Last reviewed 9 December 2021

Please note this article was written before the move to the Government’s “Plan B” from 10 December 2021 and re-introduction of work from home advice in England from 13 December 2021 and therefore is not applicable whilst this advice remains in place.

This feature advises on the procedures employers may wish to put in place when re-opening the workplace, relating to revising working methods, employee training and absence management, as well as some of the more common HR considerations.

In some cases, employers may be able to rely on, or learn from, practices that were adopted on previous occasions when businesses were able to re-open over the previous years.

How should I communicate with employees that they are to return to work?

Even in circumstances where the decision to return to the workplace happens quickly, you should aim to give employees reasonable notice of the return. This should happen even where furloughed employees were made aware of an end date to the furlough. Employees may have childcare or other caring responsibilities and a return to the workplace may signify a need for them to make other arrangements.

The return date may not be the same for all employees where you are implementing a staged return.

You should also be aware that some employees may not be in a position to return to the workplace. This could include those who are on sick leave or are self-isolating. You should stay in contact with these employees and make arrangements for their return, when appropriate for them to do so.

Shielding has now ended which means the employee can return to the workplace if working from home is not possible.

You should also be aware that some employees may have experienced a recent bereavement and you should offer appropriate support to them on their return to the workplace.

It may be useful to set out in a letter the intended return date and all the additional health and safety requirements that employees will have to adhere to in order to ensure a safe working environment. You should be able to explain to employees all of the measures you have taken to follow guidance on making your workplace Covid-secure, and share your Covid risk assessment with them.

To identify any potential issues with a return to work, or any adjustments or support that may need to be put in place on their return, managers should speak with employees prior to the return and record the conversation. It would be useful to ask all employees things like:

  • whether the employee has any caring commitments which were affected by coronavirus, for which new arrangements will need to be made because of the return to work

  • the method of transport the employee will use to get to work

  • whether the employee understands the additional health and safety requirements in the workplace.

Discussions around a temporary change to working hours may be needed if a staggered shift hours approach is to be adopted, or if this is being implemented on an individual level for a clinically extremely vulnerable employee.

Continuing with remote working

Many organisations across the UK will have put into place temporary homeworking arrangements since March 2020. A working from home policy and provision of ICT infrastructure/facilities to support working from home should be put in place where practicable.

Restructuring and splitting teams/shifts

In England, organisations are no longer required to implement social distancing in the workplace although some organisations may decide to continue with social distancing as part of their risk assessment.

In Scotland, social distancing in indoor public places has reduced from 2 metres to 1 metre and applies between different household groups.

The Welsh Government is planning, from 7 August 2021, to replace social distancing indoors with a requirement for risk assessments to be drawn up.

The following action will allow your organisation to comply with physical distancing where it is practicable to do so:

  • revision of staffing rosters and splitting of teams to ensure separation of critical personnel in order to limit joint exposure and protecting the business function

  • cross-train, and identify alternative sources of labour to facilitate a full complement of the required skills needed on each team/shift

  • avoid switching of employees from one shift to another

  • implement an “air gap” or delayed shift changeover to accommodate a full cleaning/disinfection of all shared equipment, and reduce unnecessary interactions between different shift personnel

  • minimise the sharing of equipment and/or tools

  • identify and suspend all non-essential operations which do not directly impact business functionality.

Making changes to working hours

Organisations should consider staggering hours and shifts to facilitate social distancing. This will not only assist when employees are entering the workplace but also ease congestion on public transport.

Similarly, alternating days of work for different groups or teams of employees may assist with social distancing requirements.

Employment laws require employee agreement when making amendments to employee terms and conditions, even on a temporary basis. It is advisable to speak to employees first and explain the changes you need to make and the reasons for the change. You may need to take employees’ individual circumstances into consideration because a change to working hours may be difficult for some employees who have childcare responsibilities, etc.

How do I deal with anxious employees or those who refuse to return?

Employee safety has to be the priority during the initial return to work period. Where workers are coming in daily, you will need to reassure any nervous employees that you aren’t putting them at risk by asking them to return to work. Requiring employees to work in an environment that put their health/safety at risk could breach the employer’s duty of care.

Some employees may be cautious about returning to the workplace for fear that it puts them at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19. Although the Covid-19 vaccine provides security against serious illness, employees are likely to be a different stages in their vaccine “journey” at the time of their intended return. Some may not have had both doses on their return; some may not have had the first dose. Some employees cannot have the vaccine due to existing medical conditions, or for other reasons relating to religion, or simply choose not to have it.

You should speak to employees and try to allay their concerns by letting them know all the measures you have taken or are going to take before their return to ensure a workplace which complies with Government guidance on making the workplace safe.

The phased return to work and new workplace layouts described above will further demonstrate that you are prioritising employee health.

You should take the specific circumstances of an anxious employee into consideration. For example, an employee may fall into the clinically extremely vulnerable category, or their partner may fall into that category. If an employee in this position still does not want to return to work, you may agree to allow a new or extended period of homeworking.

