The Government has presented its guidelines for the first tentative returns to normal professional working life. There is clearly still a long way to go and home-working where possible will remain the norm while risk levels remain significant. However, businesses will want to make sure they’re ready for resumption of normal service when it becomes imminent.
While every single business in the UK will have its own individual circumstances to deal with (for more specific advice for various sectors visit: www.gov.uk/workingsafely), there are a number of key areas we will all need to address in making the transition back into a more traditional working rhythm.
The government’s guidance outlines five key practical action points for employers to address and which they recommend should be implemented.
- Continue working from home, if you can: Only those who cannot work from home and whose workplaces have not been told to close should physically attend their places of work.
- Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment: Employers will need to carry out COVID-19 risk assessments in consultation with their workers or trade unions, to establish what guidelines to put in place. The government expects all businesses with over 50 employees to do so.
- Maintain 2 metres social distancing, where possible: Employers should re-design workspaces to maintain 2 metre distances between people by staggering start times, creating one way walk-throughs, opening more entrances and exits, or changing seating layouts in break rooms.
- Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, manage transmission risk: Employers should look into putting barriers in shared spaces, creating workplace shift patterns or fixed teams minimising the number of people in contact with one another, or ensuring colleagues are facing away from each other.
- Reinforcing cleaning processes: Workplaces should be cleaned more frequently, paying close attention to high-contact objects like door handles and keyboards. Employers should provide handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points.
It goes without saying that preparation ahead of returning to normal working life will be everything, whatever the business or sector. It will not simply be a case of picking up where we left off. We have all been living with the daily developments of the virus, but to prepare your business sufficiently, it helps to take a step back to give serious and meticulous thought to new work processes and where and how to adapt to resume operations and bring staff back safely.
- Working group: Assembling a working group who are tasked with managing the return to work is a sensible way to approach it. Assigning a team, giving them responsibility to prepare for it and then overseeing it as it rolls out creates ownership and defines direction of the process. Depending on the size and scope of the organisation, they will need to be sure to represent all areas of the business: legal, HR, IT, operations, finance and so on.
- Returning: Think about how you want your workforce to return to the workplace. Given the scale and complexity of the virus, consider various options. Should it be a phased return? Perhaps a skeleton staff should operate initially to scope out any problems? Options could include reducing office hours, bringing staff in on alternate days and advising them to avoid rush-hour commuting.
- Employee wellbeing: Consider implementing wellbeing initiatives and addressing the mental health of employees; some employees may be caring for family members and others may have suffered bereavement.
- Health and safety: Employees will no doubt be concerned about their personal safety when returning to the business premises. Review health and safety procedures and update with appropriate measures.
Continuing to work safely, to manage risk and uphold a duty of care to their employees will be paramount for employers as and when they and their teams return to their places of work. The plans businesses put in place mean that work is likely to be organised differently from how it was conducted before lockdown. Combined with the above guidelines, these new ways of working will help make businesses and workplaces Covid secure.
- Consultation: Communication and consultation with employees over these plans is vital. By involving your staff in the process and the steps you are taking to manage the risk of coronavirus in the workplace you can hear their views, explain your new plans clearly and ensure their engagement.
- Following the guidance: There is still a great deal of uncertainty nationally and globally over the pandemic, which is likely to continue until our knowledge increases and a vaccine is developed. As the situation is constantly evolving it’s important for employers to ensure they’re working to the latest guidelines. Up to date information and guidance can be found on the Health & Safety Executive’s dedicated coronavirus page, and in their short guide, Working safely during the coronavirus outbreak.
Protecting your business and mitigating legal risk
Businesses also need to think through any return to more traditional working patterns from the perspective of the potential legal risks it exposes them to.
- Notifying employees: Write to the employees with reasonable notice of their return to work and providing information on ongoing arrangements. Written records should be kept of all correspondence.
- Changes to terms and conditions: Whilst on furlough leave, employees may have agreed to a reduction in hours, pay, bonus and benefits. This will need to be revisited. Some employers may also need to consider restructuring which may unfortunately result in some redundancies. The usual consultation requirements should be met and a fair process must be adopted.
- Liability: Employers have their statutory obligations to keep their employees safe and risk to a minimum and this needs to be borne in mind when making decisions about when to resume normal service. The US has seen some instances of families of those who have died from Coronavirus making claims against their employers.
- Discrimination: In instances where employers stagger the return to work of their teams, they need to be clear and consistent in deciding which employees should return to work and which should continue home-working. As noted above, consultation with each individual employee is also key here. Some employees may not feel ready to return to work, yet others would welcome the opportunity to do so. Each needs to be accommodated.
- Fiduciary duties: Along with the duty of care to their employees, directors and business leaders need to be mindful if their fiduciary duties. It is their responsibility to always act in the best interests of the business and its shareholders. They could be held liable if they act in breach of these duties. It’s up to directors to keep abreast of developments for the company’s benefit.
As stated at the beginning of this article, there is a long way to go before we will return to anything resembling a normal working routine and many industries are likely to remain in their current state of home-working for a number of months yet. For those in sectors which have returned or will do in the foreseeable future there are many factors to consider if they are to ensure the health and safety of their employees as well as their businesses.
The most up to date information and guidance can be accessed on the Government’s website. For businesses seeking HR and employment law advice tailored to their individual circumstances, our experts are available to help where needed.