Head of Services
As lockdown measures continue to ease, and businesses look to reopen (based on different restrictions in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), employers must plan how they can return to the workplace in a way that cares for their people and safeguards their health and wellbeing.
On 17 July the Prime Minister announced that from 1 August the Government’s advice for England on going to work changed: ‘Instead of government telling people to work from home, we are going to give employers more discretion, and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely.’ This could still mean continuing to work from home, or it could mean making workplaces safe by following COVID-secure guidelines. ‘Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees, and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe,’ said the Prime Minister.
However, on 31 July PM Boris Johnson announced the postponement of some planned lockdown easing, including the reopening of bowling alleys, skating rinks, casinos and exhibition halls and conference centres in England. These premises will remain closed until at least 15 August unless the Government further postpones the proposed reopening.
The Government have updated the Working safely during coronavirus guidance, but with the changes to the relaxation of restrictions and the potential for regional restrictions to be put in place, it is sensible for businesses to consider all the options and have the capability to move quickly from one scenario to another.
Many workers will be concerned and anxious about being in the workplace or travelling there. They will want to know that their organisation is retaining their support for physical and mental health and its current thinking about flexible and remote working. This should be at the heart of any decisions and plans that organisations make.
The CIPD is urging businesses to ensure they can meet three key tests before bringing their people back to the workplace:
As well as keeping up to date with the latest Government guidance (including sector specific guidance, for example guidance for offices and contact centres) employers should start thinking about the following areas, bearing in mind that the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of the workforce must remain the key principle:
Related tools and assets
PDF download - COVID-19 General workplace safety risk assessment template
Explore our Returning to the workplace planner
Returning to the workplace
How you manage a return to the workplace will depend on the type of closure arrangements you have been operating. The business may not have been trading at all (with all staff furloughed), or it may have been trading on a limited basis (with some staff furloughed, some working from home or in the workplace). Alternatively only ‘essential’ workers may be in work or the business may be trading fully with all staff in the workplace or with some working from home.
Whichever of these is closest to your individual business, there are some common issues you will need to address.
All workplaces need to observe the Government's social distancing guidance which seems highly likely to continue for some time to come; the Prime Minister indicated that social distancing will stay in place for now but may be ended from as early as November or December.
Employers have discretion from 1 August to decide if all staff in office-based businesses who can work from home should carry on doing so or whether they will return to the workplace. Employers must keep themselves fully up to date with the current situation, including local outbreaks.
Employers must take an individualised approach and the CIPD are recommending three key tests before bringing people back to the workplace: is it essential; is it sufficiently safe; and is it mutually agreed? This will involve taking into account many factors including the size and nature of their workplace, numbers of vulnerable staff or those who live with vulnerable people, caring responsibilities, public transport dependency, local outbreaks and second wave.
For example, an employer with a large premises and car park may be able to fully implement social distancing and minimise employees’ local transport use, whereas an employer with smaller premises may feel social distancing is impossible in the workplace.
Making the decision
Re-opening of offices and workplaces for staff who have been working remotely has been firmly delegated by the government so that employers can decide how staff can work safely. There are four main options:
Once the decision is made
Where businesses decide to return to the workplace, employers must consider detailed risk management approaches to safeguard employees' health and minimise the risk of infection. It’s therefore essential that employers continue to base any plans for returning to the workplace on up-to-date Government and public health guidance in relation to COVID-19.
The Health and Safety Executive will be conducting spot checks and has also published advice and guidance relating to COVID-19 on its website which may be useful when considering health and safety measures. SOM, in collaboration with the CIPD, Mind, Acas and BITC have produced a toolkit to help employers plan a return to the workplace in a way that manages risk alongside their legal obligations. IOSH have also produced resources and free e-learning modules on returning safely.
Given that the priority for every business is managing a safe return to the workplace for staff, it’s crucial to work in close collaboration with your health and safety and occupational health teams wherever possible. 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 rules and procedures they should follow both in the workplace and at home, especially if they begin to feel unwell.
