Hassle Free HR – Planning for a Return to the Workplace 

On 22 September 2020 the Government changed their position and once again confirmed that office workers, or any employee who can fulfil their role whilst working from home, should return to working from home for the foreseeable future, in an attempt to prevent the rise in Coronavirus cases. More information on home working can be found here. Where employees are not able to fulfil their role from home they are able to remain in the workplace, as long as the workplace is Covid-19 Secure and fully compliant with Government guidance.

If your workplace must remain open, we recommend that you follow the guidance on this page. If you are planning to keep employees in the workplace, you should continually refer to the latest public health advice issued by the government as the situation evolves. The public health advice is updated regularly and employers will need to continually stay up to date with the latest government advice. Click here for more information.

It is likely that the plans and adaptations you put into place now may need to continue for some time. Although vaccine trials are currently taking place across the world, it is expected that it will take some time, perhaps many months, before a vaccine is available to the general public.

Completing Coronavirus Focused Risk Assessments

As an employer, you are legally responsible for the health and safety of your employees. Therefore, it is essential that you assess and manage the risks Coronavirus / Covid-19 pose to the workplace/your employees. Not all risks can be eliminated, but risks do need to be identified and you are required to do everything reasonably practicable to minimise these risks. Following the Public Health England (PHE) report “Covid-19: understanding the impact on BAME communities”, which was published on 16 June 2020, we recommend that “race” is considered when conducting risk assessments, as different races / ethnicities are impacted differently. When conducting the risk assessment, you are required to consult with your employees / a relevant Trade Union (if applicable). This page talks about appointing a “designated lead” and “working parties” to aid employee communication, with individual members tasked with reporting back to their respective departments.

Once the risk assessment has been conducted and measures have been implemented, you should ensure the result of the risk assessment and any steps you have taken to improve health and safety are effectively communicated to all employees. This clear and open communication will help employees to feel secure and supported in the workplace, which is essential when many people are feeling fearful and anxious for their health. As well as communicating to employees, the Government have stated that it is “expected” that employers with 50 or more employees should publish the results of their risk assessments, and the measures taken, on their Company website.

For more information, please refer to the Governmental guidance and the HSE website:

Deciding Which Employees Should Return to Work

Physical distancing and other health and safety requirements are likely to dictate how many employees can return to work in the workplace at the same time. Up until 4 July 2020, we were advised to maintain 2 meters distance from one another. As of 4 July this changed to “1 meter plus”, which means 2 meters where possible, but where not, 1 meter is acceptable as long as other precautionary measures are taken. Other precautionary measures include wearing masks, using shields / physical barriers, not sitting face-to-face, and increasing hand washing / hand sanitisation. For most businesses, it is unlikely that all employees will be able to return to the workplace at once when the 2 meters / “1 meter plus” rules are considered. You should consider what employees, departments, teams etc. should return first, based on legitimate business needs and your ability to comply with health and safety requirements.  There will be many factors to consider, including personal factors, so it is important to take a balanced, fair, equal, objective and measured approach to your decision making. At the same time, you should remain aware of protected characteristics in line with the Equality Act 2010 i.e. age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation, in order to not fall foul of any direct or indirect discrimination challenges. The legitimate business reasons behind your selection of which employees return to work first should be documented to provide evidence of non-discriminatory selection criteria, if you are later challenged.

Temporarily Modifying Working Hours, Team-Working and Shift-Systems

In order to comply with physical distancing and health and safety requirements, it may be necessary to consider modifying working hours, team-working and shift-systems.

From an employment law perspective, it is important to obtain employee agreement before making amendments to employees’ terms and conditions of employment, even on a temporary basis. It is therefore advisable to consult with employees first and explain the changes you need to make and the reasons behind them. Again, it is important to take a balanced, fair, equal, objective and measured approach when deciding what changes to make. Consideration should be given to individual factors, such as childcare responsibilities, and again, you should remain aware of protected characteristics in line with the Equality Act 2010 i.e. age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation, in order to not fall foul of any direct or indirect discrimination challenges.

