If the past almost 18 months has taught many businesses anything it is that they can operate far more flexibly than they ever imagined would be possible. Remote working became the norm for businesses that didn’t need to close down completely and many companies have seized this opportunity to radically rethink the way they will continue to operate even as we emerge from the pandemic. Some large corporates have decided to switch to permanent remote working for at least part of the week, whereas others are rushing to a full return to the workplace.

However, now is the time for businesses to sit down with their staff handbooks/policy documents and give serious consideration to whether those policies continue to be fit for purpose/fit for the future of working life. Employees who have spent the past year or more working remotely have had different experiences of what that means for them; whilst many have enjoyed and indeed thrived working this way, others are very keen to return to the office. Much depends on where they are at in their careers and what their home environments are like – but as one size doesn’t fit all for employees, perhaps it is time for businesses to consider that perhaps one way of doing business doesn’t work either.

Whether or not businesses want to consider continued flexibility, the reality is that notwithstanding the fact that the Government’s advice to work from home is likely to end in July, there are ongoing health and safety issues that employers are obligated to consider. Many employees will be concerned not only for their physical health but also their emotional/mental health too. Even with falling Covid cases, employers must comply with health and safety legislation and have an ongoing duty to ensure that their employees have a safe environment in which to work. It is important that any return to work is handled sensitively and in conjunction with consultation with staff. Employers should listen to their employees’ concerns and take steps to alleviate those by ensuring that issues raised are addressed.

Things to consider may include:

  1. Continuing social distancing measures – potentially reconfiguring workspaces
  2. Possibly phased return to full-time office presence so that only half (or less) of the workforce is in the office at one time
  3. Improved ventilation
  4. Increased workplace cleaning
  5. Hand sanitisation stations
  6. Help with travel to work for vulnerable staff
  7. Help for staff with ongoing caring responsibilities to – many people will have lost elderly loved ones during the pandemic and may have less childcare as a consequence

In addition to this, however, employers may well find that significant numbers of their staff wish to continue working in a more flexible way and practically, it is going to be rather more difficult to turn down flexible working requests if it has been demonstrated during the pandemic that a flexible way of working can work very well indeed! Now is a real opportunity for employers to embrace change and to reap the rewards of a happier workforce. That isn’t to say that all roles can continue to be done from home or that it is desirable that they should, but it is going to be very important for businesses to consider flexible working requests in light of what has been shown to have been the reality rather than based on the theoretical belief that a job needs someone physically present in order to be done effectively.

What other things should employers be doing as we start to edge slowly back to a more normal way of living and working?

  1. Conduct a Health and Safety risk assessment and repeat this every few months as things change. The HSE will be conducting spot checks and has published advice and guidance relating to Covid-19 on its website. The ACAS website also has some guidance. Implement measures to ensure safety where the risk assessment highlights areas of concern.
  2. Consider regular testing of staff for Covid-19 and whether you want to implement mandatory vaccination for certain members of staff if, for example, as part of their job they regularly come into contact with vulnerable people.
  3. Remote meeting and video conferencing should continue to be made available so as to minimise travel for those who are concerned about using public transport.
  4. Encourage line-managers to engage regularly with their teams and implement one-to-one return to work meetings so that individual concerns can be acknowledged and addressed. This is particularly important for staff who have been furloughed as they are likely to be more anxious about a return to work than those who have continued to work throughout the pandemic, albeit remotely.
  5. Think about ongoing flexible working and how this could enable you to attract/retain the best staff.
  6. Think also about how you will ensure that staff who are continuing to work remotely are not overlooked for promotion/pay increases/bonuses – particularly if you find that more women than men or more disabled staff wish to continue working in this way as this could inadvertently lead to you being found guilty of sex and/or disability discrimination. If there is a noticeably larger number of women than men or of disabled people looking to continue working remotely, at least some of the time, this is going to be an issue you need to be vigilant about and it may be that you need to implement part-time remote working for everyone in order to level the playing field.

Of course, the end of the furlough scheme and the return to work may also lead to a significant number of redundancies but as in all redundancy situations, employers are obliged to consider possible alternatives to redundancy and other costs savings options could include:

  1. Natural wastage – as people resign or retire businesses can choose not to replace them
  2. Recruitment freeze
  3. Stopping or reducing overtime
  4. Encouraging early retirement if your pension scheme allows it
  5. Offering unpaid sabbaticals
  6. Pay freezes or possible cuts to staff benefits (following consultation)
  7. Negotiated pay cuts (important only to implement these after proper and meaningful consultation with staff)
  8. Asking if any staff wish to reduce their hours/take voluntary redundancy

As with everything related to the employer/employee relationship, the key is open channels of communication and consultation. Employees need to be part of any decision making process if it is to be effectively implemented in a way that not only brings about positive change to the business, but which avoids conflict and, in the worst case scenario, litigation.