The latest on returning to the workplace

With extended uncertainty around an unrestricted “near-normal” return to the workplace this summer, employers and employees are looking for guidance to make the most appropriate decisions. Jon Herbert reports.

News that the long-awaited final lifting of Covid-19-related safety restrictions on 21 June 2021 will be phased back by a further four weeks will reassure some and frustrate others.

The Government — driven by data rather than dates —- was reasonably confident that lockdown would end as planned on mid-summer’s day until new statistics began to paint a more cautious picture.

Now, with a rise in Covid-19 infections linked to new virus variants recorded in a number of regional hotspots, ministers are reserving the right to add further measures or adjustments in line with changing circumstances and expert advice.

However, other factors will count, too. A series of reviews on social distancing, vaccine “passports”, event-management and travel carried out during the spring are also expected to report shortly.

What decisions the Government will eventually make, and how widely they will apply geographically, is an open question with a high degree of flexibility as lessons continue to be learned.

Another question mark hovers over whether freedoms and restrictions applied today will remain relevant in, say, one or three months’ time as more data becomes available for analysis.

Meanwhile, to add a different completion to the mix, a major think-tank report suggests that most workforces will be back operating on a fairly standard five-day workplace week within two years.

Returning to the workplace

The lack of clarity for organisations means they are having to make their own decisions in tough commercial times.

A key question for many employers will be deciding who should return to work after a long period of lockdown — plus how this can best be achieved. And, similarly, who, if anyone, can reasonably continue to work remotely.

Detailed research by the Centre for Cities think-tank suggests that, while a hybrid mix of home and office working could be popular during a recovery period, ultimately the majority of businesses will return to pre-Covid work patterns.

A key reason cited is that workplace and office interactions are vital for creating new ideas and sharing information. This cross-fertilisation happens spontaneously and is difficult to schedule between staff working remotely.

Communicating with employees

If workers return to the workplace after a long absence, and especially if arrangements have changed, it is worth talking them through updated coronavirus precautions before they arrive.

This can be particularly important if local restrictions, government guidance, or work tasks have altered — or if someone at work tests positive for Covid-19.

Whatever happens next, it is important to continue to support and protect vulnerable workers, plus employees who are shielding others. This may mean they continue to work remotely or move to roles where social distancing is possible.

How can you help worried employees? And what questions can employers expect? Guidance is available from the Health and Safety Executive and Acas.

Discussing worries and issues openly with employees can help to reduce risks as well as anxiety. This is also an opportunity to offer well thought out reassurances and explain why changes are necessary for both safety and business continuity. Communication can be face to face, or via a trade union or other representative.

Key points for employers when deciding if it is appropriate or possible for people to work remotely or in the workplace are to:

  • make time available for discussion

  • listen carefully

  • explain decisions.

It is also important to consider individual circumstances, cultural beliefs and local conditions.

Government guidance on all these issues is available at GOV.UK.

Covid-secure measures

It is natural to be apprehensive about returning. Communicating the precautions being taken to keep employees safe — such as new site rules and protection measures, staggered start and finish times, floor markings, one-way systems, health and safety reviews, and perhaps why some staff are returning before others — will help to allay this anxiety. But it is important for employers to stress that they are listening to employee concerns.

How long social distancing will continue to be necessary is also being reviewed by the Government. A final assessment is due before the last stage of lockdown is lifted. The Social Distancing Review will consider whether existing rules in England could be relaxed and will, presumably, inform the decisions of the devolved Administrations.

Specifically, it will look at whether it is safe to end or change the one-metre-plus distancing rule, as well as other Covid security measure including the use of face coverings. Guidance on working from home will also be reappraised to provide new advice for people to take “informed personal choices”.

“Passports” and certification

Separately, another review is considering whether Covid-status certification with the introduction of “vaccine passports” could affect the need for social distancing. The aim is to determine if certification could support a full reopening of the economy with expanded venue capacities commensurate with improved safety.

In parallel, the Events Research Programme is examining Covid-19 transmission risks through event attendance and considering how best to ensure public safety with a combination of testing and non-pharmaceutical interventions.

Meanwhile, the Global Travel Taskforce is looking at ways to restart non-essential international travel.

For now

These reviews were set up to support decisions on how Covid-19 could be handled "from summer onwards" as part of the Government’s fourth and final step in its roadmap.

Until more normal conditions are achieved, coronavirus restrictions remain in place. The Government’s advice was last updated on 23 June 2021.