Yesterday’s announcement that non-essential retailers are able to open from 15th June means that many retailers and numerous other businesses are reviewing how and when they will be able to get employees back into the workplace.
Given the potential risks and claims associated with getting a return to work (or non-return to work) wrong, businesses need to take time to carefully plan their next steps.
As part of our #FutureNow campaign supporting businesses to reboot, we have compiled ten key aspects you should consider:
- Communicating with employees
Transparency is crucial along with an ongoing dialogue with your employees and any recognised trade union(s) regarding your return to work plans. Consultation is key and even more important if you need to agree changes to terms and conditions, for example, split shifts or staggered start and finish times.
Consider how you will communicate with employees before they return to work (e.g. via email, Zoom or online training) and afterwards (e.g. via notices, your intranet or (socially distanced) verbal briefings), and emphasise that you will continue to review and adapt any return-to-work measures as required.
Consider the language you use. Some businesses are using “physical” rather than “social” distance in order to make clear that some social interaction can still continue.
- Health and Safety
Make sure you comply with statutory and common law obligations to ensure employees’ safety so far as reasonably practicable. In simple terms, employers must assess risks and then establish and implement a safe system of work.
You should follow the COVID-19 Secure guidelines applicable guidance for your industry and any guidance from the HSE. The guidelines include:
- encouraging home working, where possible;
- carrying out a COVID-19 risk assessment, in consultation with workers or trade unions;
- maintaining 2 metres social distancing, wherever possible;
- managing transmission risk;
- increasing hygiene measures, including additional hand-washing and sanitisation stations
- reinforcing cleaning processes.
Risk Assessments should include: access in and out of the premises (including lifts, stairs, door handles), proximity of desks and workspaces, travel to and from work, risks posed by the location of the premises (e.g. if the office is in a busy location), whether staff facilities (such as toilets, showers, cafes, gyms etc) will remain open and how you will minimise the risk from third parties attending the premises.
Give particular consideration to “clinically vulnerable” employees (e.g. over 70s, diabetics, people with liver disease and pregnant women) when assessing risks, and do not forget the health, safety and welfare of employees who are continuing to work from home.
Risk assessments must be in writing if you have 5+ employees and should be published if you have 50+ employees.
- Who will return to the work place and when?
Workers should continue to work from home, wherever possible, so you should carefully consider which (if any) employees need to return to the workplace at this time.
When assessing who will return, there are numerous factors to consider, including:
- How many staff can you safely accommodate based on your health and safety measures?
- If staff in the workplace is to be limited, how will you manage and monitor who attends?
- Request volunteers first, trying to ensure that there is a sufficient spread of volunteers to enable the business to function effectively and considering how fire wardens’ and first aiders’ duties may be covered.
- If you need certain key staff to return or have insufficient volunteers, consider how to fairly select who will return.
- Consider allowing employees who are vulnerable, have ongoing caring/childcare responsibilities or whose commute puts them at particular risk to remain working from home or on furlough.
- Could you offer a rotational return to work, so that all employees have some “phasing in”?
- Try to reduce the number of people employees have regular contact with at work, e.g. by changing shift patterns/rotas to keep the same “team” together each time.
- “Extremely vulnerable” employees (e.g. solid organ transplant recipients and people receiving chemotherapy) should continue to shield (until at least the end of June) and must not be permitted to return to the workplace.
4. What is someone refuses to return?
After prolonged home working or furlough, many individuals are anxious about returning to work. Whilst you can involve staff in return to work proposals and promptly addressing concerns raised, some staff may refuse to return or to perform certain aspects of their roles.
If there is no reasonable basis for such refusal, this may be a disciplinary matter. However, you must carefully consider the reasons for the refusal to ensure that you are not exposing yourself to potential constructive dismissal, health and safety or whistleblowing claims which will be costly, time-consuming and reputationally damaging.
- Commuting and business travel
Employees who cannot work from home will need to travel to work. As the Plan to Rebuild advises that travel to work should preferably be by foot, bike or own transport, and public transport should be avoided wherever possible, employers should support this, e.g. by expanding bicycle storage facilities, changing facilities and car parking, where possible.
Where employees have to use public transport to get to work:
- consider staggering start and end times to minimise staff commuting at peak travel hours;
- reiterate the government recommendation to use “face-coverings” and social distancing measures; and/or
- consider whether they can continue to work from home or remain on furlough.
