Return to the Workplace? Updated guidance on employer’s duties in light of COVID-19

Throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last few months, the government guidance has been that as a first option, if employees can work from home, then they should do so.

However, as of the 1 August 2020, that guidance is to change and employers are now being given more discretion to make the decision with regards to how best and safely their staff can continue to work in light of the ongoing situation.

This could therefore still mean that staff continue to work from home, or if the workplace is deemed to be “COVID Secure” then employees can start to come back to the workplace.

So what does the change in the guidance mean for employers?

Basically, the decision is very much now in the hands of employers to decide what steps they are to take in the coming months to enable their employees to either continue to work from home, or to bring their employees back into the workplace.

This decision is far from easy from either an employer or employee perspective, and the outcome of that decision will vary from business to business taking into account the following:

  • The impact that the pandemic has had upon the individual business and how effective employees working from home has been (if possible at all).  Some roles may not have been possible to perform from home because of the nature of the business or type of role of the individual employees.
  • The needs and individual circumstances of your employees. Some employees have been able to comfortably work from home without any impact upon productivity, whilst others have struggled either because of their role / type of work or because of their personal circumstances at home which has made working there difficult, if not impossible.
  • Is it safe to bring employees back into the workplace? Are employers able to take all reasonably practicable steps to make their workplace COVID secure?
  • What resources are available to employers to make the workplace COVID secure? How does the cost / benefit of this weigh up against the cost of keeping employees working from home if this works for both employers and employees?
  • Following on from the above, a number of employees may still be in the higher risk categories (clinically extremely vulnerable or clinically vulnerable) such that employers may wish to consider whether those employees can / should return to the workplace in light of any potential increased risk to them.

The decision as to whether employees should return to the workplace is very business / case / and in certain circumstances, employee specific.

What is vital when making that decision however is that employers engage with employees and discuss their plans and processes regarding whether or not a return to the workplace is to take place, and take into account the needs of both the business and their employees.  

So if employers do want their employees to return to the workplace, what do they have to do to be COVID secure?

  1. The first step is to undertake a specific COVID-19 risk assessment with a view to then putting in place appropriate steps and measures to enable employees to return to the workplace safely.

    The government guidance refers to a number of issues that employers should consider, and it makes suggestions as to how to maintain social distancing (keeping people 2 metres apart, or now 1 metre with risk mitigation to be put in place).

    The workplace issues / areas covered amongst other things include people arriving and leaving work, moving around the workplace, workplaces and workstations, workforce management, meetings, common areas, managing customers, visitors and contractors, and dealing with inbound and outbound goods.
  2. Once your risk assessment has been produced, communicate it to employees and take on board their comments and feedback. The reality is that only your employees can really confirm whether or not the practices and procedures that you are putting in place can realistically work to ensure a safe return to the workplace.
  3. Put in place the proposed practices and procedures. The guidance does provide helpful recommendations, but it can only be general guidance and the mitigating steps may not be possible in all circumstances.

    Each employer / workplace will need to take what recommendations they can from this document and tailor it according to their specific circumstances having considered the nature of the business, the size and the type of business, how it is organised, managed and regulated, what resources they have, how the premises are laid out, and the needs / individual circumstances of its employees (i.e. whether there are any employees in the higher risk categories who may need to take further mitigating steps to be protected).
  4. If you have over 50 employees, the guidance expects you to then publish your risk assessment on your website and to complete a poster confirming that you have complied with the government guidance / are COVID secure and display this in the workplace.
  5. Monitor the practices and procedures that have been put in place to ensure that they are being adhered to by both employers and employees alike.
  6. Keep on top of the government guidance and updates, and continue to take feedback and comments from your employees to ensure that the practices and procedures that have been put in place are working, and will continue to work.

The pandemic has caused stress and anxiety, with very few people being unaffected by the situation.

Bringing employees back into the workplace therefore if not handled as sensitively and collaboratively as possible could result in further stress, anxiety and problems being caused from both an employer and employee perspective.

This is a hard balance to strike, taking into account both the needs of the business to be as productive as possible, whilst enabling employees to undertake their roles to the best of their abilities with the confidence that steps have been taken by their employer, and considerations made to protect them from the COVID-19 virus while back at work.

Should you require any assistance or further guidance in the light of the Government’s recommendations and how this should be applied to your particular workplace, or have any other health and safety issues that you would like assistance with, please do not hesitate to contact the team at Prettys.

Louise Plant
Senior Associate