Following the aftermath of the second wave of Covid-19, governments are now turning their attention to a phased approach to normality post lockdowns, following the successful rolling out of the various vaccination programmes. The road maps to recovery are designed to allow sectors of the economy to re-start, on the proviso that social distancing and hygiene protocols remain paramount going forward.
As restrictions are expected to lift systematically, on the basis of continued reduction in active case numbers, it’s definitely time to start taking the next steps for your business. Creating and scheduling an effective plan for getting your workforce back into the workplace and back up to speed, should be your priority now.
Employees will be anxious about returning to work and for as long as people still need to be cautious about social distancing, customer confidence will take some time to rebuild. Employers have a lot to continue to focus on, exactly as they had remotely during 2020, because all of these issues remain valid, including:
- Physical constraints including hygiene and social distancing.
- Dealing with any redundancies or re-structures which may be necessary.
- Managing holidays, sickness and other absences.
- Employee support and mental health.
- Formal re-introduction to the workplace.
Employers need to plan a gradual and elongated return to work for their employees, the speed and duration of which will largely depend on the welfare, health and wellbeing of their workforce. Many employees could face difficult personal circumstances, relating to caring responsibilities, their children’s schooling or travel restrictions. Once everything has started up again sequentially, these matters can be considered for the short-term and simply require flexibility, patience and understanding when making arrangements for those returning.
It is likely that social distancing will be one of the last restrictions to be lifted, therefore employers will need to look at every safeguard they can put in place to protect their staff and customers.
Health and Safety will be paramount and it’s advisable to refer to any guidelines which have been issued on government or professional body websites for further information.
Within your workplace or premises, you will need to consider how staff and customers can maintain a 2-metre physical distance and how to prevent any potential spread of the virus in communal areas, such as toilets or kitchens. Solutions include smaller working teams or asking people to work on a shift rota, so that only a few people are in at any one time, or alternatively, ask people to continue to work from home for a longer period.
If the workplace has been closed or there has been limited access, it might be advisable to carry out a deep clean before opening again, making sure all equipment and furniture is sanitised. Make sure this is part of your timescale planning, as those providing these services will find themselves in big demand.
On a daily basis and ongoing, you will need to make sure employees are in the habit of wiping surfaces and equipment regularly including handwashing and using hand sanitiser. You may need to provide additional PPE, including gloves, masks etc., so make sure that you have sufficient supplies. It is extremely important to provide staff with any relevant training on how to use and dispose of any new PPE safely and sensibly.
For businesses that have been affected by the Covid-19 restrictions, employers will have had to have a long hard look at their business models and many may have come to the conclusion that, in order to survive, they need to reduce the number of staff or restructure the business.
Employers in this position will need to make sure they follow the correct legal process, which is undoubtedly more complicated by the remoteness of staff. It’s important to handle any redundancy situation sensitively and with patience. Employees will already have been through challenging times with health and welfare being top priority.
From a legal perspective you must: –
- Consult with each member of staff – even if there is no option except redundancy, explaining the reasons.
- Every person has the right to be accompanied in any consultation meeting, meaning that you will need to apply flexibility in the way that you hold any meetings. A virtual meeting would be acceptable; however, you will need to link the meeting in with the person who is nominated to accompany the employee.
- Redundant staff are entitled to receive notice or pay in lieu, holiday entitlement and other contractual benefits, which you will have to pay. If they qualify for a redundancy payment then this will be an additional cost, based on statutory minimums or your own policy.
It is likely that employees who have not been working or have been working from home, will have cancelled any scheduled holidays, or not taken any annual leave during this time. There will be a large amount of accrued holiday entitlement amongst your workforce, which will need to be scheduled into the remainder of the year and may cause operational issues for you.
- Asking people to take some paid leave before the formal return to work. Where employees are not currently on their full level of pay, you will need to ensure they are moved to the relevant pay for the leave period.
- Requesting that annual leave is booked in advance and to the end of the year, so you can work this into your own plans.
- Allowing employees to carry over an element of their leave entitlement to the next holiday year (or increasing the allowance) if this is already in your terms and conditions.
- Make sure you accrue for the cost of unused holiday entitlement in any revised projections for the future.
In their own return to work planning, an employee may opt to take unpaid leave, or may need to take sick or other statutory leave. These instances should be treated in the normal way and integrated into any return-to-work plans.
Many employees will have been affected emotionally and psychologically during the lockdown period. People will have lost loved ones, been struggling with family life and will have been managing caring responsibilities and, in some cases, coping with loss of income.
The communication and team dynamic of the workplace will have been lost while people are working remotely or in reduced numbers. People will be concerned about travelling on public transport and coming into contact with groups of people outside their family circle again. Some of your workforce will have been deemed to be high risk or have underlying health conditions which will continue to affect their ability to mix for the foreseeable future.
Employee preferences, personal circumstances and emotional state will play a large part in the planning process for employers and the ability of employees to return to the workplace. From a practical point of view, employers should talk individually to each member of staff and gather information, together with their thoughts and feelings to enable, where possible, reasonable adjustments to be made for each individual. A short questionnaire would be ideal for this.
Training to Return to Work
Working practices in your workplace may have changed significantly. Social distancing will mean changes to the way that people work in teams, or deal with customers. People’s jobs may have changed to include an element of responsibility for customer social distancing, or the way your business operates may be different.
A short re-introduction to work session would be an excellent way to address any concerns or questions people have prior to returning to work. The session should include practical arrangements related to PPE, hygiene and social distancing along with any other changes which will be necessary in the workplace for the short term.
Finally, any changes to terms and conditions of working must be agreed and confirmed in writing. Any restructure or redundancy programme must be accompanied by formal and legally compliant letters, so employers must make sure they have an audit trail for any changes which are made.
It’s important for Employees and Employers to work together to ease the transition from home back to the workplace. Keep clear lines of communication open and encourage your employees to verbalise any worries they may have. Sensitivity and working together is the key to a successful return to the workplace and the future success of the business.