Coronavirus and Planning For A Return To Work

Coronavirus has had a significant impact on how we work, the lockdown happened very quickly for most businesses, so there wasn’t any time for planning the how’s, when’s, what’s etc but the road map to exiting the lockdown restrictions identifies a much slower process, giving us time to plan ahead so we can ensure that the risk of virus transmission is reduced.

UPDATES

Updated guidance is released regularly and I will update this page as more details are announced.

This page was firstly published on 20 April 2020 and the last update was 14 May 2020.

Experts advise that the UK has now past the peak of infection so talk is now focused on how we slowly release the lockdown restrictions. This phased exit from the restrictions means the future may hold many scenarios for your business and the aim of this post is to help you work out how you will proactively respond to each of those scenarious.

Chief medical adviser professor Chris Whitty has already advised that some Coronavirus related restrictions will remain in place for the rest of the year.

The message across the UK is that employees should, for the foreseeable future, work from home. The ‘Return To Work Road map’ outlines a menu of measures that will enable some businesses to reopen and return to work under different circumstances. Business owners are been urged to stagger start and finish times to help maintain social distancing measures and reduce the pressures on public transport at peak times. Businesses of over five employees will be required to draw up a risk assessment before people can return to working within the same building or office. Protective screens, similar to those that have appeared in supermarkets across the country, should be considered where social distancing is not possible due to, for example over the counter services. The application of floor markings indicating an appropriate 2 meter distance when queuing is also included in the advice.

Where you are asking employees to return to your workplace now, or in the future when further restrictions are lifted you should start planning now.

Scenarios you might need to consider include managing a phased return, how people are allowed to take annual leave, hygiene standards such as would face masks help people feel more confident to return to work, protocols for internal and external meetings and the impact of ongoing social distancing on things like training, recruitment and other internal events. Once you have considered all the scenarios and developed a response to each of them you will be ready to roll out the right one as quickly as possible.

When planning the return to work of your employees give consideration to how you would approach the return of an employee from maternity or extended sick leave. You wouldn’t expect them to go from zero to 60 on day one, a transition period or phased return is often approrpriate and for those that have been working from home if could involve splitting the week between days in the office and at home, with days in the office gradually increasing on a weekly basis. Employees who have been furloughed may also benefit from a phased return so they can maintain some of the family life they have experienced while furloughed. You will need to take time to have sensistive conversations with employees with mental health issues as their health is likely to have worsened. You will not only need to talk to them about their return to work but also about they feel in terms of their mental wellbeing.

You can begin to build into your regular communications with your employees how you see your business returning to normal once the lockdown restrictions are lifted. For instance you may need a phased return with some jobs returning ealier than others and some teams may return in part and gradually ramp up to the full workforce returning to work. Social distancing rules may still be in place so you may need to consider the layout of your office space and workstations in your warehousing and manufacturing areas. Involving employees in conversations about the return to work will help make the process viable.

Communication on a potential return date should start as soon as possible to give employees time to mentally adjust and start planning. Your communications should explain safety protocols and where employees can report any issue, you should also ask your employers to offer their suggestions – they might think of a different way of working that you’ve not considered.

Planning The Return

As we focus on how and when workplaces may open, it’s becoming clear that the return is going to be more complicated than the original lockdown. The priorities, phasing and practices, policies and adjustments to workplaces all have many issues to be worked through. The Government has focused on very specific guidance about workplace practices to maintain social distancing and hygiene measures. Other measures like testing, tracking and tracing are being used successfully in various countries and explored in the UK as part of the wider opening up strategy. But these will raise other questions particularly around possible discriminations and privacy issues. There are no easy solutions, the shifts will be gradual, and we’ll continue to have to learn as we go. There will undoubtedly be really difficult issues to navigate.

Once the lockdown measures start easing and restrictions on working from home and travel end there will be numerous matters that will need to be taken into consideration to ensure the health and safety of employees. Some of your employees will have settled into working from home and others will have been furloughed. Both will need to readjust when your business reopens.

