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Returning to the workplace: what HR needs to know

By 09/09/2020June 22nd, 2021COVID-19, Health and Safety, Human Resources
returning to the workplace

Since the Prime Minister addressed the nation on the evening of Monday 23rd of March, large swathes of the UK’s workforce transitioned to a new normal of working from home in order to protect themselves against the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As many businesses made the decision that evening to introduce remote working for the foreseeable; our Wednesday evenings turned into a nationwide appreciation for our key workers as doctors, nurses and supermarket staff continued their vital work to protect public health and safety throughout the pandemic.

But in sectors where working from home wasn’t possible or where businesses were classed as non-essential, some 9.6 million workers were furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in order to protect jobs and minimise redundancies.

Now, as restrictions across the nation ease and employers look hopefully towards a more ‘normal’ end to one of the most tumultuous years this generation of workers will ever endure; what does office life look like in a post-COVID world and what does HR need to know in order to ensure employee safety?

Is returning to work being enforced by the government?

In short, no. While the government is actively encouraging a return to the workplace in order to boost local economies in our long-abandoned towns and cities; the government has given employers complete discretion on whether their workforce should return to work or continue to work from home.

The start of lockdown back in March made it mandatory for all employees to, where possible, work from home. The PM’s announcement on the 23rd March was crystal clear: “…I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”

Just shy of four months later, an announcement on the 17th July gave employers more freedom to make the decision on when employees would be expected to return to work and what measures will be put in place to ensure staff are working safely and in line with COVID-19 guidelines.

The PM made it clear that the onus would be on employers to make the decision on working practices from now on: “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.”

As employers, July’s announcement means it is up to you how and when you approach a return to work.

This could mean a phased return to work, devising a rota that provides employees with a blend of office and home-based working or staying entirely remote for the time being.

What is important, however, is that your workplace is modified to be COVID-secure, and the risks of transmission are minimised. New hygiene protocols, PPE and changing office layouts to aid social distancing are just some of the measures that employers are taking in an attempt to make workplaces COVID-secure.

Furthermore, it is crucial that you maintain open and transparent lines of communication with your employees throughout your decision-making process. Make them aware of the steps you are taking to protect them and what will be expected of them upon their return to the office.

A recent study found that only a quarter of employees polled felt fully informed of new safety protocols in their workplace. In turn, this could lead to a lack of confidence in their employer’s ability to keep them safe, so it is vital that you keep your team updated and reassured that you are taking every necessary precaution to ensure their safety in the workplace.

What health and safety obligations do we have?

Even in a pre-COVID world, employers have a duty of care to their employees. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 outlines the wide-ranging obligations employers have to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees while they are at work.

In light of the coronavirus outbreak and as businesses look to return to some form of normality, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has issued new guidance for employers to enable their employees to work safely during the pandemic. UK businesses are spending approximately £674m a month on PPE and changing office layouts in order to ensure a safe return to work.

First and foremost, the HSE advises employers to update their risk assessments to effectively manage the risk of COVID in the workplace and better understand what measures need to be taken to protect your employees.

Precautions such as how social distancing will be maintained, office cleaning and hand hygiene, signage to remind people to maintain social distancing and so on, all need to be considered.

Importantly, the risks facing your business and the measures your business puts in place will be entirely unique to your business. For example. if you’re tight on space that means maintaining social distancing is impossible, you might consider a rota or staggered shifts to allow fewer employees in the workplace at any one time.

The CIPD has put together a comprehensive COVID-19 risk assessment document that you can use to plan ahead for the return to work.

The common thread in all government and HSE advice is that employees uphold their duty of care to all employees while the coronavirus remains a very real threat in society.

How can we make the workplace COVID-secure?

As mentioned earlier in this article, the precise methods you use to make your workplace COVID-secure will vary from business to business. Through your risk assessment, you should have identified what changes you need to make in your workplace to ensure the safety of your employees from exposure to the coronavirus.

Where possible, keeping employees 2m apart should be enforced in line with government advice. If this isn’t possible, the government advise observing a ‘1m+’ distance. This means keeping a minimum of 1m apart with other acceptable protocols such as face coverings, screens to create barriers between workers and having employees work side-by-side rather than face-to-face to mitigate risk.

Frequent cleaning of surfaces, door handles and high-traffic areas like corridors and turnstiles is key to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Some other things you can do include:

– Use tape or paint to ‘cordon off’ workspaces

– Use markers and posters to remind people to observe social distancing

– Limit movement of people between areas, unnecessary visitors and movement between buildings/sites

Will vulnerable workers or those that have been shielding have to return to work?

Early on in the pandemic, Public Health England reported that some groups of people were more at risk of being infected with COVID-19 and/or more susceptible to an adverse outcome if they did become infected.

High-risk groups include those who are older males, have high BMIs, have other health conditions such as diabetes or are from some black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds.

These individuals were asked to take extra precautionary steps to protect themselves in order to shield themselves from the disease. It is worth bearing in mind that some staff may still wish to protect themselves from the disease (high-risk people no longer have to shield as of 1st August 2020) because they have existing health conditions that make them increasingly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

It is important to communicate with any employees that are anxious about a return to work and understand their concerns. If you have high-risk members of staff, you should consider allowing them to continue working from home, look at heightened protective measures you can put in place to reassure them or extend their period of furlough.

What is happening to the furlough scheme?

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme comes to an end on the 31st October 2020. Designed to financially support those that were unable to do their jobs and prevent mass redundancies, the CJRS was announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak as part of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The take-up by employers was staggering with 1.2 million businesses taking advantage of the scheme which pledged to pay 80% of an employee’s wages up to a maximum of £2,500 per month.

Since the start of July, employers were able to bring furloughed employees back to work for any amount of time or shift pattern and still claim furlough payments for the hours not worked.

However, from the 1st of August until the scheme ceases to operate, the level of grant will be reduced each month and employers must top up employee wages to 80% in order to be eligible for the grant.

Currently, (as we’re posting this article in September 2020), the government will pay 70% of wages up to a cap of £2,187.50 per month and employers will pay NI and pension contributions and top up employees’ wages to ensure they receive 80% of their wages for the time they are furloughed.

Similarly, come October, the level of government funding will be reduced to 60% of wages (capped at £1,875 per month) while employers will continue to pay NI and pension contributions and top up employees’ wages to ensure they receive 80% of their wages for the time they are furloughed.

Please note: while we here at Natural HR work with HR professionals every day, we are not lawyers. This post is a high-level summary of current government guidance about returning to work during the COVID-19 outbreak and should not replace sound legal advice available from professional bodies, the HSE or employment lawyers.

You should always check local lockdown policies and seek guidance from relevant trade and professional bodies.

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