Words by James Simpson, head of employment, Blaser Mills Law
With the Government encouraging employees in England to return to work if they cannot work from home, and the announcement that non-essential shops may be able to reopen next week, many businesses are preparing for staff members to return to the workplace.
As they get ready to resume business, it is vital that business owners adopt a regular, clear and concise line of communication with returning staff to ensure they are well informed and minimise the risk of legal pitfalls. Here are some of the main points to consider.
Businesses need to plan ahead to allow for a staged return to work and should keep employees updated at all times. Many staff members may be feeling anxious about going back to the workplace, or travelling there, and rigorous planning will help them feel more at ease upon their return.
In addition to keeping up to date with the latest Government guidance on resuming business safely, employers should be thinking about and putting preparations in place to manage any redundancies or related issues once the furlough scheme ends, as well systems for handling holidays, sickness or other absences.
Employers are urged to bear in mind their staff’s physical, emotional and mental well-being at all stages when making decisions. Engaging with workers and worker representatives directly is also important when explaining and agreeing changes made to working arrangements.
Health and safety
An employer has a legal duty of care to ensure the health and safety of their employees. This means they must comply with government guidance, including social distancing measures in the workplace, as well as providing appropriate PPE to those who need it. Failure to follow this guidance will be strong evidence of not taking reasonable care, so employers should keep all staff members up to date to make sure they are aware of the systems being put in place to minimise health risks and the potential spread of infection. Carrying out a risk assessment is crucial to understanding the risks and identifying the appropriate measures to adopt.
From this, employers should put together a comprehensive guide outlining how things will work, so staff are well prepared before their return. This guide should detail potential risks; who should be returning to work; how social distancing measures will work; managing customers; cleaning procedures; Personal Protective Equipment; workforce management and inbound and outbound goods.
Ensuring all returning employees are well informed will help put them at ease, especially those who are anxious about going back to work. Employers should discuss these anxieties and ways to mitigate the risk. Options include keeping someone on furlough, organising car parking to avoid the use of public transport or staggered working hours. Use of holiday or unpaid leave are also available.
Decide who must return first
It is also important for employers to be clear in their communication about who will be returning to work and when. Many businesses will be unable to allow all employees to return to work at once, whether due to the size of their premises, the need for social distancing or the amount of work available.
Those who are not returning straight away should still be kept informed about business decisions, such as how trading will change and how health and safety measures are being introduced.
All staff should be given a reasonable period of notice for when they will be expected to return to ‘normal’ working conditions. Many will need to plan for childcare or adjust working hours if their children have gone back to school, and the more notice business owners give, the easier the transition will be for employees.
Businesses can still keep some staff furloughed if necessary but must be aware of upcoming changes to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme which include the facility to allow employees to work part-time within the scheme. By relaying updated information and decisions around furlough and redundancies to staff, communication channels will be kept open, preventing them from feeling in the dark about the future of their jobs.
Allow employees to ask questions
Employees are likely to have questions, which they are entitled to ask, and employers should be ready to answer any queries. Some staff may ask to remain on furlough or to continue working from home if possible due to lack of childcare, or because they or someone in their household is shielding, and employers need to take into consideration everyone’s unique circumstances at this time before deciding their approach.
Most businesses will be keeping staff informed about their plans to ensure the transition back to work is as smooth as possible. However unfortunately, despite doing all that they can, legal challenges from reopening could still come in many forms.
Employers unsure about how to communicate and deal with the return to business and bringing back employees should seek support from a qualified legal expert with experience in advising on business and employment. They will be able to assess the business’ individual circumstances and advise the best approach to limit the potential for disputes.