The government finally removed the general work from home rule in England on July 19, which had existed in various guises since March 2020.
The governments in Scotland and Wales eventually removed their guidance to work from home in early August.
The general mood amongst the UK workforce about going back the office differs greatly. Some are keen to get back to ‘normal’, while others much prefer the living room set up. Employers who are about to bring their people back to work should be prepared to deal with varying attitudes, but one thing is clear: the country is back open for business.
The current position as regards to working from home is firmly in the hands of employers, so what is the best practice approach?
The starting point for employers when considering a return to the office is to check that any home-working agreement put in place during the pandemic was clear in its non-permanent nature. This indicates to employees that home-working is not the new normal.
Those on furlough will no doubt be aware that the Job Retention Scheme is ending at the end of September, but it is best for employers to make that clear.
Pandemic-related issues are starting to feed through into the claims we see in the tribunal system. For example, we have seen claims for unfair dismissal set against a background of health and safety concerns in returning to office working. We anticipate that this situation will significantly impact on the tribunal service once the furlough scheme is ended.
The most visible consequence of the pandemic that we have observed so far has been on the way tribunals operate. Virtually no cases were disposed of during the early months of lockdown and so a massive backlog has built up.
The tribunal service is now hearing a number of cases remotely via its new video platform. However, delays are such that most multi-day cases (three days plus) are now being listed for hearing in 2023.
So, it is essential that business owners protect themselves from employment tribunal litigation through solid contracts of employment and health and safety and Covid-safe measures.
Employers have a duty of care towards their staff and, in addition, workers have protection against being dismissed if they have a reasonable belief that their workplace poses a serious and imminent threat to their safety.
A risk assessment and a health and safety audit to ensure that the workplace is Covid-safe should be undertaken, following which adjustments should be made to mitigate any potential dangers identified.
This will demonstrate to workers that the workplace has been made as safe as possible. Sharing the risk assessments with employees should help settle any nerves, as will keeping it under continual review and dealing swiftly with any concerns raised after the return.
Small businesses have been disproportionately impacted by the crisis. Whereas larger companies have significant buffers in terms of people and reserves, smaller businesses have the same duty of care without having the same in-house resources. As more than 95 per cent of UK businesses are SMEs with less than 250 employees, this is potentially a massive concern for the economy in general.