Your questions about the new working normal – answered

The government's back to work advice seems to change from one minute to the next. You could angrily tweet Boris Johnson – or you could ask People Management's expert panel for advice on reopening offices, hybrid working, and more

Your questions about the new working normal – answered

Meet the panel

  • Charles Cotton Senior reward and performance adviser at the CIPD
  • Lizzie Crowley Senior skills policy adviser at the CIPD
  • Paul Holcroft Associate director at Croner
  • Linda Kennedy HR consultant and interim HR director
  • Chadi Moussa Client partner at Let’s Talk Talent and former HR director
  • Rachel Suff Senior policy adviser at the CIPD

We had been returning office staff gradually, but many were reluctant, not for health and safety reasons but because of things like looking after new pets. We’re now worried it’ll be even harder to get people back in a few months’ time, and creativity and collaboration are suffering.

Chadi Moussa says: ‘Vlexible’ (virtual and flexible) working has afforded many the chance to pursue life interests with the additional time and money they’ve gained from not commuting (or buying coffees or lunch, etc). While having a new pet is no excuse for never returning, expecting employees to be comfortable with a full return could be problematic. I’d start with two critical questions: what role does a physical workplace play now and in the future, and is it justifiable to expect employees to return to a physical workplace at pre-pandemic levels? Discuss these with your leadership and HR teams, but – more importantly – your employees, who will offer different perspectives.

Concerns around deteriorating creativity and collaboration are valid. But there’s little evidence to suggest employees cannot work together effectively and be innovative virtually. In fact, technology to support this is advanced, affordable (if not free) and easily accessible. Ultimately, unless you can show beyond reasonable doubt that your people and your organisation can only perform at their best from a physical workplace, your time and energy may be better spent engaging colleagues on addressing these issues with no predetermined outcomes. You may find you use your office very differently in future for your colleagues, and – who knows – maybe even their pets!

If on a Zoom call I suspect someone working at home is under the influence, can I insist on a drug/alcohol test? If my company has a policy of random tests, can I arrive at their home and require them to take one? What can I do if they refuse?

Paul Holcroft says: There is no legislation in the UK that prohibits this, and it is recognised that specific job roles require this type of monitoring, so it is legal to carry out tests. Employers should have a written policy on the use of illegal substances, which, among other things, outlines how employees will be dealt with should a drug test be carried out. Government guidelines stipulate consent should be gained before subjecting a staff member to a test. Without a policy it would be challenging to forcibly make a person get tested and, legally, this could be classed as assault. Many businesses find random drug tests are a significant deterrent. But random tests should be just that – not triggered by any particular event or suspicion. It is essential to maintain the unsystematic nature of random tests, as unfairly singling someone out could lead to claims of discrimination. Whether employers can go to employees’ homes will depend on a contract clause permitting this – without one it could be difficult.

We’ve really struggled to engage line managers with learning content around managing teams remotely and our regular virtual manager drop-in clinics. This is of course even more critical to address now – any pointers? 

Rachel Suff says: HR needs to ensure line managers have the space in their day jobs to take advantage of development opportunities that will improve their people management capability. The organisation’s messaging to managers should make clear that supporting their teams’ health and wellbeing is not a ‘nice to have’, and that healthy and engaged teams will make it easier to deliver on operational objectives. It’s also worth pointing out that the organisation has a legal duty to ensure the health, wellbeing and safety of people working remotely, and managers have a key role to play in discharging that responsibility.

Linda Kennedy says: Managers like all of us need to adapt to new ways of working and it is now more important than ever they check in with their teams, not only to maintain engagement and morale, but also to ensure performance is on track. If managers don’t do this, the business could be at risk. Leadership from the top is required here so that the importance of this is understood. 

HR has a key role in ensuring check-ins are booked in and taking place – otherwise they won’t happen organically. We know what gets measured gets managed, so transparent and immediate data on who has undertaken the relevant training and is implementing it well is required; even better if it can be correlated with customer satisfaction or NPS.

A couple of staff have mentioned their bills being much higher working from home, and have asked whether the company will be compensating for this. But we feel there’s a fair balance as staff are saving money on commuting – is this the right approach?

Charles Cotton says: In a recent CIPD poll, just 8 per cent said their employer was paying those who were having to work from home through the HMRC-approved scheme whereby employees can receive up to £6 a week tax free. So currently a home working allowance is very much a minority pursuit. Nevertheless, with temperatures falling and daylight hours reducing, employees might start to ask why their organisations can’t contribute towards the cost of heating and lighting their new place of work. They might assume their employer must be saving money on their own utility bills or reduced paper and printing. However, office expenses might not have fallen by that much and some costs have perhaps increased. 