The government have warned that we will face some form of social distancing for some time to come. The timing and nature of any relaxation of restrictions is uncertain, and there could be a yo-yo effect if the number of cases increases, so considering all the options will give you the capability to move quickly from one scenario to another.

Many of your employees will be concerned and anxious about returning to the workplace and travelling to the workplace, especially if they use public transport. They will want to know that you are taking adequate and sensible precautions that support their physical and mental health and are continuing to consider flexible and remote working options.

How you manage a return to the workplace will depend on the type of closure arrangements you have been operating. The 3 most prevalent types are:

  • Business not trading at all (all staff furloughed),
  • Business trading on a limited basis (some staff furloughed, some working from home or in company premises) or where only ‘essential’ workers are currently in work, or
  • Business trading fully but all staff working from home.

Whichever of these is closest to your individual business, there are some common issues you will need to address:

Given that the priority for every business should be managing a safe return to the workplace for staff. Communicate the practical measures you are taking to staff on a regular basis to help reassure them that their health, well-being and safety is your top priority. Make sure employees are clear about what procedure they should follow if they begin to feel unwell, both in the workplace and at home.

Social Distancing

It seems highly likely that there will be a requirement for some form of social distancing for some time to come. You will therefore need to review the workplace and consider how you can ensure staff maintain a 2m physical distance between each other. It may not be possible to accommodate all employees in the same space at the same time and a phased return to work may be an option, with some employees returning earlier than others. Alternatively you could stagger start and finish times or alternate the days that individuals work to limit the number of staff who are in at the same time.

You will need to consider the layout of furniture/workstations, perspex barriers may need to be installed and restrictions on how many people can use communal areas such as kitchens, meeting rooms and reception areas will need to be considered.

Where staff can work from home this is encouraged to continue to reduce the number of staff in work at the same time. A rotating working pattern so group A will spend week one in the office and week two working from home whilst group B will spend week one working at home and week two in the office may help you gradually bring employees back into the office.

How you manage meetings and other interactions with your employees will also need to be considered.

Where employees travel to work on public transport and have no alternatives available to them you may decide to provide flexible working for a period of time to allow them to avoid the busiest travelling times.

Protection and Hygiene Measures

All of the key protection and hygiene measures will continue to apply to minimise the spread of infection, such as reminding staff about regular and effective handwashing, and providing hand sanitiser. If your premises have been closed for a period of time, you should consider a deep-clean before you reopen. You should also review your cleaning arrangements, for example ensuring all phones, keyboards, door handles etc are wiped regularly with anti-viral cleaner. The Government guidance cleaning in non-healthcare settings provides more information, see also Can Professional Santising Kill Viruses Like The Coronavirus?.

Depending on your working environment, you may need to consider providing additional PPE, including gloves, masks or anti-viral hand gel. If you want people to wear gloves/masks, then you will also need to think about training/briefing staff on their correct usage – since both can be ineffective if used inappropriately. Information is available on the Government website.

Testing

It’s also likely that more largescale testing for Coronavirus infection will form a key part of facilitating a safe return to the workplace for larger numbers of employees. This could form an extension of the current framework for the testing of essential workers and members of their household, and will mean every employer implementing a systematic approach for their workforce.

Coronavirus Contact Tracing App
Encouraging the use of the Coronavirus Tracking App when its use is extended beyond the trial in the Isle of Wight will help reduce the spread of the virus.

The contact-tracing app is designed to let people know if they have been in close contact with someone who later reports positive for Coronavirus. It could pinpoint exactly who needs to self isolate and who doesn’t, making it key to easing up social distancing measures. The purpose of the contact-tracing app is to try and track down people and alert them of the need to self-isolate faster than traditional methods. Users who download the app to their phone can voluntarily opt-in to record details of their symptoms when they start to feel unwell. The app keeps a trace of others who have been in close contact through Bluetooth signals that transmit an anonymous ID. These low energy Bluetooth signals perform a digital “handshake” when two users come into close contact, but keep that data anonymous.

