Back to work?
At the time of publication, the latest position announced by the UK government is that if you are able to do so, you should work from home where possible. Where home working is not possible, employers must facilitate a safe return to work.
This is an understandably anxious time for some, particularly those transitioning to return to the office, but employers have certain obligations towards their employees to ensure that it is safe for them to return to the office.
From a health and safety perspective, employers cannot ask employees to return to the office until they have taken all reasonable steps to ensure it is safe for them to do so.
The steps below have been shared to help employers with planning and addressing concerns.
Should you have any questions not covered in this guide that you would like to receive legal advice on, do reach out to our employment law solicitors.
Assess if your work environment is safe for employees to return
Reasonable, planned adjustments for return to work.
Before businesses reopen, employers should undertake a detailed risk assessment of the workplace to ensure it is safe for employees to return. The risk assessment should detail what might cause harm in the workplace and the reasonable steps the employer proposes to take to prevent it. This should now go far beyond the existing risks in the workplace to include the risk of contracting COVID-19 at work and the measures in place to reduce this risk, and prevent further spread should an employee test positive or display symptoms.
Employers are encouraged to make planned adjustments to the workplace to make it safe to return to work during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Adjustments may include:
- Organising separate entrances and exits to the office building (depending on the layout of the premises, a one-way system can be helpful);
- Maintaining a distance of 2m between desks or work stations;
- Placing markings on the floor to ensure social distancing is maintained at all times;
- Consider signage or posters reminding to wash hands and maintain distancing;
- Providing extra handwashing/sanitisation facilities throughout the building (but particularly at entrances/exits;
- Removing ‘touch’ operated door openings and other contact surfaces that are likely to result in lots of employees having contact with the same surface;
- Reduce the use of communal areas like the kitchen, and encourage people to bring food and drink from home; and
- Allowing employees to work partly from home during the week to limit the amount of people in the office at any one time.
Employers are also recommended to consult with their employees on their views on how to return to work safely. Anonymous staff surveys are a useful way to canvass opinion without employees feeling obligated to respond in a certain way.
The Covid-safe adjustments in the workplace and procedures to enable return to the office should be well-communicated with all staff prior to returning to the office so that concerns can be addressed and any additional questions can be answered to ensure a smooth transition from home working to office working.
Are employees comfortable returning to work?
Can employees refuse to return to work in the office?
Under normal circumstances, employees must abide by their employer’s reasonable and lawful instructions, which would normally include a request for them to return to the workplace. Usually, a failure to follow these instructions without a valid reason could lead to the employer invoking their disciplinary procedures. However, in light of the current pandemic, the circumstances are far from typical and employers are encouraged to speak to their staff about any concerns they may have with returning to the office and how to overcome these concerns.
Many concerns will be based on an individual’s personal circumstances (for example if they or a member of their family have been shielding or have a health condition increasing their risk) and employers are encouraged to try and agree a solution to overcome their worries. This could be done by working from home for a longer period or adopting a flexible working practice to temporarily changing working hours to avoid rush hour travel times.
Employees are entitled to voice their concerns to their employers and employers have a duty of care to their employees to consider these concerns and take steps to mitigate their worries. Any changes such as this should involve consultation with the employees in question and their consent will be required to any changes in their contractual terms.
Quarantine, statutory sick pay and annual leave
What are the rules on quarantining on return to the UK from holidays abroad holiday?
Employees returning from holiday abroad may be required to quarantine for 14 days, if the country they have visited is not listed as exempt in the travel corridors guidance. The guidance is regularly updated and so should be monitored by travellers.
Many employers choose to exercise discretion where employees are able to work from home and need to quarantine post-holidaying abroad. As long as the employee can perform their normal duties to the best of their ability at home and it is agreed in advance that they can do so.
If an employee is unable to perform their job from home, and they are required to quarantine for 14 days following their return from holiday; they will not be entitled to statutory sick pay if their return from holiday is the sole reason they are in quarantine. Some employees may be entitled to contractual sick pay under their employment contract, however this will depend on the terms relating to sick pay in their contract.
Alternatively, employers could agree for this quarantine period to be taken from the employee’s annual leave entitlement. Employers can require employees to take this period as annual leave, provided they give the required notice under the Working Time Regulations 1998, which is double the amount of leave that needs to be taken. In reality this may not be possible if the country they are visiting becomes part of the quarantine restrictions whilst they are away but was safe prior to departure. In this case, an employee could still ask to take the period as annual leave, subject to the employer’s agreement but otherwise, there may be an agreement in place for employees to take this period as unpaid leave.