Back to work factsheet for employers

Find out how to get your staff back to work safely after the coronavirus lockdown.

BrightHR Team

First published 13th May 2020 at 3.30pm. Last updated 29th June 2020 at 10am.

Following the announcement of new measures to ease the UK out of lockdown, employers have a lot of questions about the best way to get staff back to work safely. Here our employment law expert answers some of these complex HR and health & safety questions...

Q: If lockdown measures are relaxed or lifted to allow more people to return to work, we may need some of our employees, but not all, to return. How do we decide who to bring back from furlough first?

A: This will likely be the case for most businesses either due to workload or the implementation of health and safety measures. First and foremost, you should consider the needs of the business and which departments would need to return first.

If you need to select between individuals in the same or a similar job role, the decision should be based on objective criteria. Any decisions should be documented so you can justify your decision-making process if someone raises the concern that they have been discriminated against.

Q. The government announced that the social distancing measure would be reduced from 2m to 1m. We are looking at opening up again, are we able to open now with measures to support 1m social distancing rather than 2m?

A: As with all measures and for all businesses returning, you must first complete a specific risk assessment to determine what is possible for your business. The government announced that where it is not possible to stay 2m apart, people should keep a distance of 1m plus and therefore your aim should initially be to establish whether 2m is possible. Wherever it is possible for employees and customers or clients to stay 2m apart, they should and should be encouraged to do so.

Remember though, this change will only take effect from 4th July and until then, people should keep a distance of 2m.

There are other health and safety measures you should also considered when conducting any risk assessment and looking to get back to business, including but not limited to avoiding face to face seating, improving ventilation, using protective screens and providing hand sanitiser.

Q. Is it possible to furlough employees who are on short-time working? So for example, they are able to work 2 days per week covered by the business and have the Government contribute 80% to the other 3?

A: Furlough requires that the employee does no work and therefore short-time working could not continue. You could consider whether work patterns could be reorganised through discussion with employees, to allow some of those that have been on short-time working to go back to full hours whilst others are furloughed.

From 1 July, employees will be able to work part of their hours under the flexible furlough scheme. Under this scheme employees should receive their full pay for the hours they perform work and 80% for the time furloughed. A separate agreement will be required for each period.

It is important to remember that government guidance is constantly changing when it comes to new emergency legislation—including Furlough and the Job Retention Scheme—so it’s a good idea to seek employment law advice before contacting staff.

Q. We have returned to work but some employees are still on furlough. I will need some to return but don’t currently need them to work their full hours. I understand they may work part time and remain on furlough from 1 July. Is this correct?

A: Yes, under the flexible furlough scheme an employee will be able to perform some hours of work. They should receive their full pay for the hours they work.

Any such arrangement should be confirmed in writing under a new agreement.

Q: I’ve heard that social distancing measures will still be in place when we start to return people back to the workplace. What measures do we have to take?

A: All government measures should be complied with on returning to work. Although guidance is subject to change, it is likely that social distancing (keeping 2 metres apart) will still be in place for some time. Therefore you will need to space out desks and consider walkways around the building and where the entrances and exits are. It is also likely that staggering working hours and alternating days of work will be included in the guidelines.

Depending on the nature of your business, you may need to consider a range of measures including the installation of plexiglass shields or other barriers, protocols for the use of lifts, closing down smaller common areas or marking appropriate distances, and providing hand sanitiser.

Further information is available through BrightHR’s back to work navigator.

Q: Some of my employees self-isolated prior to lockdown and I am aware that one employee was living with someone who was symptomatic. How do I check if my employees are fit to return to work?

A: Usually, it is possible to request a fit note to gain confirmation that an employee is able to attend work. However, in the current circumstances, this may not be possible and your normal procedures may need to be relaxed.

Employees may be able to gain confirmation of their fitness through forms or emails from local clinics. You can ask your employee if they’ve been symptomatic or are living with someone who has, to establish whether they have followed government guidance with regards to self-isolation. If the isolation period has passed, they should be able to return to work.

In determining whether an employee may return to work, questions should be limited to establishing symptoms related to COVID-19. Any questions that are unrelated, such as asking about underlying medical conditions or symptoms not associated with COVID-19, should be avoided.

Employers may ask, for the purposes of determining whether an employee should be permitted to remain at home, that employees certify that they have an underlying health condition that heightens their risk of harm if they were to contract COVID-19.

Q: With social distancing expected to remain in place, will we be required to reduce our employees’ hours of work?

A: It is expected that employers will be required to stagger work hours and shifts to assist with social distancing and ease congestion on public transport. Similarly, alternating days of work for different groups of teams may also be considered.

The full extent of what measures are required will be subject to ongoing guidance but if it is possible to achieve social distancing through staggered hours and other arrangements like home working, you may not necessarily need to reduce staff hours.

Remember, employment laws require agreement from staff when you make amendments to terms and conditions, even if only on a temporary basis. You should speak with employees first and explain the proposed changes and the reason for these changes. You will likely need to take your employees’ individual circumstances into consideration when agreeing to appropriate changes to working hours.