If an individual later reports that they are positive for coronavirus, the app will then ping a message to people who have been in close-contact with them in the last 28 days based on their anonymous IDs. The app will recommend those people self-isolate in case they have contracted the disease. Those contacted won’t know the identity of the person who may have passed on coronavirus. If the person then takes a test and tests negative, they may be released from their self-isolation by a notification through the app. For trials on the Isle of Wight, people who voluntarily report their symptoms will be brought a testing kit within 24 hours, the government has said.

Travelling

Staff who travel or visit other company premises may also need additional equipment or briefing. Remote meeting facilities and video-conferencing should be encouraged wherever possible to minimise the need for staff to travel and/or use public transport.

If your business operates internationally, you will need to plan based on the restrictions and/or guidance of different countries. Some may maintain stricter lockdown arrangements than the UK; others may lift restrictions sooner. Adopt a consistent approach while ensuring you are aware of local circumstances.

International travel is likely to remain disrupted even when other restrictions are lifted. Some countries have strict quarantine rules for those entering, which may prevent travel. Even if this is not the case, some staff may have concerns about travelling to other countries where the risk of Coronavirus is higher. Be aware of your health and safety responsibilities and keep business travel to an absolute minimum. As many have realised during the current lockdown, many (though not all) business meetings can be done via video-conferencing.

Mental Wellbeing

The risks to people’s health from this pandemic are psychological as well as physical. These include anxiety about the ongoing health crisis and fear of infection, as well social isolation due to the lockdown. Many will have experienced challenging domestic situations, such as juggling childcare or caring for a vulnerable relative, as well as financial worries if a partner has lost their income. Some will have experienced illness, or bereavement. Even if staff have carried on working and participating in video meetings, they will still need to adjust to working in a shared environment with colleagues. Some may take more time than others and it’s likely that most people will need a period of readjustment. Some members of staff may have concerns about travelling to work on public transport – or it may not be as readily available. Many may find that they are still coming to terms with the significant change which society has seen, and the familiar workplace routines could feel very different.

The following documents from the CIPD and MIND provides excellent advice:

Carers UK and Carers Trust provide advice to any employees with caring responsibilities.

Re-induction

It will be vital to have a re-orientation or re-induction process for returning staff. Every line manager should be encouraged to have a one to one return meeting with every employee, where a key focus is on health, safety and well-being. This will enable open discussion about any adjustments and/or ongoing support they may need to facilitate an effective return to the workplace. This is especially important for those who have been furloughed, and should cover topics such as changes in company services or procedures, how specific customer queries or issues are being addressed, or changes in supply arrangements, as well as any changes to their work duties or tasks. It could be that some staff require a phased return to their full role, or want to discuss a new working arrangement, especially if their domestic situation has changed because of the pandemic.

If you have employees who have been furloughed on 80% and others on 100% pay, for example, while others may have continued to work or even had increased workloads. The uneven nature of people’s work and personal experiences and the challenging nature of the lockdown and ongoing situation, means there could be potential for some negative feelings creeping into the employment relations climate. Therefore, it’s important that you foster an inclusive working environment, and managers are sensitive to any underlying tensions and confident about nipping potential conflict in the bud.

Continued Shielding and Self-isolatation

Some of your staff may still be required to shield (currently for 12 weeks) because they are ‘extremely vulnerable’ and at particular risk from the Coronavirus infection. Others may be very concerned because they live or care for someone who is classed as high risk. If individuals are still shielding as restrictions begin to be lifted you should:

  • allow them to continue to work from home,
  • if this is not possible, look at other options to retain them such as a further furlough period.

Staff who develop symptoms of COVID-19 – or who live with someone who does – will still need to self-isolate for 14 days. The rules around this have not changed and information can be found on the government website.

Bereavement

It is possible you will have employees who have suffered the bereavement of a close family member. While there is no statutory right to bereavement leave, other than in the case of the death of a child, you should be sympathetic to requests for additional time off during this period.

