Employers must decide if bringing staff back is safe, says PM

Johnson reveals new strategy for returning employees to workplaces from August, but experts warn leaving this to firms’ discretion could undermine worker confidence

From 1 August, the government will no longer tell employees to work from home where they can, but ask employers to decide if it’s safe for staff to come back, prime minister Boris Johnson has announced.

Speaking during a Downing Street press conference this morning (17 July), Johnson said that from the end of this month, “instead of [the] government telling people to work from home, we will give employers more discretion and ask them how their staff could work more safely.

“This could be continuing working from home, or it could mean making workplaces safer by following Covid-secure guidelines,” he said.

“Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with employees and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe. It’s right we give employers discretion while continuing to make sure employees are kept safe.”

During the conference, in which he also announced an extra £3bn for the NHS in England to help it prepare for winter, Johnson faced questions from journalists about whether this new direction for reopening workplaces was clear enough.

Last week, Johnson said it was “very important” that people should go back to work if able, but his health advisor Patrick Vallance said in the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee yesterday (16 July) that working from home ‘‘remains a perfectly good option” for many companies and he saw “absolutely no reason” to change this.

In response to a challenge from one journalist during the press conference that the advice appeared to have “changed overnight” and the government seemed not to have a view on whether reopening offices was safe, Johnson said: “Our view is it is safe provided employers have taken the steps they need to take… if they have taken these steps and the place of work is Covid secure, then our view is it is safe. But that’s not something for the government to decide, it’s up to employers.”

But allowing employers to make different decisions could erode trust among workers, commented Kathleen Heycock, partner at Farrer & Co. She said a lack of joined-up government guidance had made it difficult for employers to communicate concrete and consistent plans to employees, which – along with the fact that other countries had taken different measures to control the virus – was adding to nervousness among staff.

“The government has left a lot of the ‘risk’ decisions about timing of return, practicalities about whether to wear masks, to employers and individual employees,” she said. “This means different places are doing different things at different times.”

Indeed, Johnson’s announcement came as CIPD research showed staff were anxious about returning to work, with one in 10 (12 per cent) of 1,080 employees surveyed reporting they did not trust their employer to provide a safe environment when they did return.  

Nearly half (49 per cent) of those surveyed who were not currently attending their workplace were anxious about returning, rising to 57 per cent of people with a non-physical health condition and 48 per cent with a physical health condition.  

Additionally, more than a third (35 per cent) said they felt anxious about travelling to work, increasing to 60 per cent in London. Lack of information was also an issue highlighted by the survey, with just over half (55 per cent) saying their employer had given adequate information about a return to the workplace, and less than half (44 per cent) saying their employer had adequately consulted with them about returning to their normal workplace.

“It’s vital that organisations consider the physical safety and mental wellbeing of their people before returning them to the existing workplace,” said Peter Cheese, chief executive at the CIPD, in response to Johnson’s announcement.

“They should first consider if they can meet three conditions: is it essential for them to be in the workplace to do their job, is it sufficiently safe and is it mutually agreed with workers. Even with those measures in place, the return to workplaces must still be gradual so that social distancing can be maintained.”

Separately, recent data also revealed that a fifth of Brits (20 per cent) did not trust the government's advice on returning to work, and one in 10 (11 per cent) wouldn't trust their employer to make this decision. The survey, by data and insights platform Dynata and also including respondents living in the US, Australia, Singapore, France, Germany and India, revealed that globally people were most likely to trust healthcare providers regarding advice on returning to work.

Alex Edmans, professor of finance at London Business School and author of Grow the Pie, said there were numerous reasons many people didn’t trust the government’s back-to-work advice. 

“Trust in this government is very low because it makes many U-turns to its policies, for example initially adopting a herd immunity strategy and arguing that masks are unnecessary and even dangerous as they will lead to people touching their face more,” he said. “Its initial policies are often not led by science. Thus, citizens fear this recommendation to go back to work is not led by science, and may similarly be overturned.”

He added: “Also, the government’s advice is unclear. For example, masks are apparently mandatory in shops, but the health secretary claimed in an interview they were not mandatory in sandwich shops.”

Edmans advised that to ease people back to work, employers should make safety a priority, even if this was at the cost of profits: “This includes investments such as screens in shops and regular sanitation, as well as restrictions on the number of customers who can go to a shop, and ensure that no employee feels pressured to go to work.”

Employers needed to be as transparent as possible and communicate with employees, agreed Heycock: “Actively saying that the employer has a ‘people first’ strategy will make people know that their health is a key consideration.”

Megan Reitz, professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult International Business School, said employers should avoid making assumptions about what employees need when making return to work decisions.

“Rather than second guessing what employees need, we need to genuinely inquire with them and treat each employee as the individual they are, with varying circumstances, perspectives, experiences and needs,” she said.

Managers must ask each employee to tell them how they feel about returning to the office and what they could do to make them feel safer. “This sort of inquiry needs skilful questioning, a recognition that employees may feel worried about indicating they don’t want to return, thinking it will affect your impression of them, and then really skilful listening,” she said.

Johnson also announced during the press briefing that conferences and business events would recommence in October, but added that “these changes must be done in a Covid-secure way subject to the successful outcome of pilots.”

“It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November at the earliest, possibly in time for Christmas,” he said.