As lockdown is gradually eased, employers need to ensure a safe return to the workplace for their staff. Here, Mary Goldsbrough, considers how they can respond effectively and fairly to employee concerns during this transition phase.
Understandably, employees who have been furloughed or required to work from home for the last couple of months may have concerns about returning to the workplace. They may be clinically vulnerable or may be living with someone who is. They may have concerns relating to health and safety and what they perceive to be the employer’s failure to follow government guidance. They may also have anxieties about catching Covid-19, how to manage childcare, or being harassed by tenants, customers, or colleagues.
As an employer, it is therefore crucial that you communicate with employees as soon as possible to explain how you intend to emerge from lockdown in line with the government’s advice, and to listen to employee concerns. You should explain what steps are being taken to ensure a safe return to work, including any physical and procedural changes you have made to the workplace. You also need to set out what steps are required of employees when they are at work, and stress the need for them to remain vigilant about their health and that of members of their household.
You should carefully consider the employee’s particular circumstances, as these may be the cause of many of the concerns that they have. Failing to do so could result in discrimination claims, so it is in everyone’s interest to put in place transparent criteria for recalling employees. Make sure you involve and communicate appropriately with workers whose protected characteristics might either expose them to a different degree of risk or might make any measures proposed inappropriate or challenging for them.
You should also consider whether any particular measures or adjustments are needed to take account of your duties under the Equality Act. These could include making reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled workers are not put at a disadvantage, and assessing the health and safety risks for pregnant employees.
Finally, make sure that any steps taken do not have an unjustifiable negative impact on some groups compared to others, for example, those with religious commitments, or those with caring responsibilities. In the latter case, you could consider agreeing different hours of work, agreeing that the employee may not be able to work a full day or a full week, reducing work targets, and being flexible about deadlines where possible.
The same health and safety obligations apply to those who work from home. Remember to implement measures for keeping in touch and monitoring wellbeing. You may also wish to consider the type of work being undertaken and working hours/patterns, whether the work can be done at home safely, whether any control measures should be put in place in order to protect the homeworker, and whether any special equipment should be provided.
Many employees — especially those who do not work from home regularly — may not be set up to do so appropriately. So, if you expect staff to continue homeworking for a prolonged time, you should ask them to undertake display-screen and desk-risk assessments. Just as importantly, encourage them to take breaks away from the screen, and offer them guidance on how to identify risks within their own working space.
As a result of Covid-19, employees are far more aware of their working environment – whether at home or in the workplace – and many are now considering whether they actually need to commute into work at all. In this context, promoting a collaborative, open and tolerant culture at work is essential to create a safe space for all, and an environment where employees can raise concerns with confidence that these will be listened to.