Remember that, while all deaths affect individuals, in the case of Coronavirus family members may have been unable to see their loved one for some time before death, and not been able to attend the funeral. Employees who have suffered a bereavement are likely to need ongoing flexibility and support to grieve. Make sure managers are able to have sensitive and supportive conversations with people.

You may also have an employee who has died from Coronavirus. You will need to support their colleagues and be in contact with their family to offer support, especially where you offer Death In Service benefits.

How To Deal With The Death Of A Colleague

Managing Holidays After The Return To Work

Staff are now allowed to carry forward some of their statutory holidays if they are unable to take them in the current leave year.

You will need to consider how outstanding holiday entitlement is managed on return to work.

Employees who have been furloughed at 80% will need lieu days added to their annual entitlement to reflect the fact they were unable to take holiday for Good Friday, Easter Monday, May Day and Spring Bank Holiday. If you topped up pay for these days to 100% you wouldn’t need to do that.

Where employees are not returning to work until later in the year you may insist that they take some of their outstanding holiday entitlement during this current holiday year. If you did this you would need to provide notice of at least twice the number of days holiday you require them to take i.e. for 5 days holiday you will provide at least 10 days notice. The remaining unused entitlement will then be carried forward. In this case you would need to consider whether you are going to insist that some or all of that carry over is used during the winter months or during your quieter trading periods.

Coronavirus and Annual Holiday Entitlement

Failure To Comply

Once agreed, thought should be given as to how breaches of these policies should be treated and with what level of severity. Given that there is no precedent, say, for a rule on social distancing, how should an employer ‘punish’ a group of employees who gather together for a coffee in the office? Disciplinary procedures should be clear on this point and any sanctions imposed should be proportionate and consistent across the workforce.

COVID-19 Secure Guidance

The new COVID-19 Secure guidance documents have now been published. They cover 8 workplace settings as opposed to being sector specific.

The guidance applies to businesses currently open and also includes guidance for shops which may be in a position to begin a phased reopening at the earliest from 1 June. Guidance for other sectors that are not currently open will be developed and published ahead of those establishments opening to give those businesses time to plan. The government have also said they will also shortly set up taskforces to work with these sectors to develop safe ways for them to open at the earliest point at which it is safe to do so, as well as pilot re-openings to test businesses’ ability to adopt the guidelines.

The guidance follows a similar structure for all 8 workplaces and sets out practical steps for businesses, focused around 5 key points, which BEIS states should be implemented “as soon as it is practical”. The detail comes back to the general premise that an employer is under a duty under existing Health and Safety legislation to provide a safe place of work.

To Recall or Not Recall

There will also be a number of employment law and administrative issues that need to be covered.

Recalling Staff

Advice from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development throughout has been that you should seek written agreement with staff to be furloughed. Even if you put in a clause allowing for an immediate recall, you should still give staff a reasonable period of notice of requiring them to return to the workplace. This is particularly important given that many people will have additional childcare or other responsibilities, which they may need to make arrangements to manage.

What criteria will you use to recall staff? Will it be simply business need? Will you consider individual personal circumstances? Remember not to use discriminatory criteria; be fair and inclusive and keep in mind your organisational values and any diversity and inclusion aims.

What If You Don’t Need To Recall Everyone?

When the government furlough scheme ends (currently set for 31 October) you may still not need to bring all your existing workforce back. In this case you have essentially three options:

Extend The Period Of Furlough

If the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) ends as currently scheduled on 31 October, that may not necessarily fit in with your own business timescale. It may be that you would prefer to keep some staff furloughed for a further period as you implement a phased return to normal working.

If your furlough letter to individual employees did not include a specific end date, then you can continue to keep staff furloughed on the same terms as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, although your business would need to bear the full cost of their 80% payment and other employment costs. It would be sensible to write to employees to explain that you are continuing furlough for them (with an estimate of how long for if you can give it) as many will expect the end of the government scheme to mean a return to more normal working.

If your furlough letter did include an end date or linked furlough to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, you will need to seek further agreement from staff to continue being furloughed. Again, you will bear any employment costs and it would be sensible to give an estimate of how long the further period is likely to be.

