UK & Europe
Employment, Pensions & Immigration
The whole country is waiting for lockdown to be relaxed and to better understand what our "new normal" will look like. With the UK Government scheduled to release its workplace guidance on Sunday, 10 May 2020, there have been some hints in the media about what will be expected based on reports of what is included in the draft guidance.
Keeping the workplace safe will be at the forefront of people's minds as we come out of lock down. And with rumours that there has been a rise in health and safety cases referred to the employment tribunals this April, employers will be keen to ensure that risks are managed carefully. This article considers the key issues employers need to be thinking about to keep their workers safe.
What restrictions can we expect?
Everyone is now familiar with the UK Government's coronavirus stay at home and away from others guidance requiring people to stay at home except for very limited purposes, and the closure of certain businesses and venues.
But these aren't the only restrictions in place. Government guidance also requires us to self-isolate when we have symptoms of COVID-19, or if we are shielding because we are vulnerable. Most significantly, we are also required to social distance – which means working from home where possible and avoiding non-essential use of public transport.
A draft of the expected government guidelines seen by the BBC indicates that these restrictions (self-isolation, shielding and social distancing) are not going away. In particular social distancing is here to stay for some considerable time. So even if there is a release from "lock down", on a staged basis or otherwise, the new "normal" really will be just that. There is no going back to the "old normal" soon, or even in the medium term.
What are the main issues employers will have to deal with coming out of lock down?
Different employers have been impacted by the current restrictions in different ways. For example, some businesses were forced to close under lockdown - most of their staff would have been furloughed. Other businesses have been trading on a limited or different basis to usual, such as transportation and construction. Office based businesses on the other hand, have to some extent been able to carry on their businesses, with staff working from home. We have seen great flexibility from many employers as they seek to adapt to these difficult conditions. This includes coping with staff unable to work because they're caring for children or vulnerable relatives, and choosing whether to furlough staff particularly if unable to work from home.
Equally, coming out of lock down will present different challenges for different businesses. These will range from getting staff back into the office, whether returning from furlough leave or from home working, to decisions around cutting costs and redundancies.
But common to all employers as they plan their exit from lock down will be following the most up to date government and public health guidance and making sure health and safety considerations are top of the agenda. Also, as we emerge from lock down, employers will be under pressure to consider whether new ways of working such as home working or different working hours are needed to comply with their health and safety obligations and government guidance. The rest of this article deals with these two key issues.
Focussing in on the health and safety implications
We expect that those workplaces that have been able to work from home during lockdown to be asked to continue doing so for some time.
For remaining workplaces, the key consideration will be around how you can facilitate social distancing and ensuring appropriate risk assessments are carried out in your workplace to enable you to re-open your doors.
Employers are under a legal obligation to provide a safe place of work and a safe system of work. We have already seen practical examples of this in action at supermarkets and pharmacies for example, where the number of people in the store is limited and workers are wearing PPE.
The health & safety issues for the workplace
Before opening up the workplace, employers should carry out risk assessments on work premises and business operations. As part of these risk assessments employers should follow all relevant government guidance. More guidance is expected imminently but key issues employers should be thinking about are
The health & safety issues for home working
Many office based staff are likely to have to continue home working to some extent. Whilst in practice employers and employees had to get on with this initially, the health and safety requirements are to ensure that a safe place, and safe system of work, is in place – and this applies to home working. It is important for appropriate health and safety risk assessments to be put in place by employers including:
Flexible working - a cultural revolution?
Until this crisis, it was generally accepted that homeworking was possible but didn't work for many jobs on a regular basis. But maybe this crisis will lead to a sea change in this approach? Employers may see some of the benefits where there has been an increase in productivity, and they may also see the potential cost savings of reducing expensive office space provision. Staff may also see the benefits to achieve a better work-life balance or to enable more flexibility around parents sharing child care responsibilities. This is particularly so if schools see only a staggered return to normality.
This may lead to employers proactively considering flexibility and use of office space and home-working, and may also lead to greater flexible working requests.
How should employers deal with requests?
Employers should be ready for an increase in homeworking requests as well as requests to work different hours to fit around childcare responsibilities, to minimise personal contact or to avoid crowded commuter trains and buses. Being flexible as regards home working might also help to reduce absenteeism. Absence levels are likely to be higher if staff are having to juggle childcare and work, particularly if schools only see a staggered return to normality.
Employers should consider how they will deal with these. If your preference is not to agree to such requests, ensure that you are in a position to explain why homeworking or different working hours aren't possible. Managers must have valid reasons and proper rationale as to why employees will have to come into the office.
If however you are open to agreeing to homeworking on either a temporary or permanent basis, consider if there may be any hidden costs involved, such as whether further investment in IT platforms is necessary or whether employees will seek further expenses.
What about vulnerable staff?
If possible, allow vulnerable staff to continue to work from home. If they are returning to the workplace, consider what measures you will need to take to enable them to return. If neither of these options is viable, consider other options, such as furloughing.
Your checklist for managing the new working order
Once the health and safety risk assessments are complete, you will need to consider the practicalities of managing this new working environment:
To conclude, most employers will have a natural focus on keeping their workers safe. But this will also be the most essential legal requirement around considering a return to work and what the "new normal" will look like.
Written by Chris Holme and Ashleigh Nelson
If you have any questions or would like advice on any of the issues raised here, please get in touch with Chris Holme or your usual Clyde & Co contact.
For more Coronavirus (Covid-19) information please see our Coronavirus hub here.