Since the considerable easing of restrictions which took place on 17 May 2021, workplaces across the UK are slowly re-opening. Pubs and restaurants are now able to serve customers indoors, and indoor attractions, cinemas and theatres are able to re-open their doors again.
There are concerns that the spread of the new COVID variants could hamper efforts to fully reopen the UK economy, so employers and business owners remain cautious about the easing of restrictions in the workplace. Many are making tentative steps towards fully re-opening offices and workplaces whilst keeping matters under review. This is particularly true of the hospitality industry, as many workplaces were closed for the best part of the year and employees were on furlough for a long period of time.
In line with the easing of restrictions, Acas has published a short note with 5 top tips to help employers to plan for the return to work, which we set out below.
1. Make sure the workplace is COVID-secure
- Follow the government’s working safely guidelines for your industry.
- Complete a COVID-19 risk assessment.
- Involve staff on decisions around making your workplace safe and keep them informed about any new changes.
2. Plan ahead with staffing
- Consider how many staff you actually need in work each day and at specific points during the day.
- Staggering start and finish times can help staff avoid busy commuting travel times.
- Figure out how to reintegrate furloughed staff into the workforce
3. Talk to staff about your plans
- Arrange early conversations with staff to discuss returning to the workplace.
- Check whether their working arrangements still suit yours and their needs and be flexible where possible.
- Seek and listen to any concerns that staff have and try to resolve them.
4. Think about the health and wellbeing of your staff
- Learn what the signs of mental ill health may be.
- Make sure managers check on how their staff are doing.
- Remember that everyone is different and will have been affected by the pandemic differently. So, seek to tailor your support and management to the needs of each member of staff.
5. Don’t forget about employment rights
- Consider if there are any staff on the national minimum or living wage which increased in April.
- Look at when your staff holiday years end and how much leave do staff still need to take.
- If any worker has a disability then you must consider making reasonable adjustments.
Looking ahead – considerations for employers
Once the employer has implemented their return to work plan, employers will want to think about the following topics which are bound to take centre stage in a post-Covid workplace:
- Hybrid and flexible working: do employers have a homeworking policy setting out the parameters of working from home?
Such a policy should address how often employees are able to work from home, if advance notice is required, whether equipment will be provided for use in the employee’s home office, how employees are required to comply with their confidentiality and data protection obligations when working from home, and whether employers will contribute to utilities and/or transport costs to and from the office.
- Health & safety: how will employers fulfil their ongoing obligations where employees continue to work from home on a regular basis?
Most employers will have carried out a risk assessment in respect of employees’ home workstations at some point during the various lockdowns, but they should consider how to ensure this is done on a regular basis, and whether equipment should be duplicated (for instance, to ensure the employee has an adequate office chair both at home and in the office).
- Flexible working requests: do employers have a clear understanding of the process for requesting flexible working, and how to respond?
This may prove less relevant as many businesses are now putting in place hybrid working across the board. However, if a request is submitted, employers would be well advised to consider carefully whether to refuse. It may be difficult to justify the refusal in the context of employers generally allowing greater flexibility in when and where an employee carries out their work.
- Working from overseas: do employers have a clear understanding of the employment, tax and immigration implications of employees working from another country?
In the past year, lockdowns and travel restrictions have meant that many employees were “stuck” in their home country and had to work from outside the UK for a considerable length of time. Generally, state agencies have made exceptions to usual rules due to the exceptional situation employers and employees faced. However, with the increase in working from home (or indeed working from anywhere) and summer looming, employees may be tempted to spend longer working from abroad. This will have many implications for the employer relating to entitlement to statutory employment rights in the country where the employee is based, but also immigration and tax implications (both in terms of whether any local social security is payable and whether the presence of the employee can constitute an establishment of the company for tax purposes). Homeworking policies may choose to specify a maximum number of days per year the employee can work from overseas, or may subject working from overseas to prior agreement.
For further information and advice, please contact our employment team.
The material contained in this article is provided for general purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice specific to your situation, and should not be relied upon. Appropriate legal advice should be sought for your specific circumstances and before any action is taken.
© Miller Rosenfalck LLP, 26 May 2021