Lockdown restrictions have been easing for some time, but July brings with it the possibility of a long-waited removal of “all legal limits on social contact”.
Which means, at last, a post-COVID return to the workplace for your staff, many of whom have been furloughed or working from home since the beginning of the first national Lockdown in March 2020.
These are sure to be challenging times for your employees, full of uncertainty. As they emerge into the real world, dazed and bleary-eyed after months with only their laptop for company, there’s bound to be a tricky period of adjustment.
How will you manage a July 2021 return to the office, while ensuring your key asset – your workforce – is happy, safe and productive?
Things aren’t how they used to be. Cases of COVID-related mental illness have exploded. But with all the crisis and hardship of the pandemic comes new opportunity.
Through Lockdown, your people have experienced something unprecedented, which has disrupted their way of working and forced many into new, entrepreneurial ways of thinking.
By ensuring their return to the office is a safe and comfortable experience, you have the chance to harness this energy and release new levels of productivity in your people.
Here are 9 important steps you should take to ensure you put the welfare of your staff first, as you go through the tricky process of a full-scale return to work.
Your employees may feel reluctant to return to a place of possible infection, after long periods in control of their own work environment. It’s essential you make them feel safe.
Besides, you can’t require staff to return to a place of work that isn’t safe.
Think about taking these actions:
Homeworking has been a successful and practical solution for the vast majority of organisations and their staff during the pandemic.
Many of your employees won’t want to return to the drudgery of a daily commute to do a job they could be performing just as well at home.
Do your very best to acknowledge your employees’ concerns if they express reluctance to return to the old ways of working:
The vaccination programme is being rolled out fast, and is hailed as playing a key role in stopping the spread of Coronavirus.
But there will be employees who won’t have had a vaccine, because they choose not to for personal, health or religious reasons, or haven’t yet been offered it.
It’s vital you consider what your business’ policy is on vaccinations.
Some of your employees will be really worried about returning to work in the ‘new world’. People are still getting infected, new variants continue to emerge, not everyone feels safe leaving home.
It’s vital you keep an open mind to your staff’s concerns. Keep the door open for dialogue. Be an excellent, active listener, listening non-judgmentally and with empathy.
If your employees know you respect their concerns and value their feelings, they’ll stay with you on the journey to creating a safe and happy workplace.
Show and encourage tolerance. Be alert to signs of underlying anxiety in your staff’s behaviours and interactions. Uncharacteristic conflict, irrational outbursts, unexplained absences, employees who are unusually withdrawn – these are possible signs that all is not well.
Some staff will bring their own unique opinions, beliefs and fears to the workplace. Do your best to accommodate these feelings. How will you manage an employee who:
Your duty to ensure a safe workplace extends to minimising the risk of any staff member being mistreated by colleagues for any COVID-related reason.
Having clear, open channels of communication is really important here: regular internal messaging, team talks from line managers, and strong, consistent input from senior leadership.
Bringing staff together to celebrate their return and/or what they’ve achieved during Lockdown is also a great way to cement relationships and boost morale.
As you move back to ‘normal’, you may be introducing new working arrangements for staff, such as changes to hours, working remotely, and even alterations to pay.
It may not have been possible for your staff to take their holidays during the pandemic. Many employees will have accrued untaken annual leave. It’s important you’re clear to staff on how you’ll be managing their annual leave when they return.
COVID-19 has not just affected the physical health of the nation. You’ll need to keep a close eye on the mental health and wellbeing of your staff. Isolation, bereavement and fear of infection have been contributing to increases in depression and other mental illnesses among workers.
There will inevitably be cases of staff illness due to the pandemic. Review your sickness policy to ensure it’s in line with the government’s changes to Statutory Sick Pay for employees affected by COVID-19.
You need to be prepared for a case of COVID-19 in your workplace. Make sure your sickness policy is clear on the rights and obligations of the infected staff member(s), as well as the implications for other workers, for example their duty to self-isolate, and the impact on their pay.
This is perhaps the single most important thing to remember when you’re managing your staff’s return to the workplace.
There will be many uncertainties, fears and worries, most of which will be easy to deal with – as long as you’re on top of your communication. The last thing you want is anxiety growing out of proportion because staff feel they’re facing a wall of silence.
