Posted by Chris Deeley, Solicitor
Workplace re-opening: where are we now and what’s next?
Step one of the planned route out of lockdown in place. And it’s not just shops and restaurants; the obligation to work from home where possible has been lifted.
With many employers starting to plan their staff’s return to the workplace, our Employment & HR team examine where we are now and the next steps to take.
Government policy remains that employees should work from home where this is reasonable (though this is no longer compulsory). This is likely to be the case until at least 21 June, when the Government will review whether it can relax wider social distancing requirements. However, in the meantime, the Government has updated its guidance on making workplaces Covid-secure, reflecting the changes in the homeworking rules.
Covid compliance guidance
There are currently 14 published guides for different workplaces and industries, and it will be important for employers to carefully consider the particular guidance that is relevant to them. That said, the fundamental message from the updated guidance is that employers can now consider whether to start opening their offices to staff for whom homeworking is impractical or ineffective. This will include those with physical or mental health difficulties whose home working environment exacerbates those conditions, or those with particularly unsuitable home setups where disturbances or cramped workspaces completely undermine their ability to work effectively. Employees do not need to be considered a key or critical worker to be allowed to return to the office.
Equally, the guidance also underlines the need for patience while Covid restrictions are gradually lifted. At this stage, it will not usually be appropriate for an employer to require its entire workforce to return to the office. Similarly, disciplining or dismissing employees who refuse to return is very unlikely to be deemed fair while the official recommendation remains to stay away. Until this recommendation is lifted (currently scheduled for late June), only employees with particular difficulties working from home should be required – or indeed permitted – to return to the workplace.
“Meetings of six”?
One area that does remain legally restricted is holding in-person meetings in the workplace, as this will constitute a “gathering” within the wider social distancing rules. Accordingly, indoor in-person meetings between employees from different households remain officially prohibited, while outdoor meetings are subject to the “rule of six” in the same way as social gatherings – and of course may not be practical in many businesses anyway.
Employers: prep and plan
Employer wishing to reopen their offices will need to conduct a Covid-19 risk assessment to form part of their wider workplace risk assessment. This ought to consider points including staff/customer capacity, ventilation and cleaning regimes. On top of this, the Covid-secure guidelines also set out numerous other factors for businesses to consider, such as the need for staff to use public transport to get to work, how to treat clinically vulnerable employees, and involvement with testing and vaccination programs. Of course, the situation is far from black and white, and arrangements with a mix of home-working and office-working are encouraged as a compromise where fully home-based working is unworkable.
With the Government’s coronavirus restrictions under constant review, employers will also want to start planning for their gradual re-opening over the longer term. It would be advisable to take the time now to carefully consider policies on vaccination and workplace testing. The Government has also indicated it plans to introduce a system of Covid-status certification indicating the transmission risk in different settings. While few details of this scheme are yet known, the expectation is that it will enable businesses to re-open with greater certainty.
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