Q: We were in the process of recruiting prior to the lockdown and need to pick that back up. Is it safe to arrange interviews?

As restrictions start to lift, it may be possible to hold in-person interviews as long as you are able to ensure social distancing measures for attendees. You would need to set clear guidance ahead of the interview so the candidate is aware of the measures in place.

Although it may be possible, you should still consider whether virtual interviews and on-boarding are more appropriate to reduce the number of in-person interactions.

Q: One of my employees has advised me that they will not return to work over the next few weeks, even though restrictions have lifted to allow us to return. How do we manage this?

A: The right way to manage this depends on the situation. But the first step should be to discuss the matter with your employee to understand their reasons for not returning. Many employees may be anxious about the prospect of returning to work at first and safety will be a priority for them.

You should inform all employees that you have made an assessment of the risks and implemented appropriate measures in line with government guidance. This should help to reassure any anxious employees that you aren’t putting them at risk by asking them to return to work.

Q. One of my employees has pre-booked leave in August and expects they will still be able to travel. Do we have to approve a further two week period of leave to cover the quarantine period and what if they don’t have enough leave balance?

A: This will be subject to contract but generally, when annual leave is requested, whether it is approved remains at the discretion of management. It’s important to have suitably worded contracts and policy documentation and a leave booking procedure in place to support to manage this.

If you are unable to approve further leave and there is no requirement to under your existing employment documentation you can consider other options with respect to the quarantine period. Any options will also be impacted to some extent by the employee’s contract but you should initially consider whether the employee may work from home or alternatively may agree that the period will be considered unpaid leave.

Q. One of my employees has just travelled back from overseas and some of my staff are refusing to come into work as a result. Do I have to give these employees time off work with pay?

A: Those who have travelled will be required to self-isolate for 14 days which means they must not go to work.

Provided this isolation period has passed and appropriate health and safety measures are in place, an employee who refuses to work may be in breach of the terms and conditions of their contract and isn’t entitled to payment for their time off work.

It’s up to you as the employer to assess the situation if an employee is returning to work from an affected area and make a decision based on the most recent information available.

Q. Several of my employees have requested time off because schools have remained closed. What are their entitlements if I approve time off?

A: As this is similar to other instances of school closures, the normal rules on unpaid time off for dependants will apply unless you provide greater contractual entitlements. If your contract does not provide pay for time off to look after dependents you may choose to, but don’t have to.

There is no set amount of time that an employee is entitled to be absent from work as it depends on the exact nature of the situation and each case will be different. Generally, employees are entitled to take a reasonable amount of time off to deal with the emergency and where possible make alternative arrangements.

If an employee is unable to make care arrangements in these circumstances you may discuss options with them including the use of annual leave, unpaid parental leave or alternative work arrangements where possible, such as working from home.

Government guidance does state that employees who are unable to work because they have caring responsibilities, such as looking after children, can be furloughed. However, in the absence of further information, it is likely that the overarching purpose of the scheme should still be considered, which is that the operation has been severely affected.

Q: Some of my employees are unable to return to work because they can’t arrange childcare. What are their entitlements and how should I handle this?

A: As many childcare facilities are closed and family carers unavailable, many employees may be impacted. Where employees can carry out some (or perhaps all) of their duties from home, this should be allowed. While they’re working from home, you should pay them as normal.

Where employees are unable to work from home, they should be encouraged to make alternative childcare arrangements, but this will not be possible for all employees. You should consider temporary flexible working arrangements to adjust or reduce working hours, and change working times to assist employees in managing work and childcare responsibilities in line with requests, and implement this if possible. Parental leave (unpaid), as well as paid annual leave, may also provide a solution at least in the short-term.

Consistency is key to avoid setting unmanageable precedents and in the circumstances, where the situation is so uncertain, employees should be informed that any measures implemented are temporary and cannot be maintained indefinitely.

Q: I need to reorganise my business which may also result in redundancies. What do I need to consider?

A: If you believe the reorganisation will only be temporary, the furlough scheme is expected to be in place until October and lay-off or short-time working may be considered subject to contract.

Employees who have been laid off and have at least one month’s service are entitled to receive Statutory Guarantee Pay for a maximum of 5 days in a rolling three-month period. The rate of Statutory Guarantee Pay is currently £30 per day. Employees on short-time working will receive payment in accordance with their hours worked.

You may also consider temporarily redeploying employees to other parts of the business if employees are agreeable and can be trained. If these options are not feasible you may need to consider whether the role is redundant and commence consultation. Redeployment should also be considered throughout this process.

A final thought…

It’s important to think carefully about any situation linked with the coronavirus outbreak before you make any decisions that impact your staff. If you have any doubts, seek employment law advice.

If you’re a BrightAdvice customer, call our employment law helpline. Not a BrightAdvice customer? You can find out more about this service by ringing us on 0800 783 2806.