What about employees who were furloughed and may feel ‘second best’ next to their colleagues who have continued working? And how will you limit any resentment among staff who have not enjoyed the ‘benefit’ of paid time off?
It’s important to acknowledge the resilience of all your employees, whatever their input since the start of the pandemic. Be sure to be open, transparent and approachable.
For help getting your employees back to the workplace, and any other pragmatic, creative HR advice and support, do get in touch.
As we get closer to opening up, we have provided details on the new measures, read for more details
If you are self-isolating because the app has alerted you that you have been near someone who has tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19), it will use the date of the last ‘close contact’ you had with the person to calculate how long you need to self-isolate.
You need to self-isolate for 10 full days from the date you were last in contact with the person: the ‘encounter date’. This means that if you were in close contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus on the 1st of the month, you would need to self-isolate up to and including the 11th of that month.
If you are self-isolating because you have coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms, and have entered these into the app, the app will use the day you reported you first had symptoms to calculate how long you need to self-isolate. When you enter symptoms in the app it will ask you for the date they first started; the ‘symptoms onset date’.
You need to self-isolate for 10 full days from the date you first had symptoms of coronavirus. This means that if you first had symptoms on the 1st of the month, you would need to self isolate up to and including the 11th of that month.
If you said that you cannot remember when your symptoms started, the app will calculate your ‘symptoms onset date’ as 2 days before you reported symptoms into the app.
If you report symptoms and book a coronavirus test through the app, the app will automatically be updated with your test result. Your isolation period is calculated using the date you first had symptoms, so if you test positive, this date will not change.
If you tested positive but did not enter symptoms or book your test through the app, you may be able to link your test result to the app using a code. In this case, the app uses the date the code was generated to set your self-isolation countdown timer. This is because it does not have any other information about your test or when your symptoms started. The date the code was generated is counted as ‘Day 0’ in your 10-day countdown. This means that if your test code were generated on the 1st of the month, you would need to self-isolate up to and including the 11th of that month.
If you test positive, you will also be contacted by the wider NHS Test and Trace or NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service. Contact tracers will use the date the test was taken or the date you confirm your symptoms started to calculate your isolation period. If the date your test was taken is not the same as the date your code was generated, then this isolation period may differ from the isolation period on the app. Read more about what do if the self-isolation countdown on your app is different from the advice you have been given by NHS Test and Trace or NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect.
If you test negative, the countdown timer may clear or reset. However, in some cases, you may need to continue to self-isolate even if you have received a negative test result. If this is the case, your self-isolation countdown timer will reflect this.
It is an offence for an employer to knowingly allow a person who is required to self-isolate to work anywhere other than where they are self-isolating (normally their home). This applies only when they are required to self-isolate following a positive test, contacted by NHS Test and Trace or their local authority, or where they are required to quarantine after returning from abroad.
If you are unable to do your job from home, you may ask your employer for annual leave to accommodate your period of self-isolation.
If your employer refuses an annual leave request, you may be able to agree a period of unpaid leave instead.
If you are on sick leave or self-isolating because of coronavirus, you may want to speak to your employer about whether you are eligible for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough). You may be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) while you are on sick leave or self-isolating. If you are put on furlough while on sick leave or self-isolating, you will no longer get sick pay but should be treated as any other furloughed employee.
You may also want to speak to your employer about whether you are eligible for furlough if:
If it is not possible to arrange alternative work that can be completed from home, you should try to accommodate periods of self-isolation by granting annual leave, or unpaid leave if that is not possible.
For anyone on the payroll before 30 October 2020, you may have the option to put them on furlough.
Employers can furlough employees who are clinically extremely vulnerable, at the highest risk of severe illness from coronavirus or off on long-term sick leave. It is up to employers to decide whether to furlough these employees.
You can get £96.35 per week Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if you are too ill to work. It is paid by your employer for up to 28 weeks.
You cannot get less than the statutory amount. You can get more if your company has a sick pay scheme (or ‘occupational scheme’) - check your employment contract.
If you cannot work because of coronavirus (COVID-19) You could get SSP if you are self isolating because:
You must pay an employee SSP if they are self-isolating and off work for at least 4 days and any of the following apply:
You must pay them on or after one of the following dates:
A ‘qualifying day’ is a day an employee usually works on.
