On 12th July 2021, we received the much anticipated confirmation that England will be moving into Step 4 of the roadmap currently in place in light of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
If you are an employer and whether you agree with the lifting of restrictions or not, it is inevitable that this move into Step 4 is going to raise various employment and HR queries and issues that you need to deal with.
Working From Home
For the majority of the last 16 months or so, the advice from the Government has been for employees to work from home wherever possible. This has led to large proportions of various work forces working remotely from home either on a permanent or flexible basis. Many employees have not set foot in their place of work since the first lockdown commenced in March 2020.
This guidance is set to change on the 19th July 2021. Instead of the Government instructing individuals to work from home where they can, the Government will expect and recommend a gradual return to working in the office (or other applicable place of work) over the summer.
But what exactly does this mean for employers?
Certain employers will be more than happy with the current permanent and flexible home working provisions remaining in place. This could be due to the financial savings on reduced office space or increased employee wellbeing and productivity. These employers may want to discuss with their employees the plans for the future, alter contractual terms or put in place official hybrid working patterns now that we appear to be returning to some semblance of normality, or at least a new normal living with Coronavirus.
However, this is not the case for all employers and industries.
There are numerous industries where working from home has a detrimental impact on productivity and resulting business turnover.
Certain practicalities of particular job roles just simply cannot be carried out effectively at home, this is not to mention the detrimental impact the isolation of homeworking can have on the mental health of certain employees, along with various performance issues. Employers who want to move back to office work on a full time basis should start taking action now.
The first step in these circumstances is to carry out a risk assessment in relation to returning to work and implementing or increasing any Covid-19 safe measures as recommended in the current working safely guidance.
If a risk assessment supports a return to the workplace, then employers should send a memo to all staff advising of the company’s plans in relation to home and office working, confirming the measures in place for a Covid-19 secure workplace and setting out the proposed timings for a return to the office for all employees, along with the business reasons for this. Employees should be given an opportunity to raise any issues or concerns that they may have in order for the employer to address these and confirm what measures are in place to reduce any concerns.
If an employee wants to remain working from home, they should be encouraged to submit a formal Flexible Working request which the employer will need to consider in accordance with the statutory guidance.
The vaccine roll-out continues across the country and all eligible adults will now have been offered their first dose of the vaccine.
Vaccinations are not currently mandatory, although there is some speculation as to whether vaccinations may become mandatory for workers in the care industry. There are various reasons why an individual may choose not to be vaccinated at this point in time, if at all. Employers should encourage their employees to be vaccinated but cannot force them to do so and cannot take any action against an employee for not being vaccinated.
Regular testing remains an important part of the Government’s move into Step 4 as research suggests that 1 in 3 people with Covid-19 do not have any symptoms. Lateral flow tests are readily available for free from the gov.uk website or from local pharmacies and collection points along with designated testing sites.
Employers may choose to implement a policy of requiring staff to regularly test before attending the workplace in order to reduce the risk of an outbreak among workers. Employers considering this policy of mandatory testing should consider the resulting Data Protection issues involved in processing health data (test results) and should do so in accordance with a specific written policy, setting out the need and reasons for regular testing, when this should take place and what pay an employee will be entitled to if they do test positive and have to isolate.
For assistance with implementing a hybrid workforce, producing return to work or vaccination and testing policies, or if you have any further queries relating to employment law matters related to Covid-19, please contact our Employment Law Team.