Employees who have previously been shielding may require additional adjustments in order for them to feel confident that their safety is not compromised by returning to the workplace. Making adjustments will need to be discussed with an employee in advance and will need to be tailored to their specific circumstances. Their actual role, working hours etc will need to be considered. Possible adjustments include:

  • working from home (though if this was possible it’s likely it will already have been in place)

  • reallocation to another role to enable them to work from home (though if this was possible it’s likely it will already have been in place)

  • adjusting working times to allow for public transport use outside of rush hour

  • reallocation to another role to allow for public transport use outside of rush hour

  • giving employee a parking space so they don’t need to use public transport

  • reallocation to another branch to reduce/remove time spent on public transport

  • allowing employee a space on work-arranged transport if they wouldn’t normally qualify for such, eg a bus laid on by the employer

  • reallocation to another role which requires less contact with others (despite social distancing, etc)

  • moving employee to a different location within the workplace which means less contact with others.

Employers may decide to make these adjustments on a temporary or permanent basis. Set out any agreed adjustments in writing.

Some of those who have been shielding will qualify as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 so some adjustments may be seen as reasonable adjustments that employers are under a duty to make.

Implementing a system of regular workplace Covid-19 testing is likely to be another measure that gives employees more confidence in their safety in the workplace due to the ability to identify asymptomatic cases.

If an employee refuses to attend work without a valid reason, you may wish to consider disciplinary action though specific advice should always be taken here because employees are protected against dismissal or detriment (eg a warning) if they leave the premises, or do not attend work because they have a reasonable belief that the workplace poses a serious or imminent threat to their safety which they could not reasonably avert. (The protection against detriment also extends to workers.)

Being proactive about removing the ability for the employee to form this reasonable belief is vital here. Integral to this is sharing the risk assessment with employees and being able to explain the adjustments made as well as the effect of the adjustment. Employers should continue to ensure that all of their health and safety rules are complied with by the workforce which may include taking action against those who do not.

Employees with childcare responsibilities

This is a common challenge facing employees and employers where childcare facilities close and family carers are unavailable. However, as restrictions ease, those arrangements previously relied upon will once again become available. Where employees can carry out some (or perhaps all) of their duties from home, they should be paid accordingly. Where employees are unable to work from home, they should be encouraged to make alternative childcare arrangements but this will not be possible for all employees.

Employers should consider a temporary flexible working arrangement to adjust or reduce working hours and change working times to assist employees in managing work and increased childcare responsibilities. Parental leave (unpaid) as well as paid annual leave, or another form of unpaid leave, may be solutions, at least in the short term. Consistency is key to avoid setting unmanageable precedents and, in the circumstances where the situation is uncertain, employees should be informed that all measures are temporary and cannot be maintained indefinitely.

On employees’ first day back in the workplace

A “re-boarding” process may be appropriate, especially where employees have been out of the workplace for a long time, either on furlough and not working, or working from home.

Managers should hold one-to-one meetings with employees with a focus on their health and wellbeing. The discussion should be used to confirm any adjustments or support needed to enable the employee to carry out their role.

Employers should remember that individuals will have reacted in varying ways to the lockdown depending on their personal circumstances and will have had different, sometimes particularly negative, experiences. If your employees have access to an Employee Assistance Programme, remind the employee that they have the opportunity to speak to a trained counsellor about any concerns they have.

Your approach to “re-boarding” should be inclusive to all employees. Whether they have been furloughed or have remained working from home, most will have experienced a change to their normal working life and may need support on returning. There may be an unequal set of experience across the workforce if some employees were furloughed on reduced pay and others were not.

Some refresher training in work tasks may be required, particularly for those who have been out of the workplace for a considerable amount of time.

Managing annual leave on the return to work

Your approach to annual leave will depend on your specific circumstances and whether your employees have taken annual leave during furlough, or have been able to take annual leave as normal since the start of the pandemic. You should assess the current position with annual leave and your ability to allow employees to take it now that the workplace is back open. You may find that there is opportunity for your employees to take annual leave and encourage them to do so, or you may find that demand is such that no annual leave can be authorised.

In recognition of the fact that the pandemic may have had the effect, for various reasons, that employees could not take annual leave as normal, the Working Time Regulations 1998 were amended to allow carry over of the four weeks of annual leave that were previously exclusive to the year in which they were accrued. This means that, where it was not reasonably practicable for annual leave to be taken in the leave year to which it relates because of Covid-19, it can be carried over into the next two leave years; this measure was taken to avoid a bottleneck situation towards the end of the leave year in which there was lots of leave remaining to be taken but little time in which to take it, meaning that it may otherwise be lost. It is already permissible to carry over the remaining 1.6 weeks of the statutory minimum annual leave entitlement provided there is a relevant agreement to this effect.

