms of care and childcare become operational in step with professionals’ returns to the workplace, the likelihood is that the national return to work will be staggered across industries, and within businesses themselves. It is therefore important that employers find out whether there are staff who are likely to experience problems configuring their other responsibilities to allow for their return to the workplace, with an attentive reference to developments.

Understanding your responsibilities as an employer regarding issuing paternity, maternity and shared parental leave — as well as when you are required to grant time off for parenting or to those providing care for others — is vital in any circumstances. However, it is especially important to make sure that employees are made aware that these rights and requirements are unaffected by coronavirus measures, and that they will have the same rights and responsibilities (i.e. discussing their needs with employers in a reasonable timeframe) when measures are relaxed.

What steps can employers take to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the workplace?

The most crucial aspect of orchestrating the return to work after the coronavirus is safeguarding the health of employees, and taking measures to reduce the possibility of spreading the virus. Ensuring that correct protocols are in place will be a precursor to reopening all business premises. Employers should keep abreast of Government developments regarding safety recommendations, and use these to inform the guidelines that will underpin the return to work.

Safety measures that are likely to become fixtures in workplaces nationwide include having hand sanitisation facilities, and effective signage reminding staff to wash their hands properly. Employers should anticipate implementing measures including disinfecting workspaces effectively a set number of times, and reducing the numbers of people who use particular areas of the building at any given time. Social distancing guidelines, i.e. standing two metres apart from one another, are likely to be in place initially. Preparing staff in advance to follow all safety guidelines issued will help to allay anxiety, as well as ensuring that they are followed effectively.

What happens if employees decide they prefer working from home?

Employees who have been working from home and enjoying it may be reluctant to return to the workplace on this basis alone. If employees have had a positive experience of remote working, they may submit flexible working requests when the time comes to return to the workplace. Being prepared for this will equip employers to handle each situation on its own terms.

Employees who have risen to the challenges of working remotely are likely to advocate continuing to do so, with observations on how working from home has increased their productivity, efficiency and output. Having systems in place to monitor performance during the current lockdown will be very helpful to employers in assessing whether remote working should be considered as an alternative to returning to the workplace, be that on an individual or team-wide basis, or across the business.

There are many unknowns relating to the shape of the professional landscape that will be unearthed as current lockdown measures are lifted and the coronavirus passes. With this in mind, businesses that have demonstrated their adaptability and resilience by switching to a remote working structure during the current crisis may wish to retain elements of the workflow and processes used during this time — including, perhaps, some of the time-saving and economising benefits of remote work.

What happens if the business no longer requires all furloughed employees?

It is important that employers who put staff on furlough — i.e. placing them within the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme — explain exactly what this entails from its outset. Employers can make staff redundant while they are furloughed or on their return to work.

Staff who have been put on furlough rather than being made redundant may believe this is a guarantee of their further employment; and indeed, the scheme is designed to prevent unnecessary unemployment. However, the nature of business operations may evolve substantially, and employers may find that they do not need to retain all of their furloughed employees. If this is the case, the usual policies around dismissal and redundancy remain in place. Employers should seek advice on exit management to ensure employees’ rights are not breached and if more than 20 employees are involved, that they comply with collective consultation obligations.

Get in touch

If members of staff in your business are currently furloughed or are working from home and you would like to develop strategies to prepare for the lifting of the lockdown measures, don’t hesitate to get in touch.