How should HR approach post-lockdown commuting?

People Management consults experts on key questions, including whether firms can ban staff from using public transport and if they are obliged to cover extra costs such as parking

For a number of weeks, employers have been facing pressure on many fronts to start bringing employees back to the workplace.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), for example, has warned of the economic impact on town centres if offices remain shut, while government ministers have intimated that employees working from home could be more vulnerable to redundancy. The Cabinet Office was expected to roll out an advertising campaign urging employees back to the workplace this week, although subsequent reports suggest the launch could be delayed until next week.

Numerous polls have suggested many office workers are not ready to come back – with the prospect of commuting one of the largest barriers, and businesses and the government have been urged not to compel staff to return to the workplace. But for those organisations that feel the time is right, what can HR do to ensure health and safety is prioritised as people start to commute again?

Can employers require staff to return to work if they are worried about the risks posed by their commute?

Office-based businesses in England have been able to start asking staff to return to offices since August, and prime minister Boris Johnson has said he intends for there to be a ‘return to normality’ before Christmas, which could involve the easing of social distancing measures in workplaces.

Kate Palmer, associate director of HR advisory at Peninsula, notes that government advice states it is now considered safe to use public transport at any time: “This means that, from a legal standpoint, employers reserve the right to ask employees to return to the workplace regardless of whether they have concerns over their commute.” 

That said, the CIPD recommends that all employers consult with staff to see if reopening workplaces is necessary, as well as to explore people’s concerns and how they can make the return to work safer and less stressful.

Can organisations ban staff from taking public transport to the office or at weekends?

Staff at public equity company Carlyle, which is reopening its London office this month, have been told to walk or cycle if coming into work and not to come into the office for 14 days if using public transport at the weekends. Following suit and enforcing a public transport ban rather than encouraging this behaviour could be tricky for employers, however, says Palmer. It is difficult for employers to put restrictions on activities that take place outside of work, she says, and this includes how staff commute to and from offices and how they travel in their spare time. Not all employees will have access to a car or be able to walk or cycle to work, so a prohibition of this sort could cause issues, she highlights.

"If employers are concerned about the use of public transport, they should instead consider whether they can arrange alternatives," Palmer says. "Could staff be lent cars, or could buses be put on to pick up staff from certain locations? Alternatively, they may consider continuing to let staff work from home, if possible."

What alternatives to public transport can employees reasonably be expected to take?

The government has said it is keen for more people to cycle and walk to work. However, Palmer highlights this may not be possible for staff who live too far away or have a disability that would prevent them from using such modes of transport. 

She suggests staff could also be encouraged to drive to work using their own vehicle, with the company offering increased car parking opportunities if possible. Employers may also wish to expand or introduce bicycle storage, showers and changing facilities if more employees choose to travel to work on two wheels.

If commuting using public transport is unavoidable, how can employers help make this safer?

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, says employers should help limit the number of people that any given individual comes into contact with to reduce the risks of transmission. This could include by staggering shifts – splitting the workforce into groups and allocating them different hours, days and, where possible, locations to attend – so they can avoid busy commuting times. 

“Employers should be reinforcing the public health and government guidance that people should be wearing a face covering if they’re on public transport,” Willmott says. “And wherever possible, employers should be enabling flexi-time and allowing staff to come into the office on a staggered shift pattern.” 

He adds companies should be actively encouraging staff to seek alternative methods of transport, but it should still consider all forms of flexible working, including remote working, to help reduce the risk of transmission.

If asking staff not to take public transport, are employers required to pay for additional costs this incurs?

Currently, there is no legal requirement for employers to cover additional costs an employee incurs when trying to avoid public transport, and as Palmer highlights, this is not likely to be a feasible option for smaller businesses. But, she adds: “Companies that may be able to offer this should remember doing so can help encourage more staff to return to work, keep morale high and decrease the chances that one of them will be exposed to the virus.”

Palmer also points out that employers could actively encourage more staff to drive to work by providing additional car parking facilities for a reduced fee where possible. 

How can employers encourage people to cycle to work?

Cycle to work schemes, through which employees can purchase a bicycle and associated equipment via salary sacrifice, have been around for years, and the government is asking employers to promote this as a way of encouraging more people to commute by bike. Additionally, the government has said it will provide new statutory guidance to encourage local authorities to widen pavements, create popup cycle lanes and close some roads in cities to traffic – some of which are already in place.

Organisations can also help encourage more staff to cycle by providing additional facilities for staff to store their bikes during the day. Palmer adds: “Campaigns could also be held in the office, potentially through partnerships with third parties, to clearly outline the health benefits of cycling to work and how the company will assist staff in doing so.”

What about employees travelling on fewer days and unable to benefit from season tickets?

The coronavirus pandemic has severely reduced the number of commuters using rail services, with this trend likely to continue as people carry on working from home for a larger proportion of the week than they used to. Figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility released in June revealed UK rail journeys fell by 51 million in the fourth quarter of 2019-20, highlighting the impact of coronavirus. 

Willmott points out there is not much employers can do to help workers no longer able to benefit from rail season tickets, as it’s up to train operators whether to offer more flexible travel arrangements in the future. 

There are, however, encouraging signs on this front. Earlier this week, the UK government was reported to be considering a three-day season ticket for rail commuters. According to The Telegraph, a rail industry source said firms are coming up with new types of ticketing to better suit employees who will be continuing with flexible working arrangements. 

The source said: “Trains are operating at a fraction of capacity at the moment and although there is a cost implication to offering part-time season tickets, it is better to have fare-paying passengers three days a week than no days a week.”

An announcement on new types of ticketing could be made as early as this week as part of a fresh push by Johnson to get people back to the office.

How can employers ensure vulnerable staff or those living with a vulnerable individual can commute safely? 

Employers should carefully listen to and consider all concerns raised by employees, Willmott says, especially if they are potentially more vulnerable, or living with someone who is more at risk of complications if they were to contract Covid-19.

“The key is really good line management,” Willmott says. “Line managers need to be really supportive, checking in at least on a weekly basis and not just having conversations about work but also about people’s wider concerns,” adding that managers need to be empathetic, to listen, and provide flexibility and support to individuals who need it.