With employee agreement, the following temporary modifications to working hours, team-working and shift systems may allow your organisation to comply with physical distancing and to control the spread of Coronavirus / Covid-19;

  • staggering start and finish times
  • revising staffing levels and splitting teams to ensure core operational capacity, separation of critical employees and limited exposure
  • cross-training / identifying alternative sources of labour (if possible) to facilitate a full complement of the required skills needed on each team/shift
  • avoiding switching employees from one shift to another (if this is normal practice)
  • implementing a delayed shift changeover (if practicable) to accommodate a full cleaning / disinfection of all shared equipment, and to reduce unnecessary interactions between employees
  • identifying and suspending all non-essential operations

Making Physical Adaptations to the Workplace and Providing Resources and Equipment 

The following physical adaptations and provision of resources and equipment may assist your organisation to comply with physical distancing and other health and safety requirements;

  • minimising the sharing of equipment and/or tools including stationary, which may require you to obtain additional equipment and supplies before employees return to work
  • stopping hot-desking / desk sharing
  • changing face-to-face desk arrangements so that employees work side-by-side or back-to-back
  • evaluating workplace layouts and considering making certain stairways / hallways and walkways one-way if social distancing guidelines cannot otherwise be met
  • using plexiglass shields, or other physical barriers between employees where possible
  • providing suitable and sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) available to all employees and visitors to Company premises. Masks are increasingly being viewed as necessary PPE for workplaces, even when there are no known cases of Coronavirus / Covid-19.
  • developing new procedures to ensure lifts remain only half full (if applicable)
  • closing or modifying certain common areas, such as canteens / rest-room facilities to ensure employees practice physical distancing, e.g. removing tables / chairs and restricting the number of employees per table
  • increasing ventilation in the workplace
  • ceasing all self-service activities and providing food that is pre-wrapped
  • changing latch-based door handles so doors open or close through use of an “electric eye” or with a push of the door or a button or push pad, which may also assist with ongoing deep cleaning protocols.
  • providing more car parking spaces to reduce the need to use public transport and to avoid colleagues giving each other lifts to work
  • expanding bicycle storage facilities
  • encouraging use of card payment methods (if applicable)
  • reducing face-to-face meetings and increasing the use of technology for video/virtual meetings
  • allocating times for collections/appointments/deliveries (if applicable)

Staying Alert and Vigilant to Symptoms of Coronavirus / Covid-19

Coronavirus / Covid-19 is something we will be living with for many months to come and it is expected that the winter will bring a natural surge in case numbers. It is important for everyone in the workplace to stay alert and vigilant.

Although not everyone exposed to the Coronavirus is considered to be symptomatic, signs and symptoms of Coronavirus exposure and Coronavirus / Covid-19 infection may include;

  • a cough
  • difficulty in breathing
  • a fever (38.0° C / 100.4° F) or greater using an oral thermometer
  • the loss of taste or smell (anosmia)

If any employee feels they are starting to display these symptoms, they should self-isolate immediately and request a test via the NHS.

Managing Hygiene within the Workplace

Hygiene practices within the workplace will be important to prevent the spread of Coronavirus / Covid-19.  As an employer, you should ensure there is appropriate signage in your workplace and generally communicate government and NHS recommendations to prevent the spread of infection.

