The road back to work: How employers can get it right

After weeks of lockdown and with the majority of staff having been working from home throughout this most unusual period of time, many employers will now face a new hurdle as they start to bring employees back into the workplace. However, the route back into work isn’t necessarily a straightforward one, with several challenges for employers to overcome.

There are few employers that will have been unaffected by Covid-19. Whether taking the decision to lay staff off, reduce working hours, agree to implement pay cuts or take advantage of the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – aka furlough – decisions regarding employees are likely to have been difficult to make.

Throughout lockdown, keeping staff up to date by way of regular communication is likely to have served employers well. Whether keeping in touch with staff on furlough, or making use of technology to regularly speak to staff still working, communication is one of the fundamental backbones of successfully managing a remote workforce.

Communication will also be key to the next stage – as employers look to pave the way for employees to return to work. Throughout their conversations with staff, employers will likely have some idea of which staff are keen to return to work and which may not be able to do so straight away. Clearly, each employee will have their own personal circumstances and it is important for employers to consult with staff to see where the land lies.

Employees with health concerns and who are shielding, or those with children who have not yet returned to school, may not yet be in a position to return to the workplace. Where possible, employers should be flexible and be willing to make allowances for employees in these situations.

There may be staff who do not fall into the above categories, but still have doubts or concerns about returning to the workplace environment. Employers should think very carefully about their workplace environment and the appropriate measures to put in place to ensure the safety of their staff. Employers should be mindful of keeping up-to-date with guidance for their specific industry sector, or if there isn’t any, they should consider seeking support from an independent Health and Safety adviser. Any measures that employers put in place should be communicated to staff so they can feel more reassured that appropriate actions have been taken and their health is being safeguarded.

It’s important to remember that not all staff are suited to working remotely – some may have been struggling throughout the period – either due to distractions at home or simply because they work better in a workplace environment alongside their fellow team members. Whilst business efficiency is important – particularly at this time – keeping staff motivated and happy is also a big consideration.

Unfortunately, not all employers will be able to bring back all of their staff and in these cases, redundancies will be inevitable. The redundancy process is fairly strict and the rules must be followed thoroughly by employers to avoid any potential for comeback. Where some staff are being kept on in the same teams where others are being made redundant, employers should make and keep notes in relation to their decision making and any selection criteria applied, so they can justify the choices made should these later be questioned. The paperwork relating to staff going on furlough should also be maintained for a period of 5 years. This should be ideally linked to each employee’s individual file, be it in paper or digital format (software such as breatheHR can help with digital record keeping).

From a wider perspective, employers may not want to return to normal – either straight away or at all – and instead consider a ‘new normal’.  Companies may look at some of the changes enforced by lockdown as potential positives for their business going forward. Flexible working is often attractive to employees, so allowing staff to continue to work from home some or all of the time could not only help to retain existing staff, but also attract new team members in the future.

As restrictions ease and aspects of our lives return to a semblance of normality, the road for both employers and employees is likely to have a number of bumps yet to come. For more information on any issue relating to employment law as a result of Covid-19, please get in touch.