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Social distancing and employee welfare

Ed Hussey - Menzies Accountant

Ed Hussey – HR Specialist

Following the UK Government’s call to encourage an estimated 24.4 million employees back into the workplace, a new study by Healthy Return has sought to understand the next steps by UK employers.

The study found that:

  • 84% of employers said they plan to bring back between 30% and 80% of the workforce at the first possible opportunity
  • Just 4% of employers say they plan to bring back 10-20% of the workforce
  • 8% plan on bringing back 90-100% of their workforce
  • Health experts warn this could have devastating consequences for people’s health, given that 20% of the UK workforce currently have underlying health issues.

However many employees business owners choose to bring back, organising the workplace to adhere to social distancing rules and the provision of appropriate protection measures will be a crucial point of planning and duty of care.

Planning for the next phase

In the course of planning for coming out of lockdown, as an employer you should avoid any knee-jerk reactions and bear in mind the position and the mental wellbeing of your employees.

From the outset it is likely your employees will fall into one of three groups:

a) furloughed and worried if they will have a job to come back to,

b) working from home and trying to juggle family issues and their own wellbeing, or

c) going to the workplace, navigating social distancing arrangements and trying to stay safe. 

Each of these carry a measure of stress and worry so in all cases you should engage in plenty of open, considerate communication and consultation with your employees to identify those who are prepared to come back full-time and those who would find this more of a challenge. This is important because every employee will have a different set of circumstances to consider (including financial, family and personal). In difficult situations, companies that have a track record of positive employee support, communication and engagement will be rewarded.

Consider also the new ‘flexibility’ changes to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) that are promised from 1 August 2020. You may be able to find some middle ground by enabling some employees to remain furloughed before coming back to work on a part-time basis.

5 essential considerations when bringing people out of furlough

Remember, when planning how many of your employees to bring out of furlough the principles of employment law still apply.

Make sure you act in a fair and reasonable manner and consider the following:

number 1

If you have to make decisions about who to bring back and who to leave on furlough, make them on a fair and objective basis.  Take account of personal circumstances in relation to the outbreak. 

number 2

If you are bringing employees off furlough, there is no prescribed notice period, but make sure you honour any arrangements that were in your furlough agreement and otherwise provide as much notice as possible.

number 3

Confirm in writing the date on which you are bringing back the employee from furlough and the position as regards their terms and conditions of employment – either back to normal or incorporating any agreed changes and the relevant dates if these are temporary. 

number 4

Furloughed employees will not have been doing any work and so will need to be updated on any changes. 

number 5

You may wish to consider incentives for those returning to work, to create a differential with those continuing on furlough.  Take care not to breach discrimination laws here, for example by indirectly discriminating against older or disabled workers without legal justification.

What are the ‘working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19)’ guidelines?

Published to Gov.uk, these 8 guides cover a range of different types of work. You may need to use more than one of these guides as you think through what you need to do to keep people safe.

As lockdown measures continue to ease and the focus on economic activity returns, employers are at risk of knee-jerk reactions, but now is not the time to create tension by forcing people (your employees) to act against their will. Listening, considering individual circumstances, showing flexibility and careful planning will be crucial to ensuring businesses come out of the Covid crisis without permanent scars on their employee relations.

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