Parents need more protections to return to work

?Employer discretion under new return to work guidance in England could put parents at risk.

Following the prime minister’s announcement on 17 July, remote working is no longer a necessity, and employers are now able to use their discretion to start bringing people back to the workplace.

Yet schools, nurseries and colleges are closed for the summer holidays and will not be reopening until September.

Childminders can return to work yet some childcare settings remain closed due to staff shortages and the inability to make the spaces COVID-safe.

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, has warned that without appropriate government advice some employers may put parents in a difficult position.

She said: “COVID-19 has demonstrated that flexibility is possible in many, many more jobs than previously thought. Employers are seeing the potential long-term benefits of retaining the flexible working practices implemented during the pandemic, and parents have been clear that they don't want to return to business as usual.

“The prime minister has previously said that parents should not be expected to go back to work if they cannot get childcare, but clear guidance is needed to ensure that employers do the right thing and that parents don’t lose their jobs.”

To avoid challenges relating to employees’ return, Johnson urged businesses to “consult closely with their employees” to understand their needs.

Martina Ruiss, head of HR at German software firm Personio, agreed that such an approach would be key to any planning.

Speaking from a vantage point in which businesses in Germany have been able to return to work sooner than in England, Ruiss said: “Of course it will take time for businesses to settle in and adjust to the ‘new normal’, but it is important that managers and leaders listen to their colleagues before putting a strategy in place.

“Now that many UK employers seriously consider how they will approach the return to the office, it is crucial that they ensure the process is a collaborative one.”

Giving employers the autonomy to decide on the best plan of action for their workforce allows for more consideration on a person-by-person basis.

A Dynata survey of 1,000 people in the UK also recently found that employees were more likely to trust their employers’ return to work plans than they were to trust government decisions on the matter. Yet there are limitations to this approach.

Speaking to HR magazine Alan Price, CEO of software firm and employment law advice service BrightHR, said: “The challenge with this is that employers may fear that if the government isn’t clear on what employers should do regarding home working, then how will any decisions they make benefit, not just their workforce, but their geographical area/location too?”

From 18 July, local authorities were also granted more powers enabling them to close premises, outdoor spaces, and cancel events to contain any outbreaks.

The prime minister’s hope is that, with the conditional measures in place, England and its economy will have a “more significant return to normality by November" this year.

Price added: “The focus on increased localised lockdown measures as a key component of working against a second wave of coronavirus means that employers who bring back staff should be aware that such homeworking measures may need to be re-implemented should their area – or business – face an increased rate of infections.”

More guidance on exactly how the government plans to put these measures in place is expected in the coming weeks.