Over the next few days and weeks, the Government may announce measures to ease the lockdown restrictions.  In addition, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is currently due to end on 30 June 2020.  Whilst at the time of announcing the scheme the Government stated that they would extend the scheme if necessary, we do not know whether it will be extended beyond 30 June 2020.

The timing and the approach the Government take on reintegration into the workplace is uncertain.  Some of the key challenges that employers will need to consider are:

Returning to the workplace

Whilst we do not know how the current restrictions will be relaxed, it is likely that there will be a requirement for some form of social distancing.  Lockdown restrictions are likely to be lifted incrementally, with a return to work staggered by industry sector, with others who can work remotely being expected to carry on doing so.

Deciding on which employees are essential to restart on-site activities might depend on what areas of work come back on stream first.  However, where only some staff are required in a particular department, an employer will need to select who should return.  This could prove problematic and could raise issues around potential discrimination if not undertaken fairly.

A possible option for an employer is to ask for volunteers.  Where this is not possible clear and non-discriminatory criteria should be used.   An employer should make sure it has a cogent rationale as to why it needs particular staff or roles to physically return to work.

An employer might want to rotate employees, so that some attend the workplace one week, and others the following week, or hours could be adjusted so that there are staggered start and finish times, or a mix of remote working and a limited time in the office.

Health and safety

Linked to a return to work is putting in place measures to safeguard an employee’s health and minimise the risk of infection.  We would expect some government direction and commentary on returning to work.  Therefore, employers should base any plans on up-to-date government and public health guidance :

Read the guidance here.

The Health & Safety Executive have also published guidance:

Read the guidance here.

ACAS and The World Health Organisation have also published guidance.

All of this is likely to be reviewed and updated over the coming week so keep referring to the websites for the most up to date versions.

It is a given that hygiene measures will continue to apply to minimise the spread of infection, such as providing hand sanitiser and reminding staff about handwashing.  Employers should also review the configuration of the workplace and how work is carried out.  For example, can staff maintain a 2m distance between each other?  What about communal areas, such as kitchens?  How will meetings be conducted?  Employers might want to encourage employees to use video conferencing where possible.

Ensure that risk assessments are as robust as possible and that any concerns that employees have are dealt with as sympathetically as possible.

Mental Health

The risks to people’s health from the pandemic are not just physical, they can be psychological.  People’s mental health has been an issue for many during lockdown, and for some the prospect of returning to work may be more worrying with some anxious about the risk of infection.  Many will have experienced challenging domestic situations, for example juggling childcare and work, as well as financial worries if their income has significantly reduced.   Some will have experienced bereavement and may need additional support, particularly if they were unable to be with their loved ones during their illness and/or to attend their funerals.

Even for those employees who have continued working, they will still need to adjust to returning to the work environment.

To ensure that reintegration is as smooth as possible an employer should have a clear communication plan to alleviate any concerns an employee may have which sets out what an employer plans to do to help employees.  Any changes to company procedures should also be communicated.  Managers should sensitively discuss with employees any adjustments and/or ongoing support that might be needed to facilitate an effective return to work and proactively respond to any concerns an employee raises.

Clarity as to when a return should commence, is a good starting point to avoid a premature mass return when unprepared.

Reduced working hours/pay

Many employers have introduced measures such as reduced working hours and/or pay as a result of the financial impact of the pandemic.  Employers will need to decide if those measures remain necessary and, if so, for how long.  Whilst employees may have agreed to such measures during lockdown,  they may feel aggrieved or may not be expecting this to continue once restrictions are eased.

Employers will need to be able to justify any decisions continue such measures or put in place new ones.  Employees should be informed so that they understand why this is necessary and, where new measures are being put in place employers will need to consult and reach agreement of any changes.

Flexible working

People’s expectations around work and how they fulfil their role has changed dramatically.  We have found that there is a significant amount that can be done remotely.  Does this mean that there will be more requests for flexible working, and will an employer be able to refuse any such request?  As to the issue of flexible working see our related article here.

For more help or advice with any of these issues please contact any member of our Employment Team.