Managing the return to the workplace after lockdown
29 May 2020
As the lockdown restrictions begin to ease, people are starting to return to the workplace after a period of working from home or being on furlough. The government has announced that outdoor markets and car showrooms can reopen from 1 June 2020 and that “non-essential” retail businesses such as clothes shops and furniture stores are expected to reopen from 15 June 2020. Many employers are asking us how they can best manage the return to the workplace.
We have written an article previously on the process to follow when unfurloughing employees and so this article will focus on the practicalities of bringing people back into the workplace from an employment law perspective.
On 11 May 2020, the government published guidelines on working safely during the coronavirus pandemic. The guidelines for England (there are separate guidelines for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) apply to 8 different workplace settings and employers should check which one(s) applies to them. The government has also provided guidance entitled “5 steps to working safely” which applies to all businesses.
Step 1 is to carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment before restarting work. This will involve carrying out a risk assessment in line with HSE guidance, consulting with workers or trade unions and sharing the results of the risk assessment with staff and on the employer’s website. When the government announced the publication of the guidelines it suggested that employers should publish the results of their risk assessments on their websites and that it expected all businesses with over 50 employees to do so.
Step 2 is to develop cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures. More details are provided in the guidance, but in summary, employers should oversee an increase in the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning.
Step 3 is to help people to work from home. As this article is focusing on returning to the workplace, we won’t elaborate on this here, but it is evident that this has been included in the steps because the Government’s advice remains that people should work from home where possible.
Step 4 is to maintain 2 metre social distancing, where possible. Examples provided include putting up signs to remind employees of social distancing guidance, using floor tape or paint to mark areas to help people keep to a 2 metre distance and arranging one-way traffic through the workplace if possible.
Step 5 is that where it’s not possible for people to be 2 metres apart, employers should do everything practical to manage the transmission risk. Examples provided include using screens or barriers to separate people from each other, using back-to-back or side-to-side working whenever possible and staggering arrival and departure times.
The above are in addition to the NHS Test and Trace service, and as we covered in our article on Test and Trace here, the Government is asking employers to encourage employees who are contacted by Test and Trace to self-isolate for 14 days. This should hopefully reduce the risk of the virus spreading within a workplace.
ACAS has also provided guidance on returning to the workplace. This emphasises that employers should communicate clearly with staff about any return to the workplace and should share their risk assessments with them. Where appropriate, employers should check any agreements they have with a trade union or employee representatives to see if they must formally consult in advance of a return to work. Employees and workers should be ready to return to work at short notice, but employers should be flexible where possible.
ACAS also recommends that employers should talk to employees who are anxious about returning to work and to try to resolve concerns together. This could be because of fear of catching coronavirus themselves, being concerned that they are at risk of severe illness if they catch it, they are unable to find childcare while schools haven’t fully reopened (see our article here), or they are living with someone who is shielding. In these cases, employers may need to consider options such as keeping someone on furlough for the time being, arrange for extra car parking to avoid use of public transport, or amend working times temporarily to avoid travelling in peak hours. If someone still does not want to go back to work, the employee might ask to take annual leave or unpaid leave, but their employer does not have to agree to this. If someone refuses to attend work without a valid reason it could result in disciplinary action. However, employers must be careful in how they treat employees who raise valid health and safety concerns, as discussed in our previous article.
Managing the return to the workplace is likely to be a big issue over the forthcoming weeks and months. Employers will need to follow the government guidelines on maintaining a safe environment for employees which will be updated as time goes on. There is a lot of information to take in and if you need help with the process then please do get in touch.
If you are dealing with an employment law issue regarding the return to work after lockdown, then we can help. Please call us on 01243 836840 for a no obligation chat, or email us at [email protected].