The following hygiene measures may assist your organisation with reducing the spread of Coronavirus / Covid-19, where practicable to do so;

  • Ensuring the workplace is deep cleaned at the end of each working day to ensure appropriate standards of hygiene are maintained throughout the Company premises including all communal places i.e. toilets, taps of washbasins, stairs / rails, walk-ways, door handles / push buttons, backs of chairs, lifts, canteen / rest room facilities etc.
  • Ensuring there are suitable and sufficient hand washing facilities (soap / alcohol-based hand sanitizer) available to all employees and visitors to Company premises
  • Ensure there are suitable and sufficient cleaning products available for employees to use to clean personal workstations

Communicating with Employees

Even in circumstances where the decision to return to the workplace happens quickly, you should aim to give employees reasonable notice of the planned return to the workplace. This should happen even where furloughed employees were made aware of an end date to the furlough. Employees may have childcare, or other caring, responsibilities and a return to the workplace may signify a need for them to make other arrangements.

The return date may not be the same for all employees where you are implementing a staged return.

You should also be aware that some employees may not be in a position to return to the workplace, due to their personal circumstances. You should stay in contact with these employees and make arrangement for their return, when it is appropriate for them to do so. It may be possible for those employees who have been furloughed whilst shielding to work from home.

In order to control the Company’s response to Coronavirus / Covid-19 in the workplace and to assist with communication, it would be advisable to introduce a Workplace Coronavirus / Covid-19 Infection Prevention and Control Policy (or similar) and to designate an Infection Prevention and Control Lead / Co-ordinator who will be tasked with leading and co-ordinating all Company-wide Coronavirus / Covid-19 infection prevention and control actions.  If you already have an Infection Control Policy in place then this will need to be adapted to comply with Coronavirus / Covid-19.  To ensure that all employees are regularly communicated with and involved, it may also be necessary to create a cross-departmental working party/team, who will meet regularly to review, monitor and audit the Company’s response, with individual members tasked with reporting back to their respective departments.

Employers are also being encouraged to display a downloadable poster to employees that show they are complying with Governmental guidance. It can be found here.

Information and Training for Employees

As employees return to work, you should aim to have a process for identifying and delivering Coronavirus / Covid-19 training requirements to all employees.

This can include the following:

  • determining the necessity of Coronavirus / Covid-19 competence and training of person(s) doing work under your control
  • ensuring that the necessary person(s) receive appropriate Coronavirus / Covid-19 training
  • where applicable, taking actions to acquire the necessary competence, and evaluating the effectiveness of the actions taken
  • retaining appropriate documented information as evidence of competence

Depending on the skills that exist in your organisation, you may have to provide training to an existing employee or hire the services of an independent Health and Safety Consultant.

Employees should receive training on the following:

  • signs and symptoms of Coronavirus / Covid-19
  • how Coronavirus / Covid-19 is spread
  • cleaning routines and hygiene controls (including respiratory hygiene, cough etiquette
    and hand washing, the correct way to wear a mask / PPE, and physical distancing)
  • what to do if an employee, client, contractor or a member of the public becomes unwell and believe they have been exposed to Coronavirus / Covid-19 or have had contact with a confirmed case of Coronavirus / Covid-19
  • cleaning offices and public spaces where there are suspected or confirmed cases of Coronavirus / Covid-19
  • rubbish disposal, including tissues
  • travel restrictions
  • restricted movement advice
  • familiarising employees with the Company’s Coronavirus / Covid-19 plan / policy
  • cross-training employees and establishing covering arrangements to minimise disruptions
  • identifying essential suppliers and service providers and discussing continuity issues with them such as understanding their business continuity plans
  • identifying essential customers and ensuring that plans are in place to meet customer needs
  • developing a plan on how and when to activate alternative suppliers and/or alternative delivery means to customers
  • identifying stakeholders in your local network and sharing best practice concerning defence against Coronavirus / Covid-19

Absence Management

The rules for self-isolation are as follows:

