Guidance for businesses on ‘plan B’ restrictions

Julian Cox considers what the updated arrangements mean for employers and their duty to protect staff wellbeing during this period

Despite a nation’s hopes, we find ourselves facing plan B. Following the prime minister’s Wednesday night address last week, many businesses in England have now shifted back to a full-time working from home (WFH) model from yesterday (Monday 13 December).

Though the sense of confusion and concern feels familiar, we are in a slightly different boat than we were in March 2020, when only a minority of businesses offered full-time WFH. Since then, during the ups and downs of the pandemic, how the UK works (and indeed, how the world works) has changed beyond recognition. Many businesses had their eyes opened to the benefits that flexible working could give their employees. As a result, some companies maintained remote working even as the country reopened in July this year.

However, many adopted a hybrid policy – a best of both worlds, so to speak. There were also those businesses that took a fairly hard-line full return to work approach as soon as they were able. Businesses that fall into one of these two groups, and which are covered by the ‘work from home if you can’ advice, may now find themselves in a rush to readopt full-time remote working. In this rush, the implications for employee wellbeing cannot be forgotten.

‘If you can’

In Boris Johnson’s mid-week Covid conference, he advised that employers should use the rest of the week to discuss working arrangements with employees, with the 13th being when people must once again work from home if they could. Setting aside the fact that two working days seems a tight window to put plans in place, the use of ‘if you can’ raises some interesting questions.

The official government guidance states that “office workers who can work from home, should do so”. It then states that those who need to access specific equipment in the workplace, or those who need to complete their role in person, should continue to travel into work.

As well as meeting employees’ practical needs, the advice also states that employers must consider allowing access to the workplace if people have “challenging home working environments”. This seems to encapsulate everything from work being impractical from the home (which many working parents will certainly identify with), to remote working impacting the health and mental wellbeing of employees.

This last aspect will be especially pertinent at this time of year, and after close to two years of pandemic turmoil: we are at a point where many people are worried at the prospect of rising infections and the possibility of a second cancelled Christmas.

Protecting your people

So how can businesses ensure their people feel supported during this period of upheaval – particularly if they found remote working difficult the first time around?

First, any communications to employees about plan B changes must be handled clearly, with care and should ideally signpost people to resources where they can access further support. Make sure teams understand that if they feel they will struggle to work from home, they can access the workplace, and that if they choose to do so, Covid-secure measures will be in place. With infections rising, even if the number of people accessing the workplace is reduced, Covid-secure guidance should be adhered to by any responsible employer. Though social distancing may not currently be mandatory, it seems sensible to adopt it again, if practically possible.

Communication will also go a long way to staving off feelings of isolation while at home. Roll out frequent check-ins, whether it’s a phone call or video meeting, to make sure all staff have regular contact within and between teams. It’ll also enable employers to better identify anyone who seems to be particularly struggling.

If you are concerned that a person may be grappling with poor mental health, early intervention, prevention, education and treatment is key. Early intervention might include screening employees, triaging any at-risk individuals, and providing regular wellbeing checks. Prevention and education can include specialist mental health sessions, stress prevention and resilience training and general mental health awareness training. These measures promote a culture of mental health as an organisational priority, with employers committed to supporting and protecting employee wellbeing.

Organisations should also consider how this support extends to employees who may need to access external treatment, by offering therapy or other evidence-based treatments as part of a healthcare package, or devising a pathway for employees to access appropriate clinical support.

It’s fair to say that the plan B announcement was not welcomed by many, causing anxiety, confusion and concern among the public. Given this, as businesses readopt a remote work model, employee mental wellbeing must be at the top of the agenda. By ensuring people can access support, voice their concerns, and work in a way that meets their needs, employers and employees can navigate this tumultuous period together.

Julian Cox is a partner and head of employment at BLM