Operating your business and Covid 19

We have now been living with the ‘new normal’ for quite some time. For some businesses it is now the time to start opening their business to staff and customers. In light of this our blog gives an overview into what issues you need to consider and some suggestions about how they should be addressed when you are ready to open your business premises.

We have now been living with the 'new normal' for quite some time. For some businesses it is now the time to start opening their business to staff and customers. In light of this our blog gives an overview into what issues you need to consider and some suggestions about how they should be addressed when you are ready to open your business premises. 

Communicating with employees that they are to return to workplace

Even if it's short notice, you should aim to give employees reasonable notice of the return. This applies even where furloughed employees were made aware of an end date to the furlough. The return date may not be the same for all employees where you are implementing a staged return.

Be aware that some employees may not be in a position to return to the workplace. This could include those who are on sick leave, are self-isolating or are shielding. Contact these employees and make arrangements for their return, when appropriate for them to do so.

It may be useful to set out in a letter the intended return date and all the additional health and safety requirements that employees will have to adhere to in order to ensure a safe working environment.

Managers should speak with employees prior to the return and record the conversation. It would be useful to ask all employees things like:

  • whether the employee has any caring commitments which were affected by coronavirus, for which new arrangements will need to be made because of the return to work
  • the method of transport the employee will use to get to work
  • whether the employee understands any additional health and safety requirements.

Discussions around a temporary change to working hours may be needed if a staggered shift hours approach is to be adopted.

Continuing with remote working

If you have put in place temporary homeworking arrangements during this period you should consider if such arrangements could continue for a more long-term/permanent basis.

Consider if you need a working from home policy and provision of ICT infrastructure/facilities to support working from home should be put in place where practicable.

Restructuring and splitting teams/shifts

The following action will allow your business to comply with physical distancing where it is practicable to do so:

  • revision of staffing rosters and splitting of teams to ensure separation of critical personnel in order to limit joint exposure and protecting the business function
  • cross-train, and identify alternative sources of labour to facilitate a full complement of the required skills needed on each team/shift
  • avoid switching of employees from one shift to another
  • implement an “air gap” or delayed shift changeover to accommodate a full cleaning/disinfection of all shared equipment, and reduce unnecessary interactions between different shift personnel
  • minimise the sharing of equipment and/or tools
  • identify and suspend all non-essential operations which do not directly impact business functionality.

Making changes to working hours

The Government's COVID-19 Secure guidelines set out that staggering hours and shifts, etc are steps an employer should take to ensure social distancing.

This will not only assist when employees are entering the workplace but also ease congestion on public transport. Similarly, alternating days of work for different groups or teams of employees may assist with social distancing requirements.

Employment laws require employee agreement when making amendments to employee terms and conditions, even on a temporary basis. It is advisable to speak to employees first and explain the changes you need to make and the reasons for the change. You may need to take employees' individual circumstances into consideration because a change to working hours may be difficult for some employees who have childcare responsibilities, etc.

Employees who are anxious or refuse to return to work

  • Dealing with employees who are anxious or who refuse to return for fear that it puts them at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. You should speak to them and try to allay their concerns by letting them know all the measures you are going to.
  • If you have an employee that falls into the high risk category, or their partner may have been advised by the NHS to shield for 12 weeks because they are in the extremely high risk category you need to take extra consideration. You may agree to allow a new or extended period of homeworking or arrange for them to take time off as holiday or unpaid leave. 
  • If an employee refuses to attend work without a valid reason, you may wish to consider disciplinary action though specific advice should always be taken here.

Employees with childcare responsibilities

  • Where employees can carry out some (or perhaps all) their duties from home, they should be paid accordingly.
  • Where employees are unable to work from home, they should be encouraged to make alternative childcare arrangements but this will not be possible for all employees.
  • Employers should consider a temporary flexible working arrangement to adjust or reduce working hours and change working times to assist employees in managing work and increased childcare responsibilities.
  • Parental leave (unpaid) as well as paid annual leave or another type of unpaid leave may be solutions, at least in the short term.
  • Consistency is key to avoid setting unmanageable precedents and in the circumstances, where the situation is so uncertain, employees should be informed that all measures are temporary and cannot be maintained indefinitely.

On employees' first day back in the workplace

  • A “re-boarding” process may be appropriate, especially where employees have been out of the workplace for a long time, either on furlough and not working, or working from home.
  • Managers should hold one-to-one meetings with employees with a focus on their health and wellbeing. The discussion should be used to confirm any adjustments or support needed to enable the employee to carry out their role.
  • Employers should remember that individuals will have reacted in varying ways to the lockdown depending on their personal circumstances and will have had different, sometimes particularly negative, experiences.
  • Your approach to “re-boarding” should be inclusive to all employees. Whether they have been furloughed or have remained working from home, most will have experienced a change to their normal working life and may need support on returning. There may be an unequal set of experience across the workforce if some employees were furloughed on reduced pay and others were not.

Managing annual leave on the return to work

  • Assess the current position with annual leave and your ability to allow employees to take it now that the workplace is back open.
  • It is important to remember that the Working Time Regulations 1998 were recently amended to allow carry over of the four weeks of annual leave that were previously exclusive to the year in which they were accrued. This means that, where it was not reasonably practicable for annual leave to be taken in this leave year because of COVID-19, it can be carried over into the next two leave years.

Information and training for employees

Employees should receive training on:

  • the signs and symptoms of COVID-19
  • how COVID-19 is spread
  • cleaning routines and hygiene controls (including respiratory hygiene, cough etiquette and handwashing and physical distancing)
  • what to do if an employee or a member of the public becomes unwell and believe they have been exposed to COVID-19
  • when individuals in the workplace have had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19
  • cleaning offices and public spaces where there are suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19
  • rubbish disposal, including tissues
  • travel restrictions
  • restricted movement advice
  • familiarising key staff with the COVID-19 plan
  • cross-training workers and establish covering arrangements to minimise disruptions.

Managing absence management

It is important to review, communicate and formally implement the absence and sick leave policies in place. In advance of any potential increase in absence, it is essential that all employees are fully familiar with policy requirements, particularly around what constitutes acceptable reasons for absence, the notification and certification requirements and the social welfare procedures.

The first absence in an unusual situation such as the potential exposure to COVID-19, may initially be dealt with on an ad hoc basis which may set an undesirable or unsustainable precedent should absence levels suddenly escalate.

You need to consider the effect that significant employee absences would have on your workplace.

If an employee is absent due to a fear of contracting the virus, you must consider the risks and consider whether the employee is a vulnerable employee. Where there is no increased risk for the employee, you can request them to attend work. An employee who continues to be absent from work in these circumstances may be subject to disciplinary action for unauthorised absence.

At some point, based on public health advice, certain aspects of company policy and procedure may require adjustment in accordance with the situation as it evolves. Therefore, it is important to keep the policy under review and to communicate clearly any changes.

Remember we are not experts in the HR field so please seek professional advice should you need it.