Now that the Government has implemented the final stage of the roadmap out of lockdown from 19 July 2021, most legal restrictions have been lifted.
We outline below the issues you must consider as an employer and the best approach to take in managing the return to ‘business as usual’.
End of lockdown - gradual return to work
As part of stage 4 of the roadmap out of lockdown, the Government is encouraging a gradual return to work over the summer.
The Government has also removed the legal enforceability of Covid-secure measures, such as social distancing and the wearing of face coverings, allowing employers to decide what precautions are necessary for their business.
The effects of these changes on your business will largely depend upon your industry and how you have operated throughout the pandemic:
- Some businesses will now be in a position to reopen and recall employees from furlough;
- Others will be requiring employees to return to the office from homeworking;
- Many businesses want to retain the flexible working styles developed during the pandemic.
Return to the workplace
The main implication for employers is that the Government is no longer encouraging homeworking, providing full scope for employees to return to the workplace.
The furlough scheme is gradually being scaled back and is set to end on 30 September 2021.
If you have employees currently on furlough, you should consider whether you can afford to recall them to work now that no Covid-19 restrictions prevent your business from operating.
If you are still struggling financially from the effects of the pandemic, flexible furlough may be a useful option in allowing you to give employees reduced hours in line with business needs.
When recalling staff from furlough, you should give them reasonable notice and comply with any notice requirements set out in previous agreements.
Many employees will have shifted to homeworking throughout the pandemic on an ad hoc basis to protect against the risk of Covid-19, given that at times there was no feasible alternative.
Since homeworking is no longer a legal requirement, you have full scope to determine employees’ working arrangements going forward.
You may have experienced the benefits of homeworking for both employees and your business and want to transform such temporary arrangements into a permanent structure.
Many businesses are taking up hybrid working, allowing employees to split their time between working from home and attending the workplace.
Alternatively, if you want employees to return to the workplace full-time per the terms of their employment contract, you are entitled to do so.
There is a risk that some employees will refuse to return to the workplace and want to continue working from home long-term.
Health and safety considerations
The Government has updated its health and safety guidelines in line with the changes from 19 July 2021.
The ‘Working safely during coronavirus’ guidance is split into different sectors and work environments.
We highly advise reading the section that applies to your business so that you understand the specific requirements.
As an employer, you have a continuing duty of care to provide employees with a safe and healthy work environment.
Therefore, you still have a responsibility to conduct a Covid-19 risk assessment to ensure that appropriate safety measures like regular cleaning and ventilation are maintained, as well as any additional precautions that are required for your specific workplace.
You must also manage an effective reporting procedure for employees who experience symptoms or test positive for Covid-19, so that everyone understands the self-isolation requirements.
You are no longer required to enforce social distancing.
However, you may decide to maintain some level of social distancing within the workplace, in line with the findings of your risk assessment.
Some easy ways to encourage social distancing at work include:
- Keeping workspaces spread out;
- Limiting the number of people working in one space;
- Placing screens between desks.
Similarly, there is no longer a legal requirement to wear a face covering in public places.
If evidence from your risk assessment indicates that wearing a face covering is a reasonable precaution to protect against Covid-19, you could maintain a policy encouraging employees to wear a face mask at work.
However, it will be difficult for you to enforce such a policy and fairly discipline employees who refuse to comply, given face coverings are no longer compulsory.
Communication is key
Whatever you decide for your business going forward, we recommend consulting your employees to gauge their thoughts.
You should clearly communicate any new working arrangements to employees so that they understand in advance what is expected of them.
If you are planning to introduce hybrid working or anything else involving a change to employees’ terms of employment, you will need to consult with them and obtain their agreement.
We advise giving employees plenty of notice of the date they must return to work as well as granting them the opportunity to discuss any individual concerns they may have with their manager.
If employees have been on furlough or working from home for a considerable length of time, you should also consider whether any reminders or training are necessary to ease their return to the workplace.
Although the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions allows businesses to revert to their normal working arrangements, we advise constructing a contingency plan in the event that a future lockdown is necessary.
It will be useful to reflect upon your response to the onset of the pandemic, to ensure that you are in the best position to adopt such measures again if necessary.