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How to manage the return to work after coronavirus

Written by Bedfordshire Chamber of Commerce | 21 Jul 2020

The UK government are encouraging people to get back to the office in a bid to spur economic recovery. This comes as shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants have successfully re-opened and this weekend we’ll see gyms, swimming pools and beauty salons also opening their doors once more.

In a recent blog post, we talked about how the return to the workplace might happen, such as rotating staff to reduce the number of people in the workplace at one time and introducing temperature monitors as workers enter the building. All these things are going to be top of mind now as business leaders assess the reality of bringing their staff back into the workplace.

But the challenge isn’t just about getting people back into the workplace safely, but how to bring back furloughed workers too. How do business leaders select which employees should return to work? Then there’s the issue of dealing with vulnerable and ‘shielding’ workers, as well as those who may be facing anxiety over the prospect of getting back to work.

Bringing employees back from furlough

Employers may be starting to think about how and when to bring back their furloughed employees. Is it possible to bring everyone back at once? If not, how do you manage that?

A phased return may be appropriate to reduce the number of people in the workplace at once time, or because you expect workload to build slowly back up rather than return immediately to previous levels. What’s most crucial, is that you have a fair system in place to manage their return, taking into account vulnerable employees.

Using annual leave is one way to ensure a smooth return to capacity. The HMRC has stated that employees can take annual leave during furlough and that it won’t impact payments from the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Employers may consider encouraging furloughed staff to take annual leave before returning to work.

Ensuring a safe workplace

Employers have clear legal duties to protect the health and safety of their employees. Businesses that require their employees to come back to the usual workplace must ensure that they have made provisions and adjustments to protect them.

Here are some examples of ways you can make your workplace as safe as possible:

  • Have hand sanitiser readily available at all entrances and exits, as well as throughout the building
  • Ask workers to take their temperature before entering the building
  • Reconfigure desks to maintain spacing and reduce face-to-face interactions
  • Clean door handles, worktops, bathrooms and other high-touch daily
  • Consider introducing shifts or staggered working hours (note that if your employees have contracted working hours, any changes to their hours will need to be agreed with them)
  • Stagger break times

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have compiled some detailed advice on how to make your workplace COVID-secure here.

Health monitoring

Monitoring the health of your employees might sound over the top, but when managed appropriately, it can help protect their health and safety.

Examples include testing for COVID-19, temperature checks upon arriving at the building, as well as creating clear policies to ensure people stay home and self-isolate if they are displaying symptoms.

Those with underlying conditions who are especially vulnerable may need additional protection. It’s also sensible for employers to be aware of any third parties, such as family members of employees who may also be vulnerable to the virus so they can ensure those employees have any additional protection they might need.

However, employers will need to be careful about how they collect this data to ensure data protection and security. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have put together some helpful guidance for employers planning on asking people if they have experienced COVID-19 symptoms or are planning to introduce testing.

At a wellbeing level, it’s also important to check in with your employees before they come back to work and as they transition to being back in the workplace, to see how they are managing the adjustment and providing any additional support as necessary. This is especially the case for furloughed employees as well as those who are returning to work after contracting the virus.

Managing redundancies

Some employers will unfortunately need to make redundancies if their workload has declined. If employees have been furloughed, all the usual redundancy considerations still apply. Employers will therefore need to ensure they factor in employee notice periods and any redundancy costs, and a consultation with the employee or employees is required.

The CIPD have created a redundancy guide to help employers understand how the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme impacts on redundancy procedures. You can access the guide here.

The government are urging people to get back to normal as much as possible, whilst still continuing to stay alert and follow guidance around social distancing and the wearing of face masks. And as the country gets moving again, so too must your business. While there may be tough decisions to make and a lot of planning involved to protect the health and wellbeing of your employees, these are necessary for getting your business back up and running and thriving once again.

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