  • Anyone who experiences a new continuous cough, a fever or the loss of smell or taste (anosmia) should self-isolate for a minimum of 10 days. After those 10 days, if their symptoms get worse or they show no improvement, advice should be sought by NHS online, and it is likely a further 4 days of self-isolation will be advised. Individuals exhibiting symptoms will also be able to request an NHS test to confirm if their symptoms are Coronavirus or a different respiratory illness.
  • Anyone who tests positive for Coronavirus / Covid-19 will be required to self-isolate for a minimum of 10 days and should use the Test and Trace system to inform Contact Tracers of who they have recently been in contact with. For the purposes of Test and Trace, “contact” is defined as being within 2 meters of someone for 15 minutes or more.
  • Anyone who comes into contact with a suspected or confirmed case of Coronavirus / Covid-19 should seek advice from NHS online, and will likely be advised to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they do not exhibit symptoms. If symptoms develop, the advice changes to 10 days of self-isolation from the first day of symptoms.
  • Anyone who is contacted by Test and Trace must self-isolate for a period of 14 days, even if they do not have symptoms. If symptoms develop, the advice changes to 10 days of self-isolation, starting from the first day of symptoms.
  • Anyone who lives in the same household as someone who is exhibiting Coronavirus / Covid-19 symptoms, or someone who has tested positive, should self-isolate for 14 days, even if the ill person only self-isolates for 10 days. There is no need to seek NHS advice to confirm that self-isolation is appropriate in these circumstances.
  • People who share a house with someone who has been contacted by the Test and Trace system, but who does not have symptoms, are not required to self-isolate unless the person contacted develops symptoms. The same rule applies for the parents of children in an “education bubble” who have been sent home for precautionary measures, but who do not have any symptoms themselves, unless told otherwise by Test and Trace.

On 13th March 2020 the Government confirmed that anyone who self-isolates due to the above requirements will be entitled to receive SSP, even if they have no symptoms. On 28th March 2020 the Statutory Sick Pay (Coronavirus) (Suspension of Waiting Days and General Amendment) Regulations 2020 came into force, which means that SSP is now payable from the first day of an employee’s absence, rather than the fourth day, where the absence is due to Coronavirus / Covid-19 symptoms or preventative self-isolation. This new legislation can be backdated to cover absences that started on or after 13th March 2020.

Employees have been advised that they can get an “Isolation Note”, which is the equivalent of a Fit Note, from the NHS online service. We advise all employers to be flexible with absence documentation requirements when an employee is absent due to the Coronavirus / Covid-19, because the NHS is understandably experiencing significant strain and employees may have difficulty obtaining an Isolation Note.

It’s currently unclear what evidence employees who have been advised to self-isolate by the Test and Trace system will be able to provide to their employers. There is currently no information on this, but we assume the Test and Trace system will provide employees with an “Isolation Note”. Employers should support the Test and Trace system and should not ask an isolating employee to return to the workplace before the 14 days are up. We will confirm what evidence an employee should provide their employer with in these circumstances as soon as possible.

The Government have been clear that any absence relating to Coronavirus / Covid-19 should not be included in any absence management procedures, even if the employee’s attendance record is already considered “problematic”. No employee should suffer a detriment for complying with Government and NHS guidance on this matter. Employees can be fined up to £10,000 for discouraging employees against complying with self-isolation guidance, or for formally managing employees for complying with the guidance. However, anyone who has been advised to self-isolate to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus / Covid-19 but chooses to disregard this information and remain at work, can be investigated and managed in line with the Company’s disciplinary procedure.

Managing Employees Who Do Not Want to Come Back to Work

Some employees may be cautious about returning to the workplace for fear that it puts them at a greater risk of contracting Coronavirus / Covid-19. In this case you should proceed with compassion and understanding. The current situation is unprecedented and has had a negative impact upon many peoples’ mental health, anxiety levels and general well-being.  With this in mind you should communicate sensitively with any employee who is fearful and initially attempt to alleviate their concerns by informing them about all the measures you are going to take to ensure the workplace is as safe as it can be.

You should take the specific circumstances of the employee into consideration because this may be relevant in your decision making. For example, an employee may fall into the “At Risk” category, or their partner may have been advised by the NHS to “shield” themselves because they are in the “High At Risk” category. If an employee still does not want to return to work, you may agree to allow a new or extended period of home working or arrange for them to take time off as holiday or unpaid leave. More information on “At Risk” or “Highly At Risk” employees can be found here.

