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Forget the exit strategy, you need a re-entry strategy

A huge amount of focus has been on employers’ reactions to COVID-19. And rightly so.

From remote working policies to furloughing staff and mental health, employers have been scrambling to adjust to the unprecedented HR challenges the pandemic has created.

With talk now on the government’s exit strategy to lockdown, a bigger concern has perhaps been overlooked. Employers should start to think of a thorough re-entry strategy for their staff when they return to work in the ‘new normal’ or risk a multitude of HR headaches.

The staff

The first question employers will be asking is, understandably, when can staff return to work? However, the answer is not as simple as ‘the business can reopen on xx date’, especially for large and complex organisations.

Employers should be assessing how best to phase returns to work. A starting point is to identify essential workers and those less able to work remotely and to compile a risk list of the most vulnerable to continue to shield these people.

Certain functions within the business can return in waves. Logistics, for example, could be in the first wave while staff who can work remotely may be reintroduced once the first batch has smoothly transitioned back into the swing of things.

Consider the use of designated teams separated by shifts (with deep cleans in between) or by physical space, such as different floors or assigned work zones, with the closure of common areas. This would help to contain any workgroup if someone in it was to develop symptoms.

Consider how to reconfigure office space to maintain distance between workers. Identify how many people should be in each area and how to achieve this – possibly by keeping a portion of the workforce working remotely at any one time. Reduce overcrowding by utilising conference rooms and breakout spaces as additional workstations. For those in shared office space, avoid bottlenecks in common areas such as lobbies and lifts by staggering hours and lunch breaks.

Hot desk arrangements pose an obvious risk to cross-contamination. Tracking of seating arrangements and deep cleaning schedules will be important.

Employers should also keep in mind their duty of care and be considerate to staff’s mental and physical wellbeing. Employees may have contracted COVID-19, lost loved ones or be anxious about returning to work so plunging everyone in without reviewing such factors and implementing safeguards could cause further issues.

If certain employees have been put on furlough or had their terms of employment altered, those need to be addressed ahead of any return or risk contractual and HMRC complications.

The new normal

COVID-19 has also acquainted us with several new terms such as PPE, social distancing and self-isolation . These will now potentially impact the duty of care in the workplace. If government guidance is to follow such practices, then companies need to ensure the work environment is as safe and compliant as possible.

This may include screening the temperature of staff or ordering supplies ahead of a return to the office, such as face masks, gloves and sanitiser. On the other hand, how to appropriately handle the screening, testing or tracing of staff also throws the door open to various privacy and employment law questions.

With the anticipated lifting of lockdown measures in the coming weeks, employers will need to grapple with these issues quickly. What is clear is that there is no one size fits all approach to unlocking the workforce. Protocols must be fluid and capable of rapid evolution as the situation develops.

Jules Quinn is partner and Marie Hoolihan is associate at King & Spalding