Freedom day: How HR can handle the transition back to the workplace

Today (19 July) all lockdown restrictions in England have been lifted. With no social distancing and no more mandatory mask wearing, how can HR safely bring employees back to the workplace?

The UK government said the high uptake of the COVID-19 vaccination has meant the risk of catching and transmitting the virus has decreased, and the return to offices has been encouraged.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said: “We don’t expect that the whole country will return to their desk as one from Monday, but we anticipate a gradual return to the workplace over the rest of the summer.”

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD said employers should follow government recommendations for a gradual return to workplaces for those who have been working from home or furloughed.

He told HR magazine: “Employers’ duty of care to all staff should be at the heart of their plans if they are making changes following the end of restrictions.

“This means organisations continuing to risk assess and take measures to protect their workers from COVID-19 such as steps to minimise contact between staff or with customers to manage COVID-19 risk in the workplace.”

Willmott advised employers and their HR teams to use lessons learned from the pandemic, applying flexibility to support and manage the workforce during this transition phase and beyond.

For example, he said: “Provide flexi-time where possible so people can commute at different times and continue the shift to more home and hybrid ways of working.

“It’s important to recognise that many people might be anxious or worried about returning to their workplace and employers should support their mental wellbeing by ensuring line managers provide flexibility, support and understanding where people have concerns.”


Opening-up anxiety

Shungu Hilda M'gadzah, lead consultant psychologist at Inclusion Psychologists, warned employers not to ignore employees who are fearful of returning to the office.

She told HR magazine: "If you're anxious about the easing of restrictions next week, you're certainly not alone.

"It's important to take things at your own pace and don't feel that you have to rush into anything.”

M’gadzah said if employees still want to wear a mask employers should support their decision to continue to do so.

"We have been cooped up for so long that it can be difficult adjusting to change. Plan your day carefully, with small steps.

"Think through what some of the triggers to your anxiety may be and how you might deal with them. And never hesitate to reach out and talk to someone if you need to go through things,” she advised.

Justin Small, CEO of Future Strategy Club, said if businesses want to both attract and retain talented employees, they must manage this upcoming transition period successfully.

He said: “This means balancing the external environment, from new government guidelines to a rise in COVID-19 cases, with an internal strategy that puts employees needs first and foremost. 

“Maintaining strong company culture will be essential during this period. Short-term solutions and office perks, from pizza nights to after-work drinks, are simply not enough to encourage the UK workforce back to the office, as the benefits of these perks are often short-lived.”

Small said cultivating a culture of innovation and autonomy will be the key to encouraging employees back, preserving employee’s wellbeing post-pandemic and retaining your best talent.


To mask or not to mask

Nathan Donaldson, employment solicitor at Keystone Law said employers are facing difficult decisions from Monday, as there is no government guidance on how employers should handle this in practice.

He told HR magazine: “A significant concern for both employers and employees relates to circumstances where employers will require that their customers and visitors to wear masks and how to deal with issues where such customers and visitors refuse.

“There have already been significant levels of abuse against employees regarding attempts to enforce mask wearing when dealing with the public.

“This risk is only going to increase significantly where the requirement to wear facemasks is no longer mandatory under government guidance,” he said.

Usdaw, the union for retail workers, has advised that 85% of shop workers have experienced verbal abuse and 9% were assaulted during the pandemic.

Therefore, Donaldson said businesses are going to have to assess whether wearing facemasks is mandatory, discretionary, or prohibited based on the health and safety risk assessment of their workforce.

“They will also need to take into account as a priority, the views of their workforce and the impact such decisions will have on their business and clientele,” he added.


Vaccination policies? 

Nick Elwell-Sutton, partner at law firm Clyde & Co, warned HR to prepare for an onslaught of questions about the companies vaccination policy.

He said: "Although the government is currently considering whether to make vaccinations mandatory in certain healthcare settings there is currently no legal obligation or guidance which requires employers to ensure that their workforce have been vaccinated before attending the workplace.  

"Some employees may worry about working alongside staff who haven’t been vaccinated. This could be a health and safety issue for them, and the vaccine should be considered as part of an employer’s health and safety risk assessment."

Elwell-Sutton said employers who ignore their health and safety obligations risk claims such as for personal injury.  

"They could also face unfair dismissal and whistleblowing claims from employees who refuse to come into work because they reasonably believe they are in serious and imminent danger," he said. 

Tony Prevost, HR director EMEA at e-learning and support provider Skillsoft, told HR magazine that if employers want to ensure their entire staff is vaccinated and wants to include a vaccination clause in an employment contract, that it could create a minefield of problems for HR teams.    

He said: “As employers turn their attention to getting employees back into the office, mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations present a minefield of compliance and discrimination issues.

“Employers are now in uncharted territory and contracting with employees based on their medical history may have far reaching consequences. This issue is much more complex than ‘no jab, no job’."   

HR teams’ number one priority is to make sure the working environment is safe for everyone, Prevost added.

“Lots of organisations want their employees to come back to the office, particular companies that have signed long leases, but the concern for employers is regulating how people come back to a physical workplace safely and legally,” he said.