Over the coming weeks and months every business, from the largest to the smallest, will be trying to work out what the new workplace will look like. In a recent UHY webinar, we tackled the issue of returning to the office with the help of some experts, including Emma Williams, managing director of HR Service Centre.
“Having done remote working for a year, most people would like some sort of balance going forward and I don’t think anyone relishes sitting on a packed train or in a traffic jam on the M25,” says Emma. “However, some people have really missed the buzz of being in the office, while the lack of social contact that remote working brings has been a real challenge for people.”
What is flexible working?
When implemented correctly, flexible working is a blend of being in the home and office which benefits both employees and employers. This might sound simple, but it does come with logistical challenges such as desk arrangements, social distancing and managing shifts.
Remember that remote working does not replace social interaction, so technology and internal communication are vital to prevent staff from feeling forgotten. Many may need to learn new skills, so managers must ensure staff feel included, while fostering creativity and managing performance effectively in their teams.
Businesses also have a duty to give staff the correct equipment. Working on the sofa or kitchen table is not a health and safety compliant way of working in the long term.
All staff with more than 26 weeks’ service have the right to ask for flexible working. As an employer, you are obliged to consider the request and to give your decision and reasons in writing and ensure that an appeal process is available if the request is rejected.
Managing a safe return to the workplace
Emma provides some key actions that every business needs to consider to safely manage the return of their employees, and customers, to the workplace:
- Risk assessments: consult with staff to engage them in the process. Consider social distancing, one-way systems, staggered start and finish times, sanitising stations etc.
- Covid testing: businesses can access lateral flow tests and temperature testers, but they cannot impose these on staff. Use reputable testing services and amend your GDPR policy to include collecting covid test data in the interests of health and safety.
- Shielding: three million people were shielding and many will feel nervous about returning to work. Managers need to assess needs and consider the equality and disability discrimination legislation. Consider if you should make further reasonable adjustments?
- Pregnancy: pregnant women should, if possible, continue to work from home as they are classed as extremely vulnerable to covid. If this is not possible, they must be suspended on full pay until maternity leave begins.
- Refusing to return: staff can refuse to return to the workplace if they feel their health and safety is threatened. You should explain what steps you have taken to reduce the risk and balance the needs of the employee with the business case. Communicate the health and safety steps that have already been taken. If they still refuse, consider unpaid leave and then as a last resort, disciplinary action.
- Vaccination policy: it’s not a legal requirement to have the vaccine, so you need a clear policy. Encourage staff to get a jab and offer paid leave to get vaccinated if you can. Staff may refuse to work alongside colleagues who have refused a jab, so think about where you stand if a conflict develops.
Full or flexi-furlough are still available, but going forward there will also be more costs for employers as their contributions increase, so there will be less of an incentive for businesses to keep staff on furlough.
You cannot use the scheme to manage short-term sickness and it must not be used to pay for redundancy or notice pay based on the updated guidance. If you are restructuring your company, you need to consider this when calculating costs.
Staff who have been on long-term furlough will have accrued a lot of holiday time, so can they use this up before they return to the workplace to avoid a backlog of leave. Holiday carry over of up to two years is permitted under legislation introduced last year.
Businesses should not need reminding of their obligations for protecting the mental health and wellbeing of their employees.
Measures include adopting an employee assistance programme and a robust strategy with sufficient resources to raise awareness around good mental health. Consider training staff and mental health first aiders (MHFA) to help those displaying signs of distress.
You can access the webinar recording here.