You will need to review your workplace and consider – can staff maintain safe distance between each other? How will you manage meetings, interviews and other interactions? What about communal areas such as canteens or kitchen areas? How can you implement resourcing strategies to support physical distancing such as ‘cohorting’ (ie keeping teams of workers working together and as small as possible), or staggering working hours so that not all staff are in at the same time?
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 carrying out a deep-clean before reopening. You should therefore review your cleaning arrangements, for example ensuring all phones/keyboards etc are wiped daily with anti-viral cleaner. You can refer to the Government guidance for more information.
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 or masks, then you will also need to think about training and briefing staff on their correct usage – since both can be ineffective if used inappropriately. Information is available on the Government website.
You might also want to consider ventilation in the working environment; good ventilation can help reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus, so focus on improving general ventilation, preferably through fresh air or mechanical systems. The risk of air conditioning spreading coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace is extremely low as long as there is an adequate supply of fresh air and ventilation. Advice on the use of air conditioning systems can be found on the HSE website.
It’s also likely that more large-scale testing for COVID-19 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. Employers should continue to monitor the latest government guidance and be prepared to act upon any changes.
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. You can refer to our recommendations for developing effective virtual teams, our series of tips for making the most of remote working and the recording of our webinar session on looking after your remote teams.
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 their partner has had a reduction or a loss of 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 and socially distancing 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.
If your business has an Employee Assistance Programme or access to Occupational Health advisers make staff aware of the services they can provide. Refer to the CIPD’s content on mental health or resources from organisations like Mind for more. CIPD members can also access a new well-being helpline for advice and support. You may also wish to share the advice from Carers UK and Carers Trust with any employees with caring responsibilities.
It will be vital to have a re-orientation or re-induction process for returning staff. Encourage and support every manager to have a one to one return meetings with every employee, where a key focus is on health, safety and well-being. Managers need to have a sensitive and open discussion with every individual and discuss any adjustments and/or ongoing support 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 agreed changes to their work duties or tasks. Whilst employers should not attempt to unilaterally change previous terms and conditions, some staff may 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.
Finally, it will be important for every employer to ensure that the organisation culture is inclusive, and that every employee feels they are returning to a supportive and caring environment. The pandemic has had an unequal impact across the workforce in many ways, as different groups of employees, and individuals, will have been affected in diverse ways according to their job role and individual circumstances.
Some organisations will have people who have been furloughed on 80% or 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 the organisation fosters an inclusive working environment, and managers are sensitive to any underlying tensions and confident about nipping potential conflict in the bud. You may wish to refer to our report on managing conflict in the modern workplace for advice.
There will also be a number of employment law and administrative issues that need to be covered.
CIPD members can seek individual advice from the employment law helpline on 03330 431 217.
Short term working/Redundancy
The government furlough scheme has now been extended to October 2020 but when planning a return to the workplace your business may decide all of the existing workforce are not needed. In this case you have several options:
Reduced working hours
If your business has work for all its staff, but not at the level before restrictions, you may want to consider asking staff to reduce their working hours on a temporary basis. This needs to be done by agreement and can be done under the flexible furlough scheme until October, with the Government paying partial furlough pay (see below).
Under normal employment law employers can also agree a temporary or permanent contractual change to part time working, although it may be more cost effective to wait until the furlough scheme ends. Employees will always need to agree in writing. It is legally possible to impose a change (for example by dismissal and re-engagement) but this is a complex and time-consuming approach which is also likely to destroy any goodwill with employees, so should only be considered as a last resort and following proper legal 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 can receive 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.
One of the key measures affecting returning to the workplace is the extension to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, commonly known as the furlough scheme. This scheme has been extended from 1 July (although effectively the last date to furlough employees who were not previously on furlough was the 10 June). Under the extension of the scheme, previously furloughed employees can return to work, either at home or in the workplace, for any amount of time and in any shift pattern. Despite any partial return to work, employers can still claim the furlough grant for their normal hours not worked. In summary from 1 July to October 31 the scheme becomes slightly more flexible. Furloughed employees will continue to receive 80% of their salary subject to the cap but employers will need to pay part of the furlough salaries:
Although the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) has now been extended to October 2020, the grant available 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 while you implement a phased return to normal working.
