Relaxation of workplace Covid rules to create new stress points for employers
Decisions about how and when to bring staff back into the workplace and how to manage employees who have different views about safety, mask-wearing and remote working are likely to create new stress points and potential conflict in the workplace.
Kate Benefer, a Partner in our Employment Law team at Royds Withy King comments.
“The Government has passed onto employers the responsibility for deciding what measures are necessary to ensure a safe workplace. Whilst the easing of restrictions will be welcomed by businesses, it will inevitably create further confusion and potential points of conflict in the workplace.
“Employees and employers may, for example, have different perspectives of risk and what is safe, and that will be difficult to manage. Businesses have an obligation to carry out a risk assessment, but this is difficult when there are still many unknowns with Covid.
“We would expect employers to continue to maintain some social distancing where possible and, in many instances, require staff to wear face coverings where it is not possible to maintain social distancing rules, at least for the short term. It will be difficult for staff to refuse to wear a mask in the workplace unless they are exempt or have a valid reason as the employer would be able to say it is a reasonable management instruction.
“Where staff work is also likely to cause concern for both employees and employers. The requirement to work from home has been lifted and it is entirely understandable that some employers may wish all staff to return to the workplace. But if staff wish to continue to work from home or adopt hybrid working arrangements, it will be difficult for many employers to refuse as the employee will be able to refer to a lengthy period of successful remote working.
“Employers need to be particularly careful with employees who indicate they are not comfortable with a return to the workplace. There could be health concerns that mean an employee is particularly vulnerable in relation to Covid, or mental health issues, such as anxiety, which may have been caused or exacerbated by the pandemic. Employers who refuse the right to continue to work from home may find themselves facing discrimination claims.
“Further, if all staff are required to return to the office employers should be prepared for a spike in flexible working requests.”
Kate Benefer offers employers the following advice:
- Carry out a workplace assessment looking at what measures can be adopted to minimise the risk of Covid infections.
- Ask why you need to bring employees back into the workplace so that you can explain and ‘sell’ the idea to staff as well as being prepared to respond to flexible working requests.
- Communicate plans with staff as early as possible, addressing any concerns and try and bring them on board.
- Adopt a common-sense approach to face coverings and flexible working.
- Consider individual circumstances and make adjustments to accommodate employees who may have health concerns
Kate adds: “Employers will need to work hard to avoid a two-tier workforce divided by where they work. This can lead to resentment and allegations over favourable treatment, particularly if promotions or allocations of work are perceived to be unfair.”