Here at the start of 2021, the dark days are very much with us. But - lockdowns, social distancing and face masks won’t last forever. That’s the good news. With the advent of long-awaited vaccinations, the light at the end of the long, dark pandemic tunnel is glowing ever larger and ever brighter. Before long, the government will be urging employers to encourage their people back to the workplace.
Of course, there are strong arguments for keeping employees at home permanently. But there are similarly persuasive reasons for moving employees back to the office – if only to support the ancillary businesses who depend so heavily on the presence of office workers.
But – when it comes to where employees are to carry out their work, there’s a strong debate to be held over employer obligations and worker rights.
Why can’t workers stay at home if they wish to?
As the various levels of lockdowns ease, the government will be actively promoting a return to the workplace.
The head of the business leaders' organisation, the CBI, has said that, unless office workers are encouraged to return, city centres could become "ghost towns.
Let’s not be in doubt – allowing staff to work from home has helped keep firms to stay afloat during the pandemic. But with offices standing empty, thousands of local businesses that rely on passing trade have suffered. A typical example is Pret A Manger who have been forced to cut around a third of their UK workforce.
From the employees’ point of view, the importance of returning to the workplace is more keenly felt by some more than others. Young people in shared accommodation, for example, living on top of each other for weeks or months on end, may feel the need to get out of the house more keenly than a single person living alone.
The point is that everyone is different. Every worker has different circumstances and different needs. Employers need to be addressing the issue well in advance of the return to normality.
As a boss, what are your workplace obligations?
You need to be considering, of course, what’s best for your business, what’s best for your people, as well as what’s safe for everyone.
For a while at least, employers must follow a strict code of measures, which can include:
- Observing the ‘1 metre +’ rule of social distancing
- Introducing one-way systems to minimise contact
- Frequent cleaning of objects and communal areas
- In shops, storing returned items for 72 hours before placing them back on the sales floor
- In pubs and restaurants, table service only
If employees aren’t comfortable with the measures in place, they can contact their local authority or the Health and Safety Executive, who can force companies to take action.
As an employer, you should certainly consider publishing a risk assessment, so your people know what safety measures are being taken on their behalf.
Can you force your employees to return to work?
If an employee feels too uncomfortable about the risks of returning to work, you don’t necessarily have to pay them, but … and it’s a big ‘but’, you should be extremely careful about deciding to discipline or sack them.
Under employment law, workers have the right to stay away from work, if they feel the need, in order to protect themselves from "serious and imminent" danger.
Will vulnerable people have to return to work?
There are 2.2 million people in England classified as being at high-risk, including those who have received organ transplants or are on immunosuppression drugs.
This is where employers have to take extra care to protect them. This may include varying their responsibilities, or keeping them on furlough until it’s safer for them to return.
Are you in any doubt about your obligations as an employer during the coronavirus pandemic? Here at Gravitas HR, we have a profound understanding of the world of employment. We have the expertise and skillsets to be your HR support, through the rough times and the smooth.
For straight-talking HR advice - 01604 763494
Or email - info@GravitasHR.co.uk