The Prime Minister has declared that the UK will enter Step 4 of the roadmap out of lockdown. It has been announced that most of the restrictions surrounding Covid-19 will be lifted as of Monday 19 July 2021. This means that the current work from home guidance, social distancing and self-isolation rules will be changing to allow the economy to attempt to get back to normal.
As businesses work towards re-opening fully, mindful of advice and restrictions that continue to change, employers must plan for a return to the workplace in a way that cares for their staff and safeguards their health and wellbeing.
With so much disruption from the pandemic, people’s expectations around work, how they fulfil their role and how they reconcile work and domestic responsibilities may have changed dramatically. This is an ideal time for employers to think more creatively about effective ways of working and harness more agile and flexible working practices to meet individuals’ changing expectations. At the heart of any plans should be a commitment to support flexible, remote and hybrid working where possible.
Once the Government advice to work from home ends, employers must take an individualised approach to consider the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of the workforce, as well as monitoring ongoing government guidance. The government are not expecting all staff to mass return to workplace on 19 July but rather a staged return over the coming months and employers have a duty of care to ensure that the workplace is sufficiently safe. This may involve continued social distancing measures, potentially reconfiguring workspaces and common areas, possible changes to working hours to reduce risk of exposure, improved ventilation and increased workplace cleaning and sanitation measures. Employers should also listen to any concerns employees may have around travelling to the workplace.
There will be a period of planning and managing a return to the workplace when the focus will primarily be on health and safety and compliance with COVID-secure guidelines. However, employers should also start considering their longer-term plans with regards to implementing more flexibility in working arrangements.
Many factors must be considered when thinking about short-term plans for returning to the workplace, including the size and nature of the workplace, the number of vulnerable staff or those who live with vulnerable people, caring responsibilities, public transport dependency, as well as local and wider outbreaks. So, an employer with a large premises and car park may be able to fully implement social distancing and minimise employees’ local transport use, while an employer with smaller premises may feel social distancing is impossible in the workplace.
An employer’s guiding principle should be to safeguard the health and wellbeing of their staff. It is important that businesses engage with their staff to understand how they feel about the return to the workplace. There should be consultation with staff at a company level but it is also important that line managers understand the specific concerns of their individual team members so they can best support their mental wellbeing and future ways of working. To ensure that the return to the workplace is safe and that return to the workplace is smooth employers need to stay flexible as circumstances and attitudes evolve.
Employers should encourage and support every manager to have one-to-one return meetings with every employee, where a key focus is on health, safety and well-being. Managers should have a sensitive and open discussion with every individual and discuss any adjustments and/or ongoing support to facilitate an effective return to the workplace. This is especially important for those who have been furloughed. These discussions should cover topics such as changes in company services or procedures, how specific customer queries or issues are being addressed, or changes in supply arrangements, as well as any agreed changes to their work duties or tasks. Whilst employers should not attempt to unilaterally change previous terms and conditions, some staff may require a phased return to their full role, or want to discuss a new working arrangement, especially if their domestic situation has changed because of the pandemic.
As with so many areas of people management, line managers have a key role to play. You should ensure that they are fully aware of your policies and approaches and, if possible, have had a chance to contribute to them or raise issues about how they might work out in practice. They must be fair and consistent while also being sympathetic to individual concerns and issues.
With recent surveys suggesting that over half of workers would like to retain a mix of working at home and their workplace, and three quarters expect employers to offer it, employers may need to think about their approach or introduce a policy towards hybrid working.
End of the furlough scheme
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (“furlough” scheme) is due to end on 30 September 2021. Therefore, after 30 September 2021, employers will no longer be able to designate employees as on furlough leave. The scheme was only intended to last for a matter of months, but it has repeatedly been extended and has now been in existence for over a year.
While another extension is possible, considering the government’s roadmap currently in place, it is hoped that by September 2021, things will have returned to a state of more normality. Therefore, it would seem an appropriate time for the scheme to come to an end.
Under the scheme, employers could claim 80% of an employee’s usual salary for hours not worked (i.e. the hours the employee is on furlough), up to a maximum of £2,500 per month. Employers remain responsible for paying employer national insurance contributions and pension costs.
However, this changed on 1 July 2021, with the level of grants employers can claim from the government being reduced. It is important to clarify that the reduction in the level of the grant provided by the government will not impact the level of income the employee receives. Employers are required to contribute towards the cost of their furloughed employee’s wages, and therefore there will be increased financial costs to employers in continuing to use furlough.
The changes are as follows:
- In July 2021: employers can claim up to 70% of furloughed employees’ wages, up to a maximum of £2,187.50.
- In August and September 2021: employers can claim up to 60% of furloughed employee’s wages, up to a maximum of £1,875.
- Employers will be responsible for making up the difference so that furloughed employees continue to receive 80% of wages for hours not worked, up to a maximum of £2,500 per month.
- Employers must continue to pay all employers national insurance and pension contributions.
- For claim periods after 1 December 2020, employers cannot claim for any contractual or statutory notice period.
Employers will need to consider their options when this scheme comes to an end. There are several options depending on business needs:
- Agree reduced working hours with some or all staff.
- Consider strategies including natural wastage, recruitment freezes, stopping or reducing overtime, offering early retirement to volunteers (subject to complying with age discrimination law), retraining or redeployment, sabbaticals and secondments, pay freezes, short-time working and other alternatives to redundancy.
- Consider redundancies.
The easing of lockdown restrictions has affected different business sectors and areas differently. Organisations need to use this time to prepare and plan their next steps, both for the immediate future and the longer term.
Communication with your staff is key. Keeping people informed of what your business is doing – whether it is good or bad news for individuals – will help them to make their own decisions and give them some degree of security in very uncertain times. Knowing they are valued and supported by their employer and that you continue to prioritise their health and safety will be pivotal to their wellbeing.
For further advice and assistance on the contents of this blog, please contact Sarah Collier, Partner & Head of Employment Law.