When considering whether it was not reasonably practicable for a worker to take leave as a result of Covid-19, so that they may carry untaken holiday into future leave years, an employer should consider various factors, such as:

  • whether the business has faced a significant increase in demand due to coronavirus that would reasonably require the worker to continue to be at work and cannot be met through alternative practical measures

  • the extent to which the business’ workforce is disrupted by Covid-19 and the practical options available to the business to provide temporary cover of essential activities

  • the health of the worker and how soon they need to take a period of rest and relaxation

  • the length of time remaining in the worker’s leave year, to enable the worker to take holiday at a later date within the leave year

  • the extent to which the worker taking leave would impact on wider society’s response to, and recovery from, Covid-19

  • the ability of the remainder of the available workforce to provide cover for the worker going on leave.

Employers should do everything reasonably practicable to ensure that the worker is able to take as much of their leave as possible in the year to which it relates, and where leave is carried forward, it is best practice to give workers the opportunity to take holiday at the earliest practicable opportunity.

Government guidance states that it is not likely that the new rules on carry over will need to be utilised for employees on furlough. This presumably refers to the fact that employers are able to require employees to take annual leave and should take the opportunity to do so with employees who are on furlough. Employers should remember that annual leave must be paid at full pay, meaning that they will need to “top up” furlough pay to 100% for time spent on annual leave.

All employers are able to enforce annual leave, ie require employees to take it, provided the correct amount of notice is given. Employers must give notice that is double the amount of the time to be taken as annual leave eg six days’ notice is to be given for three days’ annual leave.

This should be a real consideration for employers; whether to enforce annual leave or not will clearly be dependent on demand for work at particular times but it does offer a way to take control over a continually increasing annual leave entitlement.

Communicating with employees

You should ensure all managers and staff are familiar with company policies and relevant legislation including:

  • absence

  • sick leave

  • lay-off and short-time working

  • discipline.

Managers must be prepared to deal with these issues as they arise, and employees need to be clear about what is required.

The appointment of a communications co-ordinator will centralise the information and manage the resulting impact. This ensures that the business is aware of absences across the organisation, other operational issues and any problems with suppliers or other related issues, in real time. This will facilitate making informed decisions on the allocation of resources.

Information and training for employees

Employees should receive training on:

  • the signs and symptoms of Covid-19

  • how Covid-19 is spread

  • cleaning routines and hygiene controls (including respiratory hygiene, cough etiquette and handwashing and physical distancing)

  • what to do if an employee or a member of the public becomes unwell and believe they have been exposed to Covid-19

  • when individuals in the workplace have had contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19

  • cleaning offices and public spaces where there are suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19

  • rubbish disposal, including tissues

  • travel restrictions

  • restricted movement advice (if applicable)

  • familiarising key staff with the Covid-19 plan

  • cross-training workers and establish covering arrangements to minimise disruptions.

Minimising risk to staff

As staff return, you should aim to have a process for identifying and delivering Covid-19 training requirements.

This can include:

  • determining the necessity of Covid-19 competence and training of person(s) doing work under your control

  • ensuring that the necessary person(s) receive appropriate Covid-19 training

  • where applicable, taking actions to acquire the necessary competence, and evaluate the effectiveness of the actions taken

  • retaining appropriate documented information as evidence of competence.

Depending on the skills that exist in your organisation, you may have to provide training for an existing member of staff or hire or contract competent contractors.

Managing absence management

It is important to review, communicate and formally implement the absence and sick leave policies in place in the organisation. In advance of any potential increase in absence, it is essential that all employees are fully familiar with policy requirements, particularly around what constitutes acceptable reasons for absence, the notification and certification requirements and the social welfare procedures.

It is important that organisations follow through with their policies and are consistent. The first absence in an unusual situation such as the potential exposure to Covid-19, may initially be dealt with on an ad hoc basis which may set an undesirable or unsustainable precedent should absence levels suddenly escalate.

You need to consider the effect that significant employee absences would have on your workplace.

Employees who have been in contact with individuals who have Covid-19 or indeed any virus of special concern should follow NHS guidance for advice in the first instance and then notify the organisation before attending for work.

Check on employees’ health by phone or email during their absence from work.

If an employee is absent due to a fear of contracting the virus, you must consider the risks and consider whether the employee is a vulnerable employee. Where there is no increased risk for the employee, you can request them to attend work. An employee who continues to be absent from work in these circumstances may be subject to disciplinary action for unauthorised absence.

At some point, based on public health advice, certain aspects of company policy and procedure may require adjustment in accordance with the situation as it evolves. Therefore, it is important to keep the policy under review and to communicate clearly any changes.

Safety and welfare during recovery

Special attention should be paid to any groups with physical and learning disabilities or other specific needs (eg pregnancy, temporary disability due to injury). Planning in advance to meet these requirements can reduce risk and reassure those affected. The long-term impacts of incidents should not be underestimated.

You should develop appropriate solutions, including consideration of relevant social and cultural issues, to promote employee safety and wellbeing within the organisation.