What should employers consider when the workforce returns?

2 June 2020

On 10 May 2020 the Government began to outline its plans to enable certain sectors in England to return to work, while the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland prepared their own plans.

Employees who can operate from home are still strongly advised to continue to do so. Alongside official guidance on social distancing and hygiene set out by the Government for coming out of lockdown and returning to the workplace eight sets of sector specific guidance were issued. 

In light of this guidance it is clear that employers need to plan now for what, for many, will be a staged return over a long period of time. They also need to take into account the fact that a revised version of the furlough scheme will be available between August and October, after which it is likely to stop.

Many employees are, understandably, going to be anxious and want to know how their workplace will operate, whether they will be able to do their jobs and what steps will be taken to protect them from infection in the workplace. Employers will need to be give priority to taking care of their people’s health and wellbeing and reassuring them regarding the steps that have been taken.

There are several questions here that the employer should address.

  1. Is the role able to be done from home? If so, the current Government guidance is that the employee must work from home.
  2. Has the coronavirus risk assessment in the required form been made?
  3. Is it possible to maintain the 2m social distancing rule in the workplace?
  4. If not, which of the recommended steps to mitigate risk is the employer taking such as physical and other working arrangements?
  5. Has the specifically applicable Government guidance been followed for that workplace?
  6. Is the employee shielding/shielded or extremely vulnerable?
  7. Is the employee vulnerable?
  8. Is the employee’s concern due to their caring responsibilities and are they caring for a disabled person?
  9. Has the employer considered the risks of the employee’s journey to work?
  10. If the employee cannot get comfortable with the proposed arrangements, can their talent be retained short term by furloughing them if the organisation would qualify under the furlough scheme?
  11. If not, what other resolution can be achieved by dialogue?

For many staff and employers this will mean a further period of change and the need to consider longer term flexibility over working hours and/or remote working arrangements.

Careful management of the transition to ensure employee engagement and buy-in will be a critically important part of this. Employers need to start thinking about the different issues always keeping in mind that the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of the workforce should be paramount. This is complicated further by the fact that each employee may be at a different stage of the return to work process, and some may end up on furlough for up to seven months. As a result, there may be difficulties in reintegrating them into the workforce and adjusting to the ‘new normal’. For many, indeed most, there will be no going back to the 'old normal' soon, or even in the medium term.

Planning now for the coming months and years is therefore key, making sure you consider:

  • health and wellbeing, including ventilation, air filtration and PPE; 
  • practical arrangements, such as workplace layout, maximum employee numbers, staggered start time;
  • contractual changes, including to pay and benefits; and 
  • related requirements for employees to travel, both to/from work, and as part of their duties.

How and when employees return to the workplace and how the organisation is finally settling into the new normal will depend on the type of closure arrangements employers have been operating under currently. 

The three most common are:

  1. organisations not trading at all (with all staff furloughed);
  2. organisations trading on a limited basis (some staff are furloughed; some are working from home or at the organisation’s premises) or where only ‘essential’ workers are currently in work; or
  3. organisations trading fully but with all staff working from home.

Pay and benefits 

What is already clear is that for many roles going forward, changes to the way we work will become permanent (or at least semi-permanent) meaning that many employers will need to review, and revisit employees’ pay and benefit packages going forward.

Initially this will be short term for those that have not already addressed issues around those expenses and benefits provided to employees during coronavirus. In this context HMRC has published guidance on taxable expenses and benefits when they are paid to employees because of coronavirus, and how these should be reported to HMRC. 

Subsequently, employers will need to respond to changing work patterns, shifts or part-time working which will include reviewing or restructuring pay and benefits considering areas such as:

  • What do future workplaces look like and how often will people travel to or for work? 
  • Will employers need to help with getting to work safely?
  • Might employers offer increased assistance with car parking or bike racks, bike to work scheme etc?  
  • Will more employees now be based at home? 
  • Will the instances of staff having two or more workplaces increase or decline? 
  • How and what expenses will be paid when employees travel?
  • What about those with company cars? Will these be needed in future? Will the company wind down or change usage, for example to business use only? 
  • Will the type of individuals you engage change? 
  • Will there still be a need for contractors? If so, should the terms and conditions change? 
  • Do bonus schemes need redrafting and/or are the criteria going to need to change? Will likely government prohibition on the payment of bonuses by companies who have sought government support during the pandemic require changes?
  • Will regional differences in pay and benefit packages fall away if employees are working from home?
  • Will different groups need to be incentivised in different ways?
  • Will sick pay policies need changing to accommodate those with coronavirus and/or shielding or those who are carers for those?
  • If the organisation needs employees to travel abroad what changes will be needed to accommodate any restrictions and what support financial or otherwise will the employer offer?
  • For globally mobile employees who have been restricted to locations they are not normally based in, what support will be offered and what changes might be needed to accommodate what the organisation needs?
  • Does the employee assistance programme and any private medical cover deliver what the organisation and employees may now require? 

A long list and that is probably not everything, but plenty enough to think about for now.

For more information on how RSM can help your organisation through these challenging times, please contact

Carolyn Brown Carolyn Brown

Partner, Head of Client Legal Services

Susan Ball Susan Ball

Partner

Hannah Gibson-Patel Hannah Gibson-Patel

Senior HR Consultant