If you can’t afford to compensate people, explain why this is through the usual communication channels, such as team catch-ups, the weekly staff update or the intranet. There is also the complication of dealing with those who may be working from home voluntarily and so unable to claim the full relief. Either way, if the business can’t afford a home-working allowance, staff will no doubt appreciate information on how they can claim a deduction for additional costs from HMRC.

How can we spend our apprenticeship levy funds when we can’t onboard apprentices? It’s hard to see how and when we will hire any young people at the moment. What are other firms doing?  

Lizzie Crowley says: This is a challenge for many organisations, and looks set to remain so for a considerable amount of time. Unfortunately, the government has not offered to extend the expiration date of the funds in employers’ apprenticeship accounts. However, it is currently exploring more flexible delivery models such as front-loading off-the-job training, alongside models that allow an apprenticeship to take place across a number of organisations. The government has also committed to looking again at how to support large employers to transfer their levy funds in bulk to their supply chain. However, the CIPD believes, given the current scale of the challenge as well as pressures on L&D budgets, this does not go far enough, and is calling for the levy to be reformed into a flexible training levy so businesses can spend it on other forms of accredited training.  

Young people have been hit particularly hard by how the pandemic is disrupting the jobs market, with data showing under 25s were more likely to be furloughed than any other age group. So it’s important for employers to continue to ensure opportunities for young people to join their organisations – including those with a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, who can bring different knowledge and ideas to the table. Companies should also ensure young people can access learning opportunities in the workplace, even where they’re working from home. This might mean developing their online learning offering, so development opportunities don’t stall at this time.

One of my employees who has recently returned from furlough and works on the frontline has contracted coronavirus, and they claim they caught it at work. What are my legal options? 

Holcroft says: In force since 28 September 2020, new regulations impose self-isolation requirements on people who test positive for Covid-19 and their contacts. Amendments to the fixed penalty notices confirm breaches could result in fines of up to £10,000. Employers too will be liable if they do not permit staff to self-isolate. These regulations prohibit an employer from knowingly allowing a worker or agency worker to attend any place (except where they are required to self-isolate) for any purpose connected to the worker’s employment. The regulations require a self-isolating worker to inform their organisation, and an agency worker to inform either their employer, the agency or the principal (whoever has received such a notification must pass this on to the two other parties). Where someone is convinced they contracted the virus at work, employers should review their policies to ensure they’re sufficient. Either way, employers should increase those measures already in place and enforce adherence to them. 

If we consider hiring more overseas staff in future, should we pay them local or UK rates? What are the considerations around this move?

Cotton says: If you’re going to hire people to do work in the UK but allow them to live overseas, there will be several legal, tax and working issues to consider. For instance, the transfer of personal data or how teams can work together if spread across different time zones. If these issues can be overcome, you need to consider how paying local rates will be viewed. Your UK workforce will be more receptive if you can show the motive is to access a wider pool of talent rather than cutting costs. Similarly, consider how you will explain your decision to other stakeholders, such as investors, customers and the media.

You should also think about how your overseas staff will feel doing the same or similar work to their UK colleagues, but for a lower wage. And what are your plans for currency fluctuations? If the pound slides in value, your overseas workers will cost you more. Similarly, inflation and the going rate of pay might increase more frequently in some countries. And salary costs will increase if other employers start hiring the same type of employees in the countries you’re in.

I work in logistics, distribution and storage, which means most staff can’t work from home (and some have been much busier during Covid), but where possible we’ve allowed others to. We’re making sure they’re discreet about it, but I worry this might cause animosity and resentment long term. 

Moussa says: Unless the government dictates a business must close, there will always be organisations that require people onsite to carry out their job. They’re likely to be far more understanding about other colleagues working from home if there’s good reason for it. Working on an assembly line is fundamentally different in nature to supporting the company website, for example. So the issue of fairness is less questionable. 

The second issue here is around wellbeing. By ensuring only employees whose role cannot be performed virtually attend a workplace, you’re likely to make complying with Covid-secure workplace guidelines much easier. The third issue concerns communication. Frontline staff will be more understanding if this is communicated with them in good faith, so I advise squaring with any who don’t know others are still working from home as soon as possible, because the risk of finding out through the grapevine could really undermine trust in the organisation at a time when arguably it’s needed more than ever. 