If an employee refuses to attend work without a valid reason, you may wish to consider formal management via your disciplinary procedure. However, we strongly advise that you liaise with us if this situation arises and obtain specific advice from us.

Managing Employees With Childcare Responsibilities

Some employees will continue to have childcare responsibilities due to childcare providers remaining closed or opening to reduced numbers, and “educational bubbles” being sent home from school. More information on advising employees affected by these issues can be found here.

Employees and Annual Leave

Your approach to annual leave will depend on your specific circumstances and whether your employees have taken annual leave in recent weeks. You should assess the current position with annual leave and your ability to allow employees to take it. It may be that there is opportunity for your employees to take annual leave, in which case you should encourage them to do so, or you may find that future demand for annual leave is such that it becomes unmanageable resulting in annual leave requests not being authorised which may impact upon employee morale.

It is important to remember that the Working Time Regulations 1998 were recently amended to allow employees a statutory right to carry annual leave over into the next two holiday years after the current one. This change in legislation only applies to the first 4 weeks of leave under the Regulations (Regulations 13 leave). However, existing legislation already permits employers to agree to employees carrying over 1.6 weeks of leave into the next holiday year, so employees can carry over their leave in the following way;

  • 4 weeks (legal entitlement to be carried over to next two leave years)
  • An additional 1.6 weeks (In addition to the above, employers can agree that this be carried over to the next leave year, but not the year after)
  • Enhanced contractual entitlement (at employers’ discretion)

The rules on pay in lieu of untaken annual leave have also been amended so that, when employment ends, the holiday pay payable will include anything carried over and not taken due to Coronavirus / Covid-19.  The law still does not allow pay in lieu of statutory minimum entitlement to be paid at any time other than termination.

Reminding Employees of Government’s Cycle to Work Scheme

With the government emphasising the need to walk or cycle to work, rather than using public transport, now is a good time to remind employees of this scheme which is a tax exemption initiative. In summary, an employee can request that their employer buys them a bicycle of their choice (and equipment like a pump or helmet etc), which they then “lease” from their employer via a salary sacrifice scheme. The main purpose of the bicycle should be for commuting to and from work. The bicycle can be used personally as well, in the same way that any other bicycle can be used. The lease that the employee pays their employer returns the cost of the bicycle purchase. Also, because the employee is paying this money out of a salary sacrifice, the employee pays less tax and the employer pays less NI contributions, so both parties receive a financial benefit. It is up to the employer how long the “lease” lasts although the common length is 12 – 24 months.

Employers need to “sign up” to take part in the scheme. There are scheme providers such as “Cycle Scheme”  or Evans Cycles (these are the largest providers although there may be others). Whilst not all retailers are currently open, bicycle stores are permitted to be open at this time.

These providers make it very easy to use the scheme, they provide lots of information and guidance for both employers and employees. They also work in partnership with bicycle brands, so it is easy to get a bicycle and equipment at a discounted rate.

Employees can only take part in this scheme if they are over the age of 18 and if they earn more than the National Minimum Wage, due to the salary sacrifice element of the scheme.

At the end of the agreed hire period, e.g. 12 months, the Company can choose to take the bicycle back from the employee or the employee can purchase the bicycle from the employer for a “fair market value”. This is usually a very small fee because the bicycle has been used regularly for a year or more, and HMRC also stipulates that the fee charged should be no more than 25% of the original market value.

If an employee leaves the Company before the lease is over, any remaining balance must be paid from their final net salary. Employees will then also be required to pay any outstanding sum, as outlined in the above paragraph, although some employers choose to waive this additional fee in these circumstances.

The Government have provided lots of information on the cycle to work scheme. Click here to access it.

Last reviewed on 28 October 2020