On 19 January 2022, the Prime Minister announced that England’s Plan B restrictions will come to an end, with some measures coming into effect from 19 January and others from 27 January 2022. Natalie Wood (Solicitor) discusses the main impact for employers.
One of the first Plan B measures to come to an end is the requirement for employees to work from home where possible, and will take effect “immediately” according to the Prime Minister. The remaining Plan B measures will be lifted from 27 January 2022 and will mean that face masks will not be compulsory for indoor public spaces and proof of vaccination will no longer be required to enter nightclubs and large venues (as was previously the case in Plan A).
Return to Site?
We wrote about return to work issues for employers back in July, noting that all businesses, managers and employees are different and that their ideals around working patterns would likely differ too. After an extensive period of remote or hybrid working for a large number of employees, more flexible work patterns – this is still likely to be the case. Some of the key difficulties for employers will be rebuilding workplaces both practically and culturally whilst also ensuring the wellbeing and happiness of employees.
We refer to these issues in more detail in our July article, but ahead of a return to the workplace (whether on a full time, hybrid or other basis) employers will want to carefully consider:
The purpose of the return
Employers will need to consider why it requires its’ employees to return to the workplace, which might be for collaborative reasons, connectivity, employee engagement or even productivity. Whilst ultimately, it is down to an employer to decide where its’ employees should work, employers should be mindful of the potential ‘talent drain’ that could follow an inflexible approach. If businesses are planning to change working hours/days/locations or working hours, employers will need to be mindful of any potential conflicts with previously agreed flexible working arrangements and/or the impact on individuals with specific needs who might be caught by Equality laws.
Communication and Planning
Employers should ensure that their communication plans are clear, such as by circulating staff questionnaires (and continuing to do so on a repeat basis), talking with unions, or even simply by managers having conversations with members of their teams.
Employers will want to ensure that they have understood the needs of its employees and that it has a clear channel to communicate its needs to employees. Employers should consider how it will communicate with staff about any plans to return to the office; particularly given Plan B restrictions around home working have been dropped. In particular employers should: ensure that employees are given the opportunity to voice their concerns; be mindful that the forum it chooses to communicate with employees can indeed reach all employees; and remember to communicate with all staff, including those on sick or familial leave.
As ever, plans made today may need to be amended in the future – employers will therefore want to ensure they build flexibility into their communications.
Giving Notice of a Return
Employees should be given as much notice of a return to work as possible as they may need to make preparations for returning to the workplace and be mindful of circumstances that might make a return to the office tricky for employees. Employers should be particularly mindful of this given that employees are likely to have been under the impression that any change from the Plan B advice to work from home, would take effect from 27 January 2022 rather than from 19 January 2022.
It might be the case that employees are not able to immediately return to the work place. This might be for child care reasons, in which case employers could consider making temporary flexible working arrangements or allowing employees to take unpaid emergency leave. Other reasons employees might not be able to return to the office could be for reasons relating to new lifestyle changes or arranging different priorities based on assumptions as to how and where they are working. These arrangements might not be changeable overnight and so having a mindful approach to people’s circumstances, talking to them and allowing time to make alternative plans is probably the best approach rather than disciplining employees for failing to follow a lawful management instruction or docking pay for non-attendance.
Health and Safety Considerations
In relation to any return to the workplace, businesses should also carry out their own risk assessments, particularly in relation to any employees who are ‘high-risk’. There is no legal requirement for employees to wear face masks in the work place (at least not from 27 January 2022 for some employment settings). Employers may nonetheless decide to impose requirements for staff to wear face masks or not, based on the level of risk, the nature of the business and its culture.
It would be sensible for businesses to encourage good hygiene (e.g. hand washing) for staff and customers, to ensure good ventilation and regular cleaning of areas of high volume contact. PPE may still be required, depending on the business sector. Some sectors may be caught by new rules relating to health and social care from 1 April 2022 which may take more planning – for advice please contact us.
Returning to the office might cause anxiety for some staff (whether about using public transport to work or being in the workplace itself), in particular those who have underlying health conditions (or who live with someone who does). Employers will need to give thought to how they can best support those individuals to enable them to feel able to return, whilst considering what further adjustments may be needed.
What other adjustments might employers make?
Staggering start and finishing times could help in avoiding those rush hour peaks;
Continuing with a WFH arrangement might suit in other cases;
Offering car parking spaces (if available) if people would prefer to travel by car rather than take public transport; and
Wellbeing awareness training for staff and managers.
Businesses have spent a lot of time, money and effort last year in getting their people back to work and want certainty that their workforce won’t be sent home again in a few months’ time. Many businesses will welcome the announcement that they can start returning employees to site who have been working from home. Other businesses and staff will have remained open and operational whilst some may have had a half-in/half-out workforce. However, and wherever your people have been working there will be challenges; but hopefully this week’s announcement will give a clearer path for businesses and their staff of the way ahead as we learn to “live with Covid”.
For advice on return to work, Covid or its impact on your workforce or sector, please contact us on [email protected]
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.