Q: Some of my employees are reluctant to come back to the office, how can I address this?
A: Employee safety must be the priority during the initial return-to-work period.
Where it is required that they work from the office, employees will need to be reassured that the necessary measures are being put in place to ensure their safety.
Requiring employees to work in an environment that puts their health/safety at risk could breach an employer’s duty of care.
Some employees may be cautious about returning to the workplace for fear that it puts them at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19.
This may be fuelled by talks of a second wave of infections, which has dominated the news in recent days. However, it is up to employers not only to reassure their staff, but also listen to their concerns and factor in the possibility that their fears may not be unreasonable given the current climate.
Some examples of how employers can help mitigate the likelihood of a second wave and keep staff at ease are changing office layouts to avoid face-to-face seating arrangements where applicable and improving ventilation.
The government has also suggested that setting out staggered working hours and shifts are steps that can be taken by employers to ensure that the workplace is Covid-19 secure.
This will also ease congestion on public transport for employees who may be worried about the commuting aspect of returning to work.
Similarly, alternating working hours could assist with social distancing requirements, which the government announced can now be changed to ‘one-metre plus’ where two metres is not practicably achievable.
A change to working hours may also help employees who have childcare responsibilities.
Employers should take the specific circumstances of an anxious employee into consideration as this may be relevant in decision making.
For example, an employee or their partner may have been advised by the NHS to shield for 12 weeks because they fall into the most clinically vulnerable category.
Even though it was recently announced that shielding would come to an end from August 1 2020 in England and Scotland, employers still need to consider these circumstances for the time being.
If an employee in this position still does not want to return to work, employers may agree to allow a new or extended period of homeworking, keep already furloughed staff on full furlough (or the new flexible furlough that began on July 1), or arrange for time off as annual/unpaid leave.
Finally, it is generally the case in employment law that when making amendments to employee terms and conditions, even temporarily, employees need to agree to them. Therefore, employers must hold productive talks with their employees first to explain any changes being made.