What are our health and safety obligations around working from home? I have heard from a number of employees who say they are picking up strains  and sprains because of their work setups. 

Holcroft says: Under the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992, as amended by the Health and Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002, if your staff are engaging in any DSE work while at home you have the same obligations as if they were in the office. A DSE assessment allows employees to consider their workstation, chair, screens, keyboard and mouse to reduce any risk of poor posture and to take regular breaks to lower the risk of any musculoskeletal disorders. Employers must also consider appropriate training and information for employees to consider the risks, and eye tests upon request. 

The other key wellbeing consideration is that loss of interaction with colleagues can lead to some feeling isolated, so do utilise tech platforms to hold daily team briefings (an ideal opportunity to remind staff of any EAP details). Many are also hosting free virtual exercise classes that support both physical and mental health, promoted via a social media group – where staff can also share healthy recipes and run weekly events such as online quizzes.

Our HR and facilities teams invested lots of effort recently supporting the safe reopening of offices. Now the board’s decided to close them completely without consulting us. The team’s really demoralised, feeling their plans are now going to waste. 

Moussa says: I can understand why your team’s feeling flat after seeing their plans scuppered by senior management at a time when people need to feel some sense of control over their lives. Although disappointing, if the decision is irreversible then I strongly advise you to focus on communicating the benefits to your employees: their wellbeing and that of others around them in society. 

However, don’t throw away your plans just yet. As the government is advising working from home where possible as a guideline – and as the situation is highly changeable and will inevitably change eventually again, even if it takes a while – all is not lost. Also, try convincing your board of the merits of allowing some employees to return to site and the pitfalls of not. Use data if you can to bolster your rationale, and storytelling about those struggling to work at home to stir emotions in your favour. Mental health is a serious consideration, with nearly all of us having experienced loneliness over recent months. Allowing employees to access the office may reduce unnecessary anxiety and stress.

Suff says: Government advice on returning safely to a workplace and other Covid-related measures is shifting very quickly and can be beyond an organisation’s control. However, it’s vital that the senior team consults with HR on how sudden shifts are likely to impact the workforce, as there could be a knock-on effect on people’s mental wellbeing, engagement and productivity. Continued home working may be the safest option to protect people from infection at the moment, but HR needs to communicate the potential mental health risks for people not best suited to this. The benefits of a ‘hybrid’ approach where people are given some choice and supported to work safely from the office could be a more productive route.

I have two staff members adamant they won’t return to work (or use public transport) until there’s a vaccine. How should we handle this given a vaccine is an indefinite way away at the moment?

Holcroft says: Employee safety must be the priority during the initial return to work period. Where it is required they work onsite, employees will need to be reassured the necessary measures are in place. Requiring them to work in an environment that puts them at risk could breach an employer’s duty of care. It is up to you to not only reassure staff but also to listen to their concerns and factor in the possibility they may not be unreasonable given the current climate. It would be best to consider the specific circumstances of the employees, as these could mean a new or extended period of home working needs to be agreed or arrangements for time off as annual leave. You may also reduce the employees’ hours if an agreement is reached to allow it. It is advisable to speak to them first and explain the changes you need to make and the reasons. If an employee refuses to attend work without a valid reason or to accept alternative measures, you may wish to consider disciplinary action – though this should be a last resort and businesses should proceed with care.

We’re keen to embrace a more hybrid way of working long term, with staff dictating the right balance for them. But we’re worried this will adversely affect those less able to put in ‘face time’ at the office – particularly  initially as certain staff continue to shield. 

Kennedy says: Many organisations are adopting a hybrid model of working, with a mix of virtual and office working. From my perspective, it’s all about balance and building more tailored solutions for individuals who have specific requirements or obligations. Technology will be key in maintaining this. Many companies are looking to use the office as a hub for meetings and creative discussions rather than a place where people are expected to be at their desks every day from 9am to 5pm.

But employers should bear in mind the importance of diversity and inclusion in any plans, to ensure they don’t discriminate against certain groups (for example, in decisions about flexible, home or part-time working because of school closures, where women could be disproportionately affected, leading to sex discrimination claims). I think this is an ideal time for employers to think more creatively about effective ways of working. This should provide a more level playing field for all, irrespective of work base, which I believe will become less important over time. Measures will move from input to output, and the focus will be on collaboration to deliver results rather than where any individual works.