Lifting the lockdown: what employers should be thinking about
We don’t know when. We don’t know how. But, at some point, life as we knew it will eventually resume. As the government gradually lifts the lockdown restrictions, it is important for employers to think about the practicalities of life after ‘lockdown’ and how they will bring staff back to work.
Key points to consider:
- Staff rotating – it seems unlikely that workplaces will simply be allowed to re-open. Draft government guidance suggests that employers will need to ensure that social distancing rules are complied with and generally reduce the total number of staff they bring back at any one time. Some employers are already planning to split their workforce into teams, working on a rotating basis (such as one week on, one week off) and/or considering strategies to make working from home arrangements more permanent.
- Travelling to work – many individuals who commute to work will be, understandably, worried about returning to commuter life on crowded tubes, trains and buses. Employers should think about their staff’s travel arrangements and consider whether steps can be taken to mitigate the risks. Changing an employee’s start and finish time so that they do not travel at peak hours seems an obvious option and is required under the draft government guidance. It might also be appropriate in some cases to arrange separate travel for vulnerable staff (such as those who are pregnant).
- Health and safety – employers will need to think about their health and safety obligations. Aside from reducing the number of staff coming into the workplace, they should consider how they ‘police’ social distancing rules.
- Will office spaces need to be re-configured to move desks further apart and/or to enable protective screens to be erected?
- What happens if you share office space with other tenants?
- Do you have enough of the ‘basics’ (such as protective equipment)?
- How do you implement one-way flow routes through the building?
These are all things which employers should think about now in readiness of re-opening. Some employers are even considering securing immunity/antibody testing kits to test employees for coronavirus before they return to work – however, this raises a number of tricky HR and data protection issues for employers to grapple with.
- Mental health – linked to health and safety, staff with stress, depression and/or anxiety are likely to be adversely impacted by the ‘lock-down’ (and the thought of returning to work) and employers should support such employees as much as possible. In particular, it is important to communicate effectively with staff to keep them informed and help alleviate any concerns.
- International travel – employers with internationally mobile employees who travel a lot should re-think their working practices given international travel is (and likely to be for some time) heavily restricted. Employers should also check that any insurance policies for international travel provide adequate cover.
- Policies and procedures – this is a good time for employers to review their policies and procedures to ensure that they are fit for purpose, especially those relating to flexible working, home working and IT security, which are pertinent in the current climate. Provided such policies and procedures are non-contractual (as most will be), employers will not need employee consent to make any changes; however, it’s important that any updates are properly communicated to staff.
- Annual leave – employers should assess employees’ annual leave entitlements and decide how and when employees should take leave (assuming most employees won’t voluntarily take leave during the ‘lock-down’ or whilst on furlough leave). Employers will want to ensure that they have sufficient staff numbers to operate their businesses once they have re-opened, so they might want to put new holiday rules in place. The government has recently confirmed that employees can carry over some of their annual leave entitlement for two years where they have been prevented from taking leave due to the pandemic, which might help with this.
- Amending salaries and benefits – employers who have introduced salary cuts and pay deferrals to help manage their cash-flow will need to decide whether the measures remain necessary and for how long. It is important that employers handle these matters delicately (and, where appropriate, consult with staff) to ensure that they do not give rise to breach of contract claims.
We will be providing an update once the governmental guidance on returning to work has been officially released.
The current global crisis is evolving rapidly, and the rules and guidance for individuals, companies and other entities to manage its implications are similarly fast moving. Notes such as this may be out of date almost as soon as they are published. If you have any questions prompted by this article or on any other matter relevant to you, please get in touch with your usual contact at Forsters.