If your staff are usually mobile and travel within the UK or abroad for work purposes, consider alternatives to this (including meetings via remote technology) and/or prohibiting non-essential work travel. Check whether your business travel insurance covers scenarios that could arise due to COVID-19, such as employees becoming stranded abroad as a result of future travel restrictions or becoming ill while outside the UK.
6. Mental health
Mental health and “lockdown burnout” have been highly publicised during lockdown, but this will remain a key topic going forwards as employees adjust to a “new normal” while dealing with the difficulties of reestablishing routines, childcare challenges (with ongoing school closures) and potential ill-health and bereavement.
Ensure that you have a plan in place to support the mental health of all your staff, including those working at home, in the workplace or on furlough. Communicate this to staff and remind them of the support available, such as Employee Assistance Programmes, mental health first aiders and management and peer support schemes. If you do not have these resources already, consider introducing them, and remember there is a duty to carry out a risk assessment for your employees in respect of mental health.
7. Annual leave and holidays
Government guidance has now confirmed that: statutory holiday (of 5.6 weeks) accrues during furlough; holiday can be taken during furlough (employers must top up furlough pay to normal pay); and employers can require employees to take holiday during furlough (by giving them twice the period of notice as the period of holiday required to be taken). However, requiring furloughed employees to take their full, accrued entitlement during furlough could well be open to later challenge in light of:
- the amendment to the Working Time Regulations to allow employees to carry forward (for 2 holiday years) up to 4 weeks’ holiday which they have been unable to take due to COVID-19; and
- the government guidance that, before requiring employees to take holiday during furlough, employers should consider whether any restrictions the furloughed employee is under would prevent them from resting, relaxing and enjoying leisure time, which is the “fundamental purpose” of holiday.
Employees may still have a substantial amount of accrued holiday to take following their return to work, and you will need to consider how best to manage and communicate this to employees.
8. What happens after furlough?
Employers will be required to share the cost of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) from 1 August and the scheme will then end completely in October. Consider whether your business and staffing structures remain viable, if changes are required to job roles, working hours or pay and/or whether any restructuring or reduction in headcount is needed. Options include:
- Bringing employees back to work on their previous terms and conditions.
- Keeping employees “laid-off” if their employment contracts contain a lay-off clause or if you included such a clause in your furlough agreements. Whilst this may be a “cheap” option initially, please note that:
- holiday will accrue as normal during lay off (and could be requested, taken and paid during that period); and
- if employees are laid off for 4 consecutive weeks or for 6 weeks over a rolling 13-week period, they can resign, treat themselves as redundant and a statutory redundancy payment will be payable unless you issue a counter notice.
- Putting employees on short-time working, if their employment contracts contain a short-time working clause. (Please note that the same risk arises regarding a potential redundancy payment.)
- Asking employees to agree a change to their terms and conditions e.g. agreeing to take a period of unpaid leave; agreeing to reduce their working hours and receive pro rata pay; or agreeing to do the same working hours but at a reduced rate of pay. (Please note that collective consultation will be required if you propose to dismiss and re-engage 20+ employees if they refuse the change.)
- Offering unpaid (or part-paid) leave or sabbaticals.
- Restructures and redundancies (see below).
If you are considering 20 or more redundancies at one “establishment” within a 90-day period, you will need to undertake collective consultation in addition to a normal “fair” redundancy process. This will involve submitting an HR1-Form to the Secretary of State, arranging the election of representatives (unless you have existing trade union or appropriate employee representatives to consult with) and then consulting for at least 30 days before the first dismissal. This increases to 45 days before if 100 or more redundancies could be involved.
Given the time required to comply with these obligations and the potential difficulties with carrying out “remote” election and consultation meetings, it would be wise to begin this process soon, so that the CJRS can assist with your wage costs during consultation and notice periods.
10. Updating policies, procedures and contracts of employment
Review your policies, procedures and employment contracts to ensure that they are compliant and fit for purpose. Key policies that you may want to introduce or update include:
- COVID-19 and Pandemics (potentially including voluntary/mandatory workplace testing)
- Health and Safety (e.g. to reflect Covid-19 Secure guidelines)
- Sickness and Absence
- Unpaid Leave
- Performance Management
- Disciplinary and Grievances (e.g. to reflect recent ACAS guidance re remote meetings)
- Flexible Working (e.g. potentially relaxing the statutory regime on a temporary basis)
These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.