Following Boris Johnson’s announcement on 22 September 2020, office workers have been instructed once again to work from home, if it is possible to do so.
As the new restrictions are currently not as severe as those we endured earlier in the year, the government are still allowing workers in construction, retail, hospitality etc to continue attending workplaces – a significant difference from the March restrictions.
The intention of asking those that are able to work from home to do so is to reduce the R number, as home working reduces the number of people an individual comes into contact with daily, from sitting on public transport in rush hour, to passing colleagues in the office. We have already seen many businesses across the country, small and large, acting immediately on the government’s advice and sending staff (who recently returned to office working) back to working from home.
Clearly, this “work from home” message is a U turn from the previous government campaign to get people back into the workplace, so businesses are needing to change tack - again. This is especially frustrating for businesses which have been through the protracted process of Covid-19 risk assessments, taking measures (many of which are costly) to make their offices COVID-secure and, at times, having to cajole people to return to the workplace. Despite such businesses (generally) offering safe working environments, these workplaces may soon be virtually empty again.
As the PM has been clear that the new restrictions are “by no means” intended to be a full lockdown, as was the case in March, and has not yet required offices to close, employers have flexibility for workers to attend the workplace in some circumstances, such as where a task cannot be completed at home or where this would be difficult, e.g. office-based tasks such as physical filing and scanning.
However, in light of the government guidance, businesses should tread very carefully when asking or even requiring workers to attend their offices, as this could trigger grievances, whistleblowing, health and safety claims, constructive dismissal claims…The list goes on. In addition, if there is then an outbreak in the workplace, workers are also likely to point the finger at their employers.
These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.