Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores how you can reopen your business after lockdown along with some HR considerations to keep in mind.
Coronavirus, which causes the disease Covid-19, is still present across the UK. In particular, new strains of the virus, which could be more transmissible than the original strain, are being carefully observed by the Government. The devolved UK nations of England, Scotland and Wales have previously put into place national restrictions to curb the increased spread of the virus. They are currently in the process of lifting these restrictions gradually.
Step four, which would herald the date that all restrictions would finally be lifted in England, has been delayed from 21 June 2021 to 19 July 2021. Scotland’s move to Level 0 for areas not already in that level has been delayed until 19 July 2021. The Welsh Government has not set a date for the lifting of all restrictions
Bringing staff back
As businesses continue to reopen, one of the first considerations that employers will likely have is around bringing staff back to work — either back to work from furlough or back to the office after a long period of homeworking.
With regards to returning staff to the office, as the Government is yet to release information on when social distancing rules will change, it is important that employers consider this requirement and how staff numbers on-site could complicate this. It may be that flexible working options may need to be considered to facilitate this, such as flexible start or finish times, staggered shifts, or hybrid working.
When bringing furloughed staff back to work, employers are advised to first check the agreements they made with staff before they were placed on furlough. This will allow employers to determine if staff can be brought back at will, if a certain amount of notice must be given, or if a return date has been specified.
What if staff are reluctant to return?
Employees may be wary of returning to the workplace, especially if they have been away for some time, and may therefore tell management that they do not wish to return.
Staff in this position should be reminded of all the steps being taken to keep them safe at work, and additional measures should be considered for their specific circumstances. For example, employers can change staff start times to help them avoid commuting with large numbers of people or organise free parking for them.
Alternative solutions, such as permitting staff to continue working from home, if possible, or only asking them to be at work for part of their usual hours, could also be considered. If despite measures staff still refuse to return, employers could consider a disciplinary procedure. However, this should be a last resort.
In all, employers will benefit from avoiding a blanket approach to asking staff to return to work as individual circumstances may be different. Employers should be aware that as of 31 May 2021, the law offering protection to employees in health and safety cases has been extended to workers. Workers now cannot be subjected to a detriment by their employer for leaving or refusing to return to their workplace, or for taking steps to protect themselves, in circumstances of danger which the workers reasonably believe to be serious and imminent.
Although employers are starting to reopen their businesses after lockdown, individuals should only leave home for work if they cannot reasonably work from home. This has remained the same in GB despite the lifting of restrictions; however, in England, the Government may relax this guidance from 19 July 2021, subject to the ongoing government review into social distancing.
In Scotland and Wales, employers should continue to keep in mind that those who can work from home “must” do so.
In Wales, there has been no indication of exactly when this guidance will change.
The Scottish Government has announced that from 19 July 2021 they will not advise going back to full-time office working but will phase this in.
The furlough scheme
Employers — reopening your business does not mean that you can no longer make use of the furlough scheme if you are still experiencing a downturn. Employers permitted to reopen can still make use of the scheme to help them retain staff.
Employers should follow the usual procedures for ending a period of furlough.
As a reminder, placing staff on furlough — during which time staff do not carry out work for the business — means employers can claim a grant from the Government, from 1 July 2021 this amounts to 70% of their employees’ wages up to a maximum of £2500 per month per employee. Pay for furloughed employees must remain at a minimum of 80% so the employer must contribute 10%. Staff can also still be flexibly furloughed, meaning they only work some of their hours and the Government pays part of their wages for the rest of the time.
Remember that staff on full furlough can be moved to flexible furlough if there is currently a reduced demand for their role, however a separate agreement will need to be reached for this.
Final HR considerations
Employers may wish to consider refresher training for staff who have been away from the workplace for a long period of time, alongside any additional information that should be communicated to them regarding business developments.
Clear communication should also be maintained with staff regarding future company plans to dissuade gossiping. For example, the potential for redundancies should come directly from management, not a rumour started in the workplace!