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  • Gemma Burke

What should employers be doing to plan for the return to the workplace?

Coronavirus has changed the way businesses work globally and a focus on remote working is now at the forefront of everyone’s mind. For many, during lockdown, their workforce moved quickly to working flexibly and working from home. For some, this was not possible, and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been utilised to furlough employees and workers.

In light of recent government guidance, businesses are starting to plan for the return of some roles to the workplace, especially those which cannot be worked from home. New rules have also been released on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, allowing employees to return part time and be furloughed for the rest. However, advice is to avoid public transport where necessary and childcare for many is still not open.

In normal circumstances, this would be a straightforward and reasonable request from an employer and if an employee refused to return to work, a disciplinary meeting would follow with potentially an outcome of dismissal. However, we are far from normal circumstances and although the bones of employment law remain the same, the fairness and reasonableness of requests is tested more than ever before with this crisis.

A balancing act between doing things by the book and doing what is right for both the business and the employee is key. If an employee simply has no childcare options or has an underlying health condition or lives with someone who is high risk, what can they do? What can you do? Or more importantly what should you do?

This balancing act will be crucial in all decisions over the next few weeks and months. In an unprecedented time, a blanket approach to all employees will not suffice, and employers will need to consider individual cases to decide on what the best approach should be.

Does that mean you can take action against someone who refuses to return to work? Yes, you can take action is the simple answer but you probably shouldn’t and the repercussions of this in the future should be thought through carefully as the employment law will not be black and white. Trying to explore the options available are key, can the employee return part time and be furloughed part time for example?

Here are three key pieces of advice for employers during this challenging time:

1. Take an individual rather than group approach - Review the individual circumstances of each employee to decide on the best approach. In order to make a reasonable and fair ensure you have as much information as possible about their concerns and their personal situation. A good option here would be to survey employees, gather opinions, and statistics on childcare issues, those who are high risk, or living with high risk individuals. A one size fits all approach will not suffice in this situation.

2. Covid-19 safe working environment – Complete a risk assessment on the workplace before asking anyone to return. Ensure new measures are put into place, not only to be compliant with regulations, but to provide reassurance to the workforce.

3. Collaboration – Work together, this is not all on the employer. We have never worked through a crisis like this and you do not have all of the answers. Working with an employee to try and find the best way forward will be beneficial to both parties. They may have a suggestion which you haven’t thought of but could be considered.

4. Compromise – Before taking any disciplinary action, try to see if there is a compromise or alternative option available. Many people have a lot of annual leave to take; perhaps offer a phased return, with part of the time spent in the workplace, part at home; consider reduced hours in the short-term, or a period of unpaid leave until the employee feels more comfortable returning to the workplace. Again, this comes down to what is reasonable and fair. The key question to ask yourself is whether you as an employer have explored and exhausted all options before moving to a disciplinary or dismissal?

The next few months will continue to be challenging for employers and employees. As we emerge from the pandemic, many will look back on the companies they work for and those they have read about. They will have strong opinions on which companies have handled this crisis best and worst. Employee brands will suffer where firms get this wrong.

A balanced and considered approach can help us build and maintain a loyal and committed workforce, and is in the interests of both the employer and the employee.

To find out more about completing a risk assessment for your workplace, planning a return to work, or for general advice on next steps drop us a note –

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