Coaxing employees back into the office – when and how?

As HR experts, we appreciate that people are unique. Some employees will be keen to return to the office and some will have embraced homeworking and never want to wear non-elasticated trousers again. Employers must decide when and how to call everyone back to their work premises. This can be a daunting task, so we have broken it down into these five steps.

Consult your employees

Does your workforce need to be in the office? Ask them.  Talk to everyone before making decisions. This will make them feel included and help compliance. Some employees may be perfectly capable of doing their job from home, but thrive on the office environment and work community. Some may find it hard to communicate or be creative via zoom meetings. Trust your staff. People generally want to work but need to know that they, and their families, are safe and cared for.

Also consult trade union representatives, employee representatives and health and safety representatives. Check any agreements to see if you should formally consult these representatives.

Talking points include:

  • Possible dates to return to the workplace
  • Travel to and from work
  • How health and safety is being reviewed and any planned adjustments to the workplace
  • A phased return of the workforce working from home arrangements

Continue to check-in with employees. Once they have returned, don’t stop the communication.

Follow the rules

If your employees feel confident that you are sticking to the law and doing everything you can to keep them safe, they will feel more comfortable returning to work. Prove to them and communicate the lengths you are going to, to ensure their safety.

Even before COVID-19, under UK health and safety law employers have a duty to ensure – so far as reasonably practicable – that their employees and other people who might be affected by their business, are not exposed to risk to their health, safety or wellbeing from their activities. Breach is a criminal offence by the employer. If found guilty, the employer faces a fine. Employers cannot insure for these fines or contract out of the duty.

You’re not alone. There are guidelines to help you:

  • In order to eliminate the risk, those workers who can work from home should continue to do so in-line with Government guidance. Remember that this approach introduces a new risk associated with working from home (including risks of upper limb disorders and risks to mental health). A working from home risk assessment should be conducted.
  • Employers have a duty of care to identify and manage risks to ensure that the workplace is sufficiently safe to return to.
  • Employers have a duty to provide information and training to employees. This must be kept up-to-date and reflect changes in the risks. Training should be provided during working hours and employees should not be charged for it. It should take into account specific vulnerabilities of employees.
  • Since 6 April 2020 statements of particulars for employees and workers should include details of training provided in any event.
  • It’s vital that there is a clear dialogue between employers and their people so concerns can be raised and taken into account. There will need to be flexibility on both sides.
  • For anyone with health concerns about returning to work, the Equality Act 2010 will apply. Particularly relevant is the duty to make reasonable adjustments and the right not be subjected to unfavourable treatment for a reason arising out of a disability.
  • If there are any proposed changes that affect the written terms of someone’s contract, the employer must consult with the employee, worker or their representative.

Consult the latest Government guidance including sector specific guidance, for example guidance for offices and contact centres.

Choose your ‘best normal’

Yes, this pandemic has been devastating, but you can use the disruption to make your business more efficient. Your company may benefit from a home-based work force. Just because it wasn’t ‘normal’ to work from home, doesn’t mean it can’t be a good thing. Don’t just put all the pieces back where they were before without trying to imagine a better solution first. Take this time to visualise a new, ideal situation. Your employees will appreciate a logical approach and may even have some suggestions to help the process – be sure to consult them.

Consider:

  • Who really needs to be on site
  • Where your sites would work best
  • Savings that could be made
  • What will work most efficiently
  • What does the ‘perfect work set up’ look like?
  • Make it safe and simple to return

When employees do return they will fully expect to see change. Here are some useful actions:

  • Stagger start times and break times to avoid overcrowding         
  • Create ‘fixed-teams’ who work on site together to minimise and trace contact
  • Car parking spaces so that staff don’t have to use public transport
  • Consider cordoning off areas that employees would usually congregate, mark out walkways, and add temporary barriers between workstations or rearrange them to space people out.
  • Go ‘contactless’. Avoid hard copies of memos, touch screens or keypads – anything that many people will touch during the day.
  • Restrict visitors to the work premises and ensure only absolutely necessary visits are permitted. Limit contact with employees.
  • Train employees to maintain a ‘COVID Secure’ workplace and enforce this behaviour.
  • Create plenty of signage to instruct employees.
  • Provide onsite sanitiser and bins with closed lids.
  • Set up a symptom monitoring / tracking system. If employers want to test employees for symptoms, they will need the consent of the employee.
  • PPE can be an effective control measure but only where it is suitable and sufficient to control the risk.

Be firm but fair

If an employee or worker has an issue about going back to work, they should raise it with their employer or manager. Employers and managers should take any issues raised by staff seriously.

If someone really does not want to return to work for any reason you could keep them on furlough or arrange for them to take holiday or unpaid leave. The employer does not have to agree to this.

If someone refuses to attend work without a valid reason, it could result in disciplinary action.

Employees are likely to raise concerns about potential issues with health and safety. These could amount to a protected disclosure under the Employment Rights Act 1996, with an employee protected from detriment and dismissal.

There is a lot to consider. We recommend always seeking legal or professional advice for clarification.

Any questions? Ask alix@ourhrpeople.co.uk

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