Employers will need to check their furlough letter to individual employees to see if it included a specific end date and a specific percentage salary payment. If employers wish to continue to keep staff furloughed on the same terms as the extended CJRS, businesses may need to reach further agreements with staff to accept the continuance of furlough and the new payment.
With the reduced grants employers can supplement any reduced furlough payment but do not have to, unless there are problems with the wording of their original furlough agreements. It would be sensible to write to employees to explain that you are considering continuing furlough for them (with an estimate of how long for if you can give it) as many will expect the changes of government advice and amendments to the scheme to mean a return to more normal working.
If your furlough letter did include an end date or linked furlough to the original CJRS, you will need to seek further agreement from staff to continue being furloughed. It would be sensible to give an estimate of how long the further period is likely to be.
When the CRJS finally ends in October a minority of employers will have an unpaid ‘lay-off’ clause in their contract. If you do have such a clause, you will be able to use it provided staff are given correct notice (and there should be no reason why you cannot give people more notice than they contractually require). 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.
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, you may need to consider redundancy planning. You need to follow the correct legal process and take any steps you can to support employees through this process. Redundancy is 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.
Information on implementing redundancies can be found on the redundancy topic page but some key points you need to remember are:
Dealing with other groups of staff
Since not all restrictions will be lifted at the same time, there are some other issues that you will need to consider:
Shielding and vulnerability
Some of your staff may still wish to behave cautiously (even though from 1 August, high-risk patients no longer have to formally shield) because they are ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ and at particular risk from COVID-19 infection. Others may be very concerned because they live or care for someone who is classed as high risk. If individuals are especially vulnerable as restrictions begin to be lifted, or the CJRS ends, you should:
The updated Working safely during coronavirus guidance now includes guidance on protecting people who are at higher risk as from 1 August, clinically extremely vulnerable individuals can go to the workplace as long as it is COVID-secure. The guidance does state that these people should carry on working from home wherever possible. More information is available in the guide on supporting employees who have been shielding and on the government website.
The Public Health England contact tracing system may contact staff who are at risk of contracting the virus to tell them they are required to isolate for 14 days because they have been in contact with some-one who has tested positive. This isolation should happen whether the person is ill or not. Staff contacted in this way or 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.
While deaths from COVID-19 are still comparatively rare, it is possible you may have employees who have suffered the bereavement of a partner or other 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, and if you can we recommend that you pay normal pay.
Remember that, while all deaths affect individuals, in the case of COVID-19 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 you make them aware of any mental health support (such as Employee Assistance Programmes) you offer, and that managers are able to have sensitive and supportive conversations with people.
In very rare cases, you may have an employee who has died from COVID-19. You will need to support their colleagues and again, signpost staff to any mental health support you offer. You will also want to be in contact with their family to offer support, especially where you offer Death In Service benefits.
More information is available in the guide on compassionate bereavement support.
Staff are now allowed to carry forward some of their statutory holidays if they are unable to take them in the current leave year. CIPD advice remains the same:
Other issues to consider
Changes to the current lockdown restrictions have affected different sectors and regions differently. The changes are also likely to fluctuate, for example in the event of a local lockdown, and stricter measures could be imposed, possibly with very little notice. There is now guidance on suggested steps, principles and measures to be taken in workplaces and elsewhere and every employer will need to consider future planning. Organisations therefore need to use this time to prepare and plan their next steps.
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, especially if they live with vulnerable people. 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.
A guide such as this cannot possibly cover every business situation, but it should help you think about the sort of issues that all businesses will need to consider as restrictions begin to be relaxed. Keep checking the CIPD coronavirus hub for further resources and advice and keep up to date with the latest government advice.
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