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With many employees now being asked to return to the workplace, it’s more important than ever for employers to be aware of government guidance to reduce the risk of virus transmission. Over and above the practicalities of returning people to work and maintaining precautions such as social distancing, new research suggests that UK employees are the most reluctant to return to the office, with one in four saying they would resign from their role if forced to do so. This reticence underlines that a careful consideration of a range of factors is vital to managing a smooth transition back to work.

Risk Assessments

For organisations with more than five employees, risk assessments must be conducted to identify and resolve risk factors for returning employees. This could include a review of cleaning and sanitation practices; how clinically vulnerable staff are treated and what if any PPE is currently mandated.

Once risk assessments have taken place (ideally in consultation with relevant staff), procedures will then need to be developed and implemented to mitigate the identified risks. Such measures may include the introduction of regular lateral flow tests for all staff (these can be obtained at no cost from Gov.uk), daily cleaning of workstations, making PPE a requirement in meetings or creating a one-way traffic system around the workplace to help stem transition rates.

Failure to carry out these risk assessments and act on the information provided can lead to legal action being taken against your company. It also puts the health and wellbeing of your team at risk.

Health Data

Another area that carries legal implications for employers is health data and how that data is used.

Data pertaining to Covid-19 tests, results and vaccinations is considered ‘special category data’ and therefore must be carefully protected to avoid breaching the Data Protection Act 1974 legislation.

As well as keeping records on positive (or negative) Covid-19 tests, you may wish to test the temperature of your workers before allowing them to enter the premises each day. Although this is an excellent way to protect the health of your staff, this data must be stored within the current guidelines to guarantee total confidentiality for all employees.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has a wealth of information and FAQs relating to how this data should be dealt with to remain compliant.

Reluctant Returners

Some employees will be thrilled at the prospect of returning to their roles, but others will naturally have their reservations. Although a little extra support and consultation may be enough to alleviate the concerns and fears of most employees, there are a few staff that either should not be returning to the workplace at the moment or will require additional support.

Collectively known as ‘reluctant returners’, these workers fall into the following categories as defined by the government:

  1. Employees who, for health reasons, cannot or should not return to work
  2. Employees with caring responsibilities
  3. Employees who may struggle to get to work for mobility/travel reasons

If an employee who falls into one of the above categories cannot work from home, it is unreasonable for the employer to force a return to the workplace, given as the potentially detrimental impact on health and wellbeing.

In certain circumstances, those with real fears about returning to work can be placed at risk of poor mental health if pressured into coming back to work.

Hybrid and flexi work models are increasing in popularity as we transition out of the pandemic and back into the workplace. Research from McKinsey suggests around a quarter of workers will work from home between three and five days a week on average post-pandemic.

From a legal perspective, any employee has the right to request a flexible work arrangement after a continuous period of employment (this is currently 26 weeks); though the employer is not obligated to green light flexible working arrangements.  If many of your team are reluctant to return, consider whether a hybrid working framework could make sense for some or all of your team, as appropriate to your business and their role.

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