As the 7th May fast approaches and the government are due to review the current measures that are in place to contain the spread of Covid-19, many of our clients may have started thinking about how they can resume operations and ask their employees to return to the office. Whether you have staff who have been furloughed or are working from home, considerations must be made before trying to resume ‘business as usual’.  Whilst we are facilitating a ‘Leaders Forum’ discussion for our clients on 7th May, we thought it would be useful to put together some guidance for employers around managing the return to the workplace.

Is it necessary to return to the workplace?

Before considering a return to the workplace, employers should weigh up whether home working has been going well and if an immediate return to the workplace is necessary.

The expectation is that there will be staged return to the workplace with the lockdown being lifted incrementally, so it is important to consider all the options before asking employees to return to the workplace. Whilst it may be unlikely that work will return to ‘normal’ for a few months, with social distancing measures and/or adjustments to working patterns, we may be able to begin to manage the process of bringing employees back to the workplace gradually within the next few weeks.

Assessment of the workplace

Social distancing measures are likely to be in place for some months following a relax of the lockdown measures. Employers should carry out a risk assessment of the workplace and ensure that employees are able to work safely while adhering to the social distancing rules of staying at least 2 metres apart. Communal areas should also be assessed, such as canteens or kitchen areas. The priority for every business should be managing a safe return to the workplace for all staff.

What measures should be considered

Once employers have made an assessment of the workplace, it is also worth considering the following measures before bringing employees back to the office:

  • A resourcing strategy to determine which roles can continue to be carried out remotely and which require office attendance – caution is needed here as there is the potential for negative feelings from employees who are told they must come into the office – employers must avoid any potential discrimination issues
  • Considering flexible and remote working options wherever possible
  • Staggering working hours to ensure minimal staff are in the office at any one time
  • Staggering breaks to ensure minimal staff have access to the canteen/kitchen area at any one time
  • Providing hand washing stations and/or hand sanitiser for all staff
  • Training and reminding staff on the importance of using the hygiene facilities
  • Providing additional PPE such as gloves and face masks and training on the correct usage
  • Provide floor markers to ensure employees stay 2 metres apart
  • Provide plastic screens for desks
  • Re-inducting staff to the new ways of working
  • Deep cleaning of working environments prior to employees returning to work
  • Put in place a cleaning plan for all staff to follow such as cleaning their desks/phones/computers every hour
  • If employees use public transport, consider providing taxis for them to get to and from work
  • Purchasing thermometers to check employees’ temperatures before they enter the building
  • Providing employees with questionnaires relating to their health on a weekly basis

Preparation is key

Before asking employees to return to work, make sure you are fully prepared. Ensure all assessments have been carried out, risks of exposure minimised, all options considered and that you have a written plan of action to show your employees.  Having a written strategy will demonstrate to your staff that you have considered ways to safeguard their health and wellbeing and that they are returning to a supportive and caring environment.

Asking Employees to Return to the Workplace

Employers should ensure that employees are clearly informed that they are required to return to the workplace. A discussion should be had with all employees who are affected and should include the reasons for the return, the measures that the company have put in place to protect them from exposure to Covid-19 and the implications should employees refuse to return to work. We have put together a standard letter for our clients to issue to employees prior to their return to work.

Employee concerns and/or refusals to attend work

Being asked to return to the workplace when there is still a risk of exposure to Covid-19 can have a psychological effect on individuals, and employers should recognise that not all of their employees will be happy to leave the safety of their homes or leave their families.

Employees may experience some periods of panic, anxiety and/or develop other mental health issues as a result of being in isolation for so long. Some employees will still have childcare issues if schools remain closed, or they may have caring responsibilities elsewhere that will take some time to reorganise. Some employees may have financial worries as a result of the crisis. Some may have even suffered a bereavement or experienced illness. Some employees may still be shielding or living with someone who is shielding or is displaying symptoms of Covid-19. Employers should consider being flexible and listening to any concerns that their employees may have. They should collaborate with their employees as much as possible to find a resolution that suits both the needs of the business and the needs of the employee. Consider options such as allowing employees to take holiday or emergency dependent leave. In some cases, a period of unpaid leave may also be considered appropriate and agreed with the employee. If no agreement can be reached and the employee is refusing to attend work without a justifiable reason, disciplinary action may be taken.  However, this should be a last resort and it should be noted that any action taken may not resolve the matter and may create bad will and poor relations in struggling workplaces.

Offering additional support to employees

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are a great way for employees to have access to extra support such as counselling services or financial advice. If the company does not have access to an EAP, consider researching the available services that are available. Having access to an EAP can greatly improve an employees’ wellbeing. Managers should be prepared to be available for employees to raise any concerns they have regarding their safety while they are at work and act on any potential risks as soon as possible.

Periods of adjustment

The pandemic has affected how we live, eat and work and we urge employers to take this into consideration when enforcing the new ways of working. There may be a period of adjustment that each employee goes through and this will be different for each person so employers must be prepared to be patient. Some may be relieved to get back to the office as isolation has been a struggle for them, while some may be quite happy either working from home or being furloughed. The important thing to remember is to be open, honest and transparent about how you will manage the safety of your employees whilst they are at work and why it is so important for them to return to the workplace.

Confirmation of fitness to attend work

While many employees may be excited to return to the workplace, employers must consider how they will assess their fitness for work, especially if they have had Covid-19 symptoms or live with someone who has. If employers know that some of their employees have had a period of illness during the lockdown period, a return to work interview should take place with some key questions around the Covid-19 symptoms and seek to agree an appropriate method to monitor and review.

Take care all, with very best wishes from the Gateway HR team.

As always, if you need our help with this or any other HR advice then do call us on 01536 215240

About the Author: Carla Cifaldi

Carla Cifaldi
Carla is Gateway's Senior HR Consultant. She holds a Level 7 CIPD Diploma in HR and is continually seeking further opportunities to develop her knowledge which demonstrates her commitment to increasing her expertise and providing the best service to our clients. Outside of work, Carla’s passions are her dogs, handbags and her hot tub – probably not the most compatible mix!