Back to the office FAQs: how should HR approach returning staff to their desks?

People Management asks experts for advice on local lockdowns, the first day back and what to do if an employee won’t social distance or follow safety rules

Back to the office FAQs: how should HR approach returning staff to their desks?

From 1 August, the government changed its longstanding advice that employees should work from home if possible, instead telling employers in England that it would be up to them to decide if it was safe for staff to return to workplaces.

This has signalled something of a green light for businesses considering asking staff to return to offices, with some announcing employees will be returning over the coming weeks. But what steps can HR take to ensure workplaces are safe? And what should employers do if staff don’t want to come back to the office? People Management asked employment lawyers and HR professionals for their advice on best practice.  

What actions should I take if someone doesn't want to come back to the office?

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, says there will be many people understandably anxious about returning to a physical workplace. “Any return to a workplace should be fully discussed and agreed with each individual and their personal circumstances taken into account, including their commute and caring responsibilities, as per the government’s new guidance,” she says, adding that extremely vulnerable employees should still work from home wherever possible.

What steps should I take to ensure the office is Covid secure?

The government advises that employers set up their offices to ensure staff can maintain social distancing wherever possible. They should use screens or barriers to separate people from each other, and have people working back to back or side to side instead of face to face wherever possible. Additionally, businesses should encourage employees to wash hands frequently and increase cleaning of office surfaces. As far as masks in the office are concerned, Suff says: ”Current guidance makes clear that wearing one could be marginally beneficial as a precautionary measure in terms of protecting others, but wearing one is not a replacement for other ways of managing the risk of Covid-19 infection at work.”

What does best practice for someone's first day back in the office look like?

A full and detailed risk assessment is key to bringing employees back to the office, says Tracey Hudson, HR director at The HR Dept, who recommends HR teams simulate a working day – including commuting, daily tasks and lunch breaks – to better understand how space is used, and flag any areas where social distancing might be difficult. Such precautions will also allow employers to fully explain to employees what their first day back will look like, including how social distancing will work and what new practices will be in place. Some businesses are also reportedly launching mandatory online ‘re-inductions’ to ensure staff are ready for their first day back – so employees can walk through how the office has changed and the new safety protocols before they arrive.

How should I handle employees who won't social distance or abide by other safety measures in the office?

Given the serious implications for all parties, employers are within their rights to launch disciplinary proceedings against employees who break social distancing rules, says Barry Ross, director at Crossland Employment Solicitors. “As employers, it is important to ensure that all employees understand that disciplinary sanctions can and will be issued for breach of the rules and that, depending on the severity, it could be considered as seriously as gross misconduct and result in the termination of employment without notice,” he says.

It is also wise to update your policy to cover whether certain breaches count as misconduct or gross misconduct, says Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR: “You should also look at whether existing clauses in the policy are widely worded enough to cover this. But it's likely that one-offs, or first offences, are accidental and a quiet word may well suffice.”

What are the chances of another lockdown or more local lockdowns?

The reimposition of restrictions in the North West should be a sharp reminder that the UK is still in the midst of a pandemic, says Suff: “Transmission will remain a risk until there is an effective vaccine, and we are very likely to see further lockdowns over the coming weeks and months where the virus resurges.”

What should I do if part or all of my business is affected by a local lockdown?

Businesses should create a contingency plan for a local lockdown, says Paul Kelly, head of employment at Blacks Solicitors. He recommends employers take a close look at how they coped during the country-wide lockdown and assess what worked and what didn’t.

Companies with multiple branches/offices should have a continuity plan that addresses the possibility of future local lockdowns, Kirsty Rogers, employment partner at DWF, advises, adding that home working should be the primary focus. Where this is not possible, “employers may be able to restructure temporarily to try and continue operations safely during any local lockdown”.

What do we do if we have a case or suspected case of coronavirus in the office?

Employers should advise any employee who feels unwell to follow self-isolation guidance, to not come into work and to be tested. If they test negative, they can return to work. If they test positive, colleagues who were exposed to the infected employee should be sent home to also self-isolate. Hudson advises employers to use a bubble system, where only set groups of staff are allowed in the office at any one time. This will help businesses implement their own track and trace system and quickly reach out to colleagues who have potentially been exposed and communicate the next steps effectively to that group.

What policies should I have in place for employees who want to holiday abroad?

Fundamentally, employers have no control over what workers choose to do in their private time, says Kate Palmer, director of advisory and consultancy at Peninsula. While businesses could refuse requests for annual leave, or even cancel pre-booked holidays, she warns this is likely to be unpopular.

Instead, employers should make clear to staff what will happen if they are not able to return to work immediately after their holidays, given travellers are at risk of being asked to quarantine on their return. “[Employees] are not legally entitled to statutory sick pay for self-isolating because of travel, so how you respond to this is down to you,” Palmer says. “You could ask staff to work from home during this period of isolation or possibly [oblige them to] take the period as unpaid leave or as part of their annual leave entitlement.” This clarity should ultimately help staff decide if they do want to risk travelling abroad.