Returning to work now restrictions have lifted: what should businesses be doing?

With lockdown rules eased in England and a ‘pingdemic’ on the horizon, HR and employment law experts offer advice on employers’ next steps

The end of the last lockdown rules in England yesterday was met with both cautious optimism and concern from businesses. While many employers – particularly in the sectors hardest hit by the Covid restrictions – are glad to be able to re-open, firms are now having to make their own choices on whether to bring staff back to the workplace and how to keep them safe when they’re there.

People Management spoke to HR and employment law experts about how companies can best return to the office now restrictions have been lifted and maintain a healthy and safe workforce.

How should businesses manage a ‘pingdemic’?

Although the government announced a small exemption last night for certain key professions, the rules on self-isolation are not expected to change until 16 August, leaving many employers worried they could be left understaffed because too many of their workforce have been ‘pinged’ by the app.

The confusion was exacerbated this morning when business minister Paul Scully told Times Radio that individuals were not legally required to self-isolate if pinged by the app and these notifications were in an advisory capacity – a claim that was quickly rebuffed by 10 Downing Street.

Solinda Nyamutumbu, a senior paralegal at Bates Wells, says anyone told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace via email, text or phone is required to do so and could potentially be fined £1,000 if they don’t. But, while it’s advised that people alerted by the app self-isolate, “it doesn’t seem to be a legal requirement when the notification is received via pinging”.

When it comes to whether or not to have the app, Daisy Hooper, head of policy at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), warns the decision to download and use it is “very much an individual decision and is not something employers should be getting involved in.”

But, says Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, official guidance does permit the app to be switched off in certain circumstances “to avoid unnecessary pings due to the fact that the system behind the app does not account for physical barriers between people, for example walls and partitions”.

How do employers manage staff who are going out and those who are still nervous?

At the turn of midnight on Monday, nightclubs across England threw their doors open to revelers keen to make up for a year and a half of missed nights out. But, while plenty were more than keen to cram back into clubs and bars, employers should still expect a proportion of their workforce to be wary about the risks of infection.

Palmer notes that employees who are going to nightclubs aren’t doing anything wrong, and says the best thing employers can do is to maintain Covid-secure measures in the workplace by ensuring sufficient distancing and hygiene protocols are still in place.

Implementing hybrid working is another way firms can help those finding the reopening more challenging, says Renée Clarke, director of Work Well Hub. “The key to managing the lifting of restrictions is to communicate with staff to ask them how they are feeling about it and offer any individual support to staff who are not comfortable about working in an environment which they do not think is ‘safe’”, she says.

Differing opinions about what activities are now safe also risk creating rifts in the workplace, warns Paul Seath, partner in the employment department at Bates Wells. “It could all too easily lead to a breakdown in relationships and employers will want to avoid that,” he says. “Where it becomes a marked issue in the workplace, talk to staff about what steps both can take to deal with the issue.”

What about those who are nervous about commuting?

Employers should adopt any measures they can to reduce barriers to staff returning to the office, says Stephanie Robinson, director of HR consultancy at Ellis Whittam and Law At Work. This could include increasing parking spaces at offices or providing financial support such as season ticket loans or subsidies.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, adds that many people will have serious concerns about the safety of their commute, so companies need to be flexible. “Employers should look at offering altered start and finish times so people can avoid busy times on public transport, as well as continued home working where possible.”

How can businesses maintain physical health and safety measures?

Employers should continue implementing preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of infection in the workplace, says Duncan Spencer, head of advice and practice at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). These could include the continued wearing of face masks and social distancing and asking workers to test themselves regularly.

“Risk assessments can help to identify proportionate controls to protect workers, clients, consumers and communities”, he says.

Seath adds that guidance still says employers should continue to encourage the use of face coverings, particularly in indoor areas, and warns that failing to conduct a Covid risk assessment could be a breach of health and safety law.

“Employers should support workers who choose to wear face coverings but should be mindful of reasonable adjustments for staff and clients with disabilities,” he says.

Other ways of making the workplace more Covid secure include providing adequate ventilation, cleaning spaces more often and turning away any people with Covid symptoms, says Gavin Scarr Hall, director of health and safety at Peninsula.

How can employers support staff mental health when returning to the office?

Clarke suggests it is imperative that managers have one-to-one conversations with employees to understand how they are feeling and ensure individuals’ needs are met. “Implementing a holistic health and wellbeing strategy that looks at the physical, mental, social, financial and organisational wellbeing will enable employers to take a ‘whole person’ approach and help employees thrive,” she adds.

Palmer also advises offering an employee assistance programme that gives employees access to trained counsellors over the telephone and even face-to-face sessions where appropriate. But, as a minimum, all managers should be trained in identifying poor mental health among their teams and being able to signpost support channels.

Whatever the model employers choose – office-based, hybrid working or completely remote – wellbeing should be high on the agenda at all times, says Robinson. “If employees feel supported in their wellbeing, have mechanisms to reach out for support when needed and are encouraged to get work-life balance, [...] absenteeism will be reduced, productivity improved and retention higher”, she says.