Persuading Staff it is safe to Return – Top Tips for Employers

Many businesses will have either furloughed staff or asked them to work from home since the lockdown was imposed. Some will have had no option but to make employees redundant. But now that the Government has announced that it is time to get back to work some employers are finding it more difficult to do than they envisaged.

Here are some answers to frequent questions asked by employers who want to ensure they are following Government guidelines diligently and want to ensure that their staff feel safe returning to work.

Do staff all have to return?

No. The government has made it clear that if employees can work from home and can continue to do so, then those arrangements should remain in place for the moment. However, if the job can only be done from your premises, then employees are being encouraged to come back to work. However, if they are still furloughed, they should not just turn up in their normal place of work without you contacting them first to arrange that first. This is where it has become confusing for some, because many employees have taken the government’s message as an instruction to return – rather than it being an indication to employers to make arrangements for their return. To avoid confusion, contact your staff regularly to let them know what is happening and what your expectations are regarding timescales.

What do employers have to do?

Ultimately, it will depend on what sector your business is in. If your business is still prohibited from trading, such as those in the hospitality sector, you cannot restart your business yet. You can however use the time to plan the reopening of your business when the time comes.

For those in sectors that have been allowed to continue to trade, there is guidance available on the gov.uk website, for example for those whose employees work in offices, factories, shops, construction work and for drivers. Each guide looks at the risks; who should be going to work (and how they get there); the practicalities of socially distancing at work; managing customers and visitors; cleaning requirements; what PPE you many need; the practicalities of managing your workforce and how to deal with inbound and outbound goods.

This means that you will need to carry out a risk assessment for your business and work out what measures you must put in place – whether that means more signage or hand-washing facilities – or perhaps changing your working habits so that hot-desking is not permitted. You may need to move workstations around or consider implementing shifts to limit the number of people in one area at a time. This will bring its own headaches; if it is not possible for all staff to come in for their usual time, you may have to reduce the hours they can work, so this may impact on their pay. If that is the case, you are likely to find some staff members requesting that they remain furloughed so they get at least 80% of their normal wages. But you could consider putting people on rotating furlough periods (of at least 3 weeks) to allow everyone the chance to get back to work.

What if staff refuse to return?

Understandably, some employees will be concerned at the prospect of coming back into work. They may be worried about the measures you have put in place; the journey in, or perhaps the fact that they are living with someone who is shielding or vulnerable. They may have children who are not yet able to return to school and there is no one else to take up the childcare.

To deal with all of these situations, the first thing to do is to involve the staff in your redesign of the working arrangements. If you have H&S representatives in your workforce, include them in plans so that they can provide independent reassurance to the employees that the measures you are installing will minimise risk to them. Otherwise ask for volunteers to get involved – and then send a copy of your risk assessment and measures to your staff. Put them on your website, if possible, and include photos to show what changes you have made.

Then write to each employee and give them notice of your request for them to return – preferably at least 48 hours beforehand. If you foresee having to make changes to their hours or pay, you will have to get them to agree to those changes as you cannot simply impose them but explaining that they are temporary should help.

Invite them to contact you if they have any concerns so that you can deal with their individual issues. In some cases, it may be physically impossible for them to return (for example if they have childcare issues and cannot come back until the schools return) so be pragmatic in the way you address these and it may be appropriate to keep those staff furloughed. But if you have someone who has no genuine reason for being unable to return and you have unfurloughed them, you should avoid taking disciplinary action as they may simply be frightened to return. In those cases, if the work is there and they are unwilling to return, you can consider putting them on unpaid leave until they are ready to return, but only use this as a last resort and take advice before doing so.

More changes ahead

We know that the furlough scheme has been extended until the end of July but that after that, there will be some changes to allow people to work part time and furloughed for the rest. We do not have any more details yet, but they should help with the phasing in of the return to work arrangements.

There is a lot to consider but if you have any concerns about the arrangements you are putting in place or have a critical people issue to solve, talk to a reputable HR Adviser as there are probably more options available to you than you might think!
Posted on 22 May 2020
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