The world of remote working may well have been an eye-opener to many companies – and their staff – and, as we begin to get back to normal, we take a look at how employers should support their staff as they come back to the ‘real’ world…
For companies who did not furlough their staff, but instead asked them to work at home, the benefits of remote working may have changed some attitudes. After all, remote working can reduce overheads, allow greater flexibility – and it might even have changed the minds of those managers who believed that presenteeism was the only way to get the best out of their staff.
Now, as some employees begin to come off furlough, come back into the workplace, or work from home, it is time to prepare your company so that it can help manage the next transition for employees.
Your first task will be to make sure risk assessments are carried out; working out how to facilitate social distancing, cleaning communal areas such as drink preparation areas and toilet facilities, changing rooms and so on.
You will need to put in place different arrangements for meetings and briefings. Perhaps you can hold meetings outside, or use a video conferencing system instead? Many of us have become familiar with Zoom and Microsoft Teams but there are other popular platforms in addition to these.
If your business and workplace require your staff to work closely with each other and/or the public, ensure that the correct PPE is ready and waiting for them when they first arrive.
You must ensure all COVID-19 hygiene protocols are in place. This includes putting wipes, disinfectant and hand sanitisers in prominent areas, removing shared tools and equipment, making sure staff can clean and sanitise their own desks and equipment, and introducing low-or-no-touch door handles.
In order to allow room for staff to be in an office or workplace together, you may choose to operate some kind of split shift pattern.
If your workplace is small, staggered shifts can allow your staff to come in at varied times so that you do not have everyone in at once. You may ask people to come in later, especially if they have to use public transport to commute, stagger lunchtimes and home times too. Or you might arrange for them to come into the workplace for part of the week and work from home for the other part – keeping staff in ‘bubbles’ so that they have contact with a smaller number of people.
Remember that staff have rights if their working hours vary from those stated in their contract. Statutory rights cover flexible working, working times and anti-discrimination legislation. You must explain why the changes are happening, how long they are likely to be for and facilitate a forum for employees to discuss any concerns.
Also remember that flexibility clauses in contracts do not mean that changes can be made without consulting with and getting agreement from staff. And, of course, do make sure that working hours and rest breaks are considered within any changes made.
For more information on making a contractual change see the Acas website [ACAS: Changing an employment contract].
You also need to be aware that changing shift patterns that affect those who have childcare responsibilities can result in discrimination claims, so ensure that you are listening to any parents who are juggling childcare while schools are closed.
According to the Prime Minister, parents and guardians who are unable to access childcare, should not be expected to return to the workplace. Boris Johnson said that parents and guardians who can’t go back to work for this reason “must be defended and protected on that basis”.
Communication will be key as we all return to the new normal. Not knowing details or understanding new regulations can make people nervous, especially if they are already concerned about coming back into the real world.
Make sure you have a business plan that can be shared with staff and which explains when and how employees will go back to work, your strategies to keep everyone safe, extra hygiene and distancing implementations and what special provisions are in place for those staff classed as more vulnerable.
You may well have staff who are classed as vulnerable or highly vulnerable and for the moment need to stay at home – whether they are working or furloughed. Employees who are shielding will no longer be able to receive Statutory Sick Pay after 1 August 2020, so you need to contact them and discuss their plans for returning to work safely. They may be very anxious, and employers should be open to listening to their concerns.
When planning their return to the workplace, you must be particularly stringent in ensuring that social distancing is adhered to and around them. Other options are to let them work from home or continue to be furloughed.
What about staff who are afraid to go back to work?
Employees may have different reasons why they are worried about going back into the workplace and we should not underestimate the effect of the pandemic on their mental wellbeing. They may have their own health worries or be afraid for the more vulnerable members of their family. Others with mental health issues or disabilities such as autism may also find it hard to make the change in their working routine. It is important that staff have an opportunity to be listened to, and to express their concerns without fear of discrimination or job loss. As we have discussed before, encouraging willing staff to train as mental health first aiders is going to be even more important now.
If your staff are in a public-facing role, and are concerned for their safety, they do have the right to not come into work but can’t expect to get paid. However, employment law says that employees are legally allowed to walk off the job if they fear they are under threat from “serious and imminent” danger.
What if your staff do not want to return yet or ever?
According to a report by Okta among 6,000 office workers across Europe, only a quarter of UK workers wanted to go back to work full-time [ZDNet: Three quarters of workers don’t want to go back to the office full-time 20/05/2020]. Lockdown has opened their eyes to the benefits of flexible and remote working, and the way they view their working life may never be the same again.
So you need to be prepared for staff who want to work from home permanently, divide their time between home and office, or who want to switch to a part-time role.
You might go one step further and emulate Twitter, which told its staff that they don’t ever have to go back to the office if they don’t want to and can continue to work remotely!
It is important to note that the information and recommendations may not be appropriate for all sectors, such as the care industry for instance.
If you would like to discuss this subject further and find out how we could help you navigate the furlough scheme and other COVID-19 related issues, please contact Cecily Lalloo at Embrace HR Limited.
T: 01296 761 288 or contact us here.
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Based in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Embrace HR Limited supports business owners who do not have their own HR department or those that do but need help from time to time. We also work across the Home Counties of Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, and also SMEs based in London.