July 16, 2021

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    Step 4 of the roadmap out of lockdown has been confirmed.

    The Government has chosen 19th July as the date restrictions will be relaxed in England. So how can we prepare ourselves for a gradual return to the office?

    While waiting for “Freedom Day” (or almost-Freedom-Day with a double helping of caution and a pinch of reversibility), what should employers be thinking about specifically?

    At Law 365 we plan to return to our fantabulous office as soon as we can safely and in line with government guidance. For us, preparation, communication, and organisation are key. We thought we’d share with you 6 things to consider as you prepare for the 19th of July:

    1. Risk assessments

    2. Home, Hybrid and Flexible working

    3. Furlough

    4. Long Covid

    5. Right to work checks

    6. Employers doing their bit

    1. Risk Assessment

    Yes, risk assessments can feel annoying and laborious (all those forms to fill out!?) but they help to demonstrate that an employer is taking health and safety seriously. The process focusses minds on areas that might otherwise have been missed.

    Before you return to the workplace, make sure you’ve updated your COVID 19 Risk Assessment. COVID 19 needs to be managed like any other workplace hazard, and preventative steps taken to reduce its risk. We have high rates now, not everyone is (double) vaccinated and it is important to bear in mind the virus is likely to impact us more in the Autumn/Winter season.

    At Law 365 we’ve been thinking about the where, who and what for Covid:

    • Where could possible transmission of the virus occur? (at desks, in the conference room, in the toilets or by the coffee machine!)
    • Who could be involved?
    • What measures can we take to prevent transmission?

    The What is going to be the one to determine the “new normal” of the office. The BEIS (Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy) launched a review earlier this year to investigate the idea of long-term social distancing in an office space (in England). The review has been published this month to inform the decisions around step 4. The current Working Safely Government guidance for offices has just been updated. There are 6 priority actions including a health and safety risk assessment.

    Areas that should be examined and reviewed are:

    • Ventilation (consider a CO2 monitor)
    • Regular testing and self-isolation
    • Increased and regular cleaning of office
    • Plastic partitions / screens
    • Provision of hand sanitiser and soap
    • Social distancing measures
    • Stagger hours worked in the office
    • Create worker bubbles/fixed teams
    • Remote video meetings
    • Rotation of workers in office and home working

    Consultation regarding health and safety is a legal duty so don’t forget to consult with the staff about how you are managing the risk – listen and talk to them and share the results of your risk assessment. Train and communicate procedures, measures and appropriate behaviour to both staff and any visitors. Responsibility has shifted from what is legally required to individual and employer responsibility and decision-making.

    Some areas for caution:

    • We recommend getting legal advice if you’re thinking about requesting information on employees’ vaccination status as part of this process. This comes with a whole host of issues to consider – from data protection considerations to discrimination.
    • Don’t forget where offices have been closed you should consider system stagnation and the risk of Legionnaires’ disease.
    • It is worth bearing in mind too that employees have brought claims in the Employment Tribunals relating to employee safety around COVID 19. If any employee reasonably believes that they are in danger, and aren’t reasonably able to avoid that danger, they are protected from dismissal if they leave or refuse to return to the workplace while the danger persists. If an employee is dismissed in these circumstances, they don’t need a specific length of service to bring a claim of (automatic) unfair dismissal. Therefore it is important to demonstrate you have taken appropriate measures to reduce the COVID risk.

    The judgments from these cases have been mixed and, as always, are fact specific but highlight that taking appropriate measures in the office for a return is just part of the picture. It’s really important to have consulted with staff and considered their particular concerns and personal circumstances.

    2.Flexible, Hybrid and Home Working

    I’m sure many of you have become used to rolling out of bed into the comfort of your home office space (avoiding the cat/children/dog rush-hour traffic on the way) and businesses have also become accustomed to a remote workforce.

    Although more people have been returning to the office over recent months, naturally many businesses are now considering a more flexible working style, where employee perhaps can work from home and the office. The Government takes the view that life cannot go back to life before COVID – it is not that simple.

    This hybrid approach could lead to better productivity:

    According to a study from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) homeworkers worked 6.0 hours of overtime per week in 2020 (twice as much almost as those not working from home) and took fewer sick days! Although employers should consider any impact home working might have on an employee’s wellbeing and take steps to address any adverse impact on mental health.

    Currently, an employee can only request a change to their location after they have worked for their employer for 26 weeks. However, as part of the Conservative Manifesto 2019, the Government put forward a bill making flexible working the default in an employment contract. The employment bill (which would have included this) was omitted in the Queen’s speech in May. It is therefore still awaited. Also despite stories in the media recently, hinting that the government might make working from home a legal right, this has not come to fruition.

    What would be best for your business? If you haven’t already, perhaps starting a conversation about flexible working or consider creating a survey to gauge your staff’s opinions on this issue are and then regularly check-in on staff’s views over the coming months.

    Here at Law 365, we are helping clients draft bespoke policies for Flexible, Hybrid and Home Working to address changes in working practices.

    3. Furlough

    The Job retention scheme was extended earlier this year to September 2021. So this month (July), employers are paying 10% of wages (up to £312.50) to employees on the furlough scheme. This makes up the 80% entitlement for the hours an employee is on furlough and not working (capped overall at £2,500 per month). The Government is paying 70% for the furlough hours up to a cap of £2,187.50.

    In August and September that 10% employer contribution becomes 20% (up to £625 per month per employee). With the increase in costs this option may become less tenable for employers. Businesses may need to review the needs of the organisation and explore options such as reduced hours, redeployment or redundancies. Employers should consult and agree any change to employees’ terms and conditions. We can help with any advice you need around different options.

    4. Long COVID

    The virus has impacted individuals differently. For some people, the effects can continue for weeks, even months leading them to be off work. The ONS estimates over 950,000 people have experienced the effects of long Covid (ie symptoms persisting for over 4 weeks after being infected). The chances are long COVID could affect someone in your business. ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) has advice on how employers and employees can address the issues surrounding long COVID.

    Bear in mind that long lasting symptoms of the disease have the potential to turn sickness into a disability. So if a person suffers from the effects long-term for at least 12 months (or is likely to), it can be classed as such. Do be aware of the legal obligations that might therefore flow from this (such as making reasonable adjustments). In any event, all staff should approach the subject with patience, understanding and sensitivity.

    5. Right to work checks

    When hiring new staff employers must check a person’s “right to work”.

    For some citizens (for example UK citizens), the documents that you might need to check could be passports or birth/adoption certificates. For others it could be residence permits or certificates of naturalisation. From 1 July 2021 the majority of EEA citizens will prove their right to work using the Home Office online right to work service (rather than using an EEA passport or national identity card).

    When the pandemic hit the government changed how these checks had to be carried out temporarily. Employers no longer had to check original documents face to face, instead this could and can be done via video call and by sending scanned documents.

    These changes will remain in place until the 31st of August (previously the changes were scheduled to end earlier this year). After this date, the government will revert to the physical, in person checks. More information can be found here: Right to Work Checks

    6. Doing our bit

    The Government wants businesses to aid in the fight against the virus. Whether that is encouraging regular testing amongst your workforce or encouraging them to get the vaccine. There are strong views on the subject. However, if you give staff the opportunity to become more informed on the subject it may help them make up their own mind independently.

    Public Health England has provided an Employer Toolkit to help educate employees, including posters, videos, and other information. The decision on whether to distribute these materials and if so, how to do it, should be approached sensitively.

    We want to help businesses move forward into a bright future with peace of mind so if you’d like to know more about your obligations concerning COVID 19 or just have a question, we would love to hear from you. Do get in touch: megan@law365.co

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