If you have an unpaid ‘lay-off’ clause in your contract you will be able to use it provided staff are given correct notice. Remember, however, that unpaid lay-off still requires you to pay minimum guarantee payments for some of the period, and that an unpaid lay-off exceeding 4 weeks in length entitles an employee to consider themselves redundant and claim a redundancy payment from you, so this is only a short-term solution. Seek advice even if you do have such a clause.

Reduce Working Hours

If your business has work for all your staff, but not at the level before restrictions, you may want to consider asking staff to reduce their working hours on a temporary basis. From 1 August the furlough scheme allows for a combination of part time working and part time furlough, in that situation you would pay normal pay for the worked hours and 80% of pay for the furloughed hours.

If you introduce a reduced working week for furloughed employees after 31 October you would need to agree in writing the temporary contractual change. It is legally possible to impose a change but this is a complex and timeconsuming approach which is also likely to destroy any goodwill with employees, so should only be considered as a last resort and following proper advice.

You’ll need to be clear about the reasons for reducing working hours and be prepared to respond to questions from staff. You also may need to consider how you ‘sell’ the idea when furloughed staff have been receiving 80% when not required to work – you may be asking them to do work and receive a smaller amount; and staff who have been working normal hours may feel demotivated at being asked to take home less pay when they have kept the organisation running at a difficult time.

Redundancies

Your business may not be able to continue trading, or you may only have enough business to require significantly fewer staff. In such a situation, the end of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme may require you to make redundancies. While you need to follow the correct legal process take any steps you can to support employees through this process. Redundancy will be a crushing blow to many people, at a time when they have been through a very challenging time – be very mindful of how you communicate, continue to support them and treat their health and welfare as a priority.

Some key points you need to remember are:

  • You must consult with staff, even if there is no option but to make redundancies, before formally giving notice. This should include the reasons why they are being made redundant.
  • If you are planning to make 20 or more people redundant (but less than 100 people) you must start collective consultation 30 days before giving notice of the first redundancy. If you want to make this number of redundancies as soon as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends on 31 October you will need to start consultation no later than 1 October 2020. If you are planning to make 100 or more people redundant then consultation must begin 45 days before giving notice of first redundancy.
  • While the relevant legislation does allow for these consultation periods to be reduced in ‘special circumstances’, it is unlikely that you would be able to use this argument when the end date of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is known well in advance.
  • Redundant staff are entitled to receive notice (or payment in lieu); holidays and other contractual entitlements; and a redundancy payment if they qualify. This is a cost your business will have to pay.

TOP TIP

In addition to health and well-being, you should bear in mind the importance of diversity and inclusion in any decisions or plans made. From ensuring that decisions don’t discriminate against certain groups of employees (e.g. decisions about flexible, home or part time working due to school closures where women could be disproportionately affected leading to sex discrimination claims) to fostering an inclusive working environment that takes account of the different experiences people have had during the pandemic.

Summary

Changes to the current lockdown restrictions are going to be slow and gradual.

Communication with your staff is key. Keeping people informed of what your business is doing – whether it is good or bad news for individuals – will help them to make their own decisions and give them some degree of security in very uncertain times. Knowing they are valued and supported by their employer – and that you continue to prioritise their health and safety – will be pivotal to their well-being.

Pay specific attention to staff who have particular requirements (e.g. health issues, disability, childcare or other caring responsibilities). They may not be in a position to return as quickly to ‘normal’ working. Be aware that some employees who had a reasonable adjustment before may need a different one on their return to a workplace. Similarly, many individuals who didn’t previously have a mental health condition may have experienced mental health challenges and need to discuss changes to help them overcome any barriers and fulfil their role.

There will be many challenges for employers you to navigigate as you plan the re-opening of your businsess. If you have complied as far as possible with the relevant health and safety guidance and shared this with your staff you will be in as strong a position as you possibly can be.

If you have any questions please call me on 0114 360 0626 or simply email me at enquiries@kea-hr.co.uk.

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Coronavirus and Planning For A Return To Work