From 1st August 2020, the government changed its longstanding advice that employees should work from home if possible, instead telling employers in England that it would be up to them to decide if it was safe for staff to return to workplaces.
This has signalled something of a green light for businesses considering asking staff to return to offices, with some announcing employees will be returning over the coming weeks and months. On the other hand, some companies say they have no plans to return all staff to workplaces full time in the near future with others saying they are abandoning their offices altogether.
In fact, a recent People Management article revealed that half of employees are reluctant to return to work, despite firms spending millions on preparations.
With so many employees nervous about returning to work, we discuss steps employers can take to reassure their people that their workplaces are safe and that their wellbeing is a high, ongoing priority.
Can an employee refuse to return to the office?
As an employer, you owe your employees a duty of care and the law is very clear on this matter. If an employee feels their place of work is unsafe, they may have grounds for refusing to attend.
On the other hand, if you have taken reasonable steps to comply with safety measures and carried our risk assessments- which we discuss below- then unless an employee has medical reasons on which their concerns are based, a refusal to return could be considered an unauthorised absence.
Plans for returning to a workplace should be communicated with team members as far in advance as possible with each individual and their personal circumstances taken into consideration. This will be key to mitigating against any disputes and pave the way for a successful return to work.
Should I seek professional advice before advising my employees that they will be returning to the workplace?
If you are in any doubt about the law and your responsibilities, then professional advice from an HR consultant or employment law expert is a must. We are on new ground, yet the majority of established employment laws remain in place and expert advice could reduce the risk of disputes and possible tribunals. Breathe are partnered with more than 500 HR and employment law experts who are listed in this online directory.
What steps should I take to create an effective return to work policy?
We recently co-hosted a webinar with our partner Rebecca Woolmington, MD of HR Central. Rebecca is a leading HR expert who is currently supporting businesses and helping them devise policies for full and partial returns to the workplace.
Rebecca explained the importance of implementing policies which ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’ people back into the workplace, especially those who are fearful of a return. She warned that pushing people back to the workplace against their will could create ill-feeling and resentment which is the last thing businesses need as they plan for recovery.
Rebecca emphasized the importance of effective planning and clear communications and suggested that businesses prepare a checklist which can be provided to employees prior to their return. This is key to their confidence and their trust in you as an employer.
What else should I do to prepare my office for returning employees?
This is a subject we covered in a recently published article which talked about the importance of maintaining social distancing rules and making changes to the layout of offices and workplaces ahead of the return.
With many businesses spacing desks apart, many companies will be implementing hot-desking. This needs to be carefully managed, with clear guidance to your employees for how you are ensuring the cleanliness of shared desk-space - in addition to areas such as kitchens, toilets, lifts and staircases. It also applies to shared equipment e.g. kettles, fridges, toasters and printers.
Installing signage and stickers which clearly communicate dos and don’ts will help ensure people comply with your policies and rules.
It’s important that people are confident that their workplace is not only safe for their initial return but will be maintained to a high standard on an ongoing basis.
What can I do to reassure my team members that their workplace is COVID-19 secure?
Clear communication and documentation is key to bringing employees back to the office. You need to carry our detailed risk assessments and make these easily available to your people.
Using dedicated online HR management software like Breathe which includes document management functionality where everything from risk assessments to company policy information is stored centrally and easily accessible to team members is sensible.
Discussions and meeting minutes regarding performance and expectations should be recorded and stored. Recording and transcribing meetings held using applications such as Zoom is also a very sensible precaution and will help reassure people that their concerns are being taken seriously by managers.
What should I be thinking about in terms of planning for the future?
Many small businesses are facing unprecedented complex challenges with a need to suddenly become experts in health and safety. Managing risk assessments, establishing guidelines and working with facilities specialists are one side of the coin. On the other are the equally challenging need to help people who are experiencing a change in personal circumstances.
To ensure employees are happy, confident and engaged, many business leaders may need to think about their wider organisational culture and ask themselves if their internal communications are all that they need to be. The crisis is ongoing and with regional lockdowns being imposed in some areas of the UK, people are going to be nervous and perhaps fearful of returning to their workplaces for a long time yet.
Although cash-flow is many businesses’ immediate priority, the wellbeing of their people and creating a ‘people first’ culture where communications are of central importance will pay dividends now and in the future.