The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that in England the working from home guidance will be withdrawn immediately and other restrictions will be lifted shortly.
The guidance Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) has been updated to reflect the announcement but will be updated further to include more information on the changes shortly.
What should employers do to get staff back to work?
The updated guidance says: “The government is no longer asking people to work from home. People should now talk to their employers to agree arrangements to return to the office”. More detailed information will no doubt be given in due course. However, employers should now communicate their plans with their staff, including timing and phasing of the return. They may also need to consult trade unions and workplace representatives if applicable. We would suggest that employers remind themselves about their obligations to provide a safe place of work (as mentioned below) and discuss any new working arrangements with staff if they have changed.
Are any changes needed to ensure a safe place of work?
Employers should follow the government’s Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance which will no doubt be updated shortly to reflect this announcement. In any event, employers should continue to follow statutory health and safety requirements, conduct a risk assessment and take reasonable steps to manage risks in their workplace. For further information on what this means in practice, see our update COVID-19: Return to the workplace - updated guidance for employers
Workplace safety guidance is likely to change over the coming weeks and months as the health and safety risks from COVID-19 reduce. Employers should check the guidance for more information about these changes. Separate guidance applies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We will update you on these changes as and when they happen.
How does this compare to the rules in Scotland?
On 18 January the First Minister for Scotland announced that certain restrictions will lift from Monday 24 January. However, people will continue to be asked to work from home whenever possible, with employers asked to facilitate this. The guidance promises that the Scottish government will engage with businesses now about a return to a more hybrid approach from the start of February if case numbers continue to decline. For further information see the Scottish government website Omicron measures to be lifted - gov.scot (www.gov.scot)
What will this change mean for employers?
The current guidance to work from home in England has been in force for just over a month, since 13 December 2021. Although this has undoubtedly been disruptive, the intervening holiday period and the abrupt reversal of the guidance has hopefully kept disruption to a minimum (unlike in previous lockdowns where working from home has extended to far longer periods).
Many office based businesses have been reassessing whether some degree of home/remote working should continue going forwards. There is no one size fits all. Some have already decided to press on with remote working and hot desking, while others are keen to see workers return to company premises. Some are still working it out. What works for one business won’t necessarily work for another – and there may even be different approaches taken across different parts of the same business.
As many employers continue to trial hybrid working models, they may face some difficult discussions and potentially even employment disputes. What work pattern is most productive and efficient for the business? How can the business ensure it continues to comply with its health and safety obligations across thousands of different workplaces that working from home creates? How can performance best be managed remotely? How should an employer respond to a permanent home working request from an employee with caring responsibilities who has been working in this way for almost two years? Hybrid working may also throw up new discrimination risks, and as employers plan for new ways of working, they could unwittingly create inequalities. For example, with it becoming more evident that women are more likely to opt for remote working, how can employers ensure that remote workers, who might be less visible, are ensured the same opportunities for progression? Employers who ignore these issues could face discrimination claims.
Employers who can navigate these complex discussions successfully, however COVID-19 evolves, could engineer competitive advantages in retaining and attracting staff, but the complex and fast-moving situation means that it is bound to be a challenging year for HR.