Long reads

The issues with returning to work post-lockdown

4 Jun 2020 By Francis Churchill

Businesses have slowly begun bringing employees back to the workplace. But HR must monitor mental wellbeing and tread carefully with reluctant staff

Lockdown marked a sudden, radical change for most. Office workers were told to take their laptops home and not come in the next day. Hotel and restaurant staff heard on the news their businesses wouldn’t be opening again after Friday service. Shops were shuttered and left with hastily printed ‘Closed because of coronavirus’ signs on A4 paper.

But the reopening of the economy will not be so abrupt. It is going to be a step-by-step process that could take the best part of a year before people’s working lives resemble anything like pre-coronavirus times – and even then the prospect of going back to the workplace will be daunting for many.

When prime minister Boris Johnson outlined his plan to restart the economy in early May, calling on employees unable to work from home to return to the workplace, social media was awash with images of crowded trains and buses as commuters struggled to find alternative methods of transport. Similar concerns abound around how non-essential shops will enforce social distancing when they reopen in England on 15 June. There are safety as well as reputational issues at stake for businesses deciding how and when to reopen. Engineering firm Dyson faced a staff revolt when it sent an email asking all employees – including those who could work from home – to return to its sites. It swiftly changed its policy.

Indeed, a recent poll of more than 500 People Management readers has found just 4 per cent of employers returned staff to work following Johnson’s updated guidance on 11 May, compared to 55 per cent that expected employees to continue working from home for some time, and 24 per cent that were waiting for the government to give their sector the green light. (An additional 17 per cent said their staff worked through the lockdown.) 

“It’s a really delicate balancing act for many employers,” says Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD. There is intense pressure, especially on smaller firms, to get their operations up and running or else risk going under, she says. But this cannot be at the expense of keeping people safe.

The government has published eight sector-specific documents outlining guidance for employers, which Suff says are more forceful than the initial draft guidance – particularly the expectation for employers with more than 50 staff to carry out and publish a coronavirus risk assessment. “A lot of the judgements and responsibility for carrying out those risk assessments sits with employers. So they’ll have to go through a really rigorous process to ensure the environment is safe,” she says.

The People Management poll revealed that the majority of HR professionals (62 per cent) found the government’s advice very or quite helpful; 38 per cent found it not very or not at all helpful. Of the measures recommended by the guidance – beyond those expected of all employers, such as producing a risk assessment – 67 per cent of respondents said they would be altering their workplace layouts to support social distancing, 54 per cent said they would be staggering shifts to reduce contact, and a similar number said they were planning to hold fewer and shorter meetings and stagger break times. 

Just as important as physical health is employees’ mental health, says Martin Tiplady, managing director of Chameleon People Solutions. “To get from the emergency bit we’ve been in to a new normality there’s another step in between: for the next year or so we’re going to have majorly disrupted working patterns,” he warns.

Businesses need to factor mental health into their risk assessments by asking themselves how their employees will work over the next phase of the outbreak – both those continuing to work at home and those returning to the workplace. “What are the circumstances of people working remotely and coming into the office occasionally? Are they safe to come in? And when they are working at home, do they have the resources to work effectively?” says Tiplady. He adds that remote management and supervision need to be “toughened up” to support staff.

Communication will also be key. The CIPD says employers should not ask people to return to the workplace unless certain this is essential, safe and mutually agreed with staff. “That last point emphasises the importance of having honest one-to-one discussions with employees before they return to physical work environments,” says Suff. And the majority of employers are acting responsibly: 66 per cent of respondents to the People Management survey said they had discussed with staff how safe their commute was before asking them to return to work, for example.

On the knotty issue of what to do if an employee refuses to come back to work where the employer believes it is safe for them to do so, Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula, says this will need to be approached carefully on a case-by-case basis – with considerations such as whether the worker is living with someone who is shielding, is a single parent who cannot secure childcare or has underlying health conditions factored in. “If it’s just because they don’t want to return then it would be unreasonable grounds for refusal, and the employer needs to decide how to approach that,” says Palmer. 

“Ultimately it could end in disciplinary action for unreasonable refusal or failure to follow a reasonable management instruction. However, if they are refusing on the grounds of not having childcare because of schools remaining closed, then disciplinary action would be precarious.” She adds that whistleblowing legislation is also important to bear in mind, but: “If the employer has instigated a proper risk assessment and implemented measures based on [this], that protective disclosure would probably fall apart.”

So asking people to return is an enormous task. “HR ought to be in the driving seat,” says Tiplady. “Most of this is about people’s comfort levels in coming to work. The physical stuff about putting tape on the floor and notices up is easy by comparison with dealing with [the disparity between] what I think is safe to do, and what another person might think is not safe at all.”

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