Friday, Oct 1, 2021

End of Furlough/Returning to Work

The coronavirus pandemic has dominated the livelihoods of Britons for 18 months now. Many people have had to adapt to working from home, parents have had to juggle jobs with home schooling, and employers have found themselves working through the minefield of constantly changing restrictions and policies.

But with restrictions easing and the CJRS coming to an end, businesses are now at a critical juncture. The pandemic has provided a catalyst for change – while there is still some nervousness about returning to previous routines, businesses are adapting their working practices and employees generally want to maintain their new-found flexibility. Here is some guidance around the key areas surrounding the end of the CJRS and returning to work which we hope you find useful:

End of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

·         The furlough scheme, which protected millions of jobs during the pandemic has now ended - claims for September 2021 must be submitted by 14 October 2021 and any amendments must be made by 28 October 2021.

·         As employers you will need to decide whether to take back any workers still on furlough or make them redundant. In most cases, you will already have started the redundancy process if you planned to let workers go by 30 September.

·         You don't legally have to give furloughed workers notice that they are being called back to work, but it's recommended that you should give as much notice as possible. 

Returning to work – Useful Q & As

How do we manage expectations and make sure everyone is happy with any changes to our working practices?

The most important thing is to maintain a very open dialogue with your employees and consult & engage with them on what’s working, and how to create more choice and opportunity, while also balancing the needs of the organisation. Remember that no two people will have experienced the pandemic in the same way. Some might have lost relatives and friends to Covid; some might have had Covid themselves, and so have extra concerns about coming back to work; some people’s personal circumstances might have changed, such as they’ve taken up caring responsibilities. 

Therefore everybody is going to have a slightly different expectation about what the return to the workplace will look like. It’s important they get a chance to be listened to in a meaningful, non-judgemental way. Taking a temperature check with employees to find out how they’re feeling and their concerns will help inform a policy in line with what people want. 

Can we instruct staff to return to the office even if they don’t want to?

It’s important to understand the root cause of any reluctance from the employee to return to the office. Discuss the Covid-secure measures implemented to protect them and their colleagues and work collaboratively with them on a phased approach if appropriate. 

Companies can instruct employees to return to the office, although it is better to be clear with this message and the reasons behind doing so, and ensure that your policies are implemented uniformly across your company.

There has been a very important cultural shift.  Businesses need to understand that people want to work more flexibly now. Historically, our working cultures have often – consciously or unconsciously – judged people on seeing them working and how hard we think they’re working. However, during the pandemic, it’s been much more on what staff produce, so we need to learn from this.

What contingency plans should we have in place for a Covid outbreak at work?

The first thing is to make sure you’ve done your risk assessments. In organisations with more than 50 employees, they should be published on the intranet so employees can see what has been done and ensure their concerns have been covered. If not, then they should have the opportunity to see the risk assessment and to ask questions about what happens in certain situations. 

If somebody does test positive, there should to be a track-and-trace process in place, making sure that anybody who’s been in the office or near that person is made aware – obviously the person doesn’t have to be named. Managers should be up to date with the regulations on testing and social isolation so they can allay any concerns and anxieties that people might have. Government guidance is constantly changing, so it’s important to keep up to date. 

Consider your ability to support the testing of employees, for example allowing reasonable time off. Ultimately, this is a health and safety concern, so you should consider appropriate measures to keep your employees and visitors safe. Clean-air air-conditioning units and good ventilation is a good starting point along with a reduced office presence, where practical. 

What’s the risk of a ‘no jab, no job’ policy for when we return to offices?

Such a policy could be discriminatory for employees who have underlying medical concerns that prevent them from being vaccinated. You therefore need to have an objectively justifiable reason for requiring vaccinations and most workplaces are unlikely to meet this requirement where other Covid protection measures can be used (e.g. social distancing measures or working from home). Along with the employment law risks around discrimination, the risk of unsettling employees with such an inflexible policy can have a negative impact on company’s culture and lead to increased resignations.

Adding a clause into contracts of employment is likely to be equally divisive and potentially discriminatory, so advice should be taken ahead of going down this route. This brings up the next question of how an employer will know if an employee has been vaccinated or not. Check your data protection clauses and privacy policies to see if you have the ability to process such data for your employees, and the circumstances in which you can use it, store it and must destroy it. Employees in most instances are not obliged to share this information with you, so you need to be very careful when requesting it.

Apart from in the care sector where we know that legislation is coming into force in November (unless somebody has a medical exemption, they are required to have a full vaccination), it’s much better to encourage people than to force them. 

Can we mandate that employees get tested regularly for Covid? 

This will depend on the company’s health and safety policy and where the employee works from. For example, some premises may not permit access without taking a test or a negative result. Again, you must ensure that the rationale behind such policy can be justified and doesn’t discriminate against populations of your workforce. With factory working for example, where people are quite close to each other and the risk of transmission is higher, it can be a reasonable request. But everything has to be done in a transparent way and proportionate to the risk. 

It could be included as part of your Covid-safe arrangements, and would actually help alleviate some of the worries that employees might have about coming to the office. So you could say ‘let’s all be tested twice a week’ and implement a policy/process to ensure this happens.

How should we manage employees in the same team requesting different flexible working hours?

You need to try to balance the desires of individuals who perhaps want to work more flexibly with how you want to make the team work in the most effective ways, alongside the needs of the organisation. Businesses also need to ensure they have the relevant tech setups to be able to facilitate, support and manage meetings when employees are working in different places.

The future of work looks like people having individual hybrid arrangements. In many organisations, you’ve got people who want to be back in the office five days a week, and they are collaborating with other colleagues who have not been in the office or working in different locations.

It could be argued that a level of flexibility and virtual working is now an expectation. It would be brave of an employer, after they’ve seen people do their job effectively for 18 months, to not offer flexibility. Unless the request has been made for a reasonable adjustment in relation to a disability issue you should look at the requests on a ‘first-come/first serve’ basis and see if you can accept it: there are only eight reasons why you can turn down a flexible working request under the current legislation. 

We’re switching to a hybrid model. Should this be reflected in our employees’ contracts?

The CIPD’s guidance is not to run too quickly to change employment contracts. Many employers are describing their practices as informal flexible working – in other words, your contract may say that your place of work is the office, but you’re given more flexibility. For example, you work from home in the morning so you can take the children to school.

We need to see how it goes and learn the lessons as we move forward before changing contracts of employment on a permanent basis.

What kind of policies can we use to address wellbeing concerns such as presenteeism and burnout?

Highlighting to staff what their working hours are and what is expected of them. If you know people are experiencing poor mental wellbeing at work, have an employee assistance programme or use occupational health. But use it in a timely manner – don’t send people there when they’re already on their knees, make sure you have good managers who can recognise the signs…

The pandemic has seen a lot of people face isolation, loneliness, anxiety and many other mental health problems: people are not going to leave those at the door when they return to work. Make sure you have ongoing conversations with individuals about how they are really feeling. Organisations have a legal duty of care to manage and assess the risk of people returning to the workplace which includes their mental health and wellbeing.

Pam Watson Greig Melville HR
Human Resources

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