You can reclaim up to 2 weeks’ SSP if all of the following apply:
You can reclaim up to £96.35 a week for each employee.
You cannot reclaim SSP if your employee is off sick for any other reason.
Exciting opportunities are awaiting businesses and their staff now that Freedom Day has arrived. With government restrictions lifted, companies are contemplating a time of stability and renewed growth. Many are assuming lockdown will soon be a distant memory and facemasks a thing of the past.
But is the return to ‘normal’ really going to be that simple?
There are some big questions employers should be asking as they adapt themselves and their people to the so-called new freedom ahead.
In a recent blog, we looked at some important steps employers should take to put the welfare of staff first as they return to work.
In this article, we’re going to hone in on the wellbeing of your workforce: what you can do to make sure your employees stay well. As the working world opens back up, how can you support them so they perform brilliantly and help your business flourish and grow?
Gone are the days when ‘employee wellbeing’ meant just managing your staff’s sickness absence. Most employers understand that being proactive with your staff’s health and wellness is good for business. And that’s especially important now.
Your people have been through a lot. As they begin to start thinking about a return to more formal working patterns, they need your support and encouragement that things are going to be okay. You need to take steps to reassure them that you take their mental health and wellbeing seriously.
A positive way to check in on your staff as they get used to post-COVID changes to their working lives, is to invite them to complete a Wellness Action Plan.
The brainchild of mental health charity MIND, a WAP is a document staff fill in to chart their health and wellbeing needs. They then share it with their manager and, if they like, their colleagues.
It’s a collaborative way for employees to reach out to their bosses and say: “This is how I work best; this is where I struggle; this is where I need your help.” And it’s an opportunity for employers to better understand the welfare needs of their staff, then step up and accommodate those needs.
A WAP is not just for staff who consider themselves to have a mental health condition. It’s for everyone. What better way to improve employee morale and performance than listening to them as individuals, and taking steps to bring out the best in them?
A WAP will typically ask employees to talk about:
The reassurance by managers that ‘the door’s always open’ is often an alibi for doing nothing to look out for the welfare of their staff. If you want to rebuild a happy and healthy workforce post-lockdown, you need to open the door, invite them in and do your very best to ensure they accept the invitation!
Now more than ever, employers should be talking to staff, listening carefully to their concerns, and taking action to help.
Even if you’re not legally required by the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to an employee’s working conditions, it may be a good idea. Doing your best to help staff to get back to normal is good practice.
And it’s good for business too: if a change to how an employee used to work will help them operate more effectively going forward, why wouldn’t you want to allow it?
For many of your staff, contact with other team members is an important form of social interaction they’ve been missing out on for months. Reuniting colleagues is likely to be a happy and emotional experience, boosting staff morale and increasing productivity.
It’s simplistic to say that laptop time is just an efficient alternative to commuting time. Not leaving the home can lead to isolation, unhappiness and lack of useful work. Many employees are eager to get back to the workplace after so many months of working alone.
A lot of businesses will insist on bringing their people together physically as soon as they can. Others will continue to cope well with an entirely virtual workforce. For most, it will be a mixture of the two.
Hybrid working looks set to become the new norm, with staff coming into the workplace on designated days, and working the rest of the time from home. So how can you make sure this works well for your business?
As part of your communications with staff, ask them where their best creative working space is.
One employee may have found that working outside under a tree during lockdown has released her creativity and made her more productive – as well as making her feel good. Another’s creative space may be the spare bedroom overlooking the garden, and that too may have sparked great ideas.
Wouldn’t it be a shame to lose this energy and productivity if the default new-world option for these staff is to come back to work at a desk in a windowless office?
So ask your employees: “Where do you work most productively?” Their answer is likely to depend on the tasks they’re performing and their mindset at the time. But by tapping into their experiences of working during the pandemic, you’ll be sure to discover new ways for your business to work smarter.
Whether your employees are coming back to the workplace or not, the lifting of restrictions represents a major shift in policy and is likely to result in a whole range of emotions from elation to fear.
The best course of action as an employer is to keep your eyes and ears open for signs of stress, hardship or anxiety among your workers – and to embrace the new energy, excitement and creativity afoot as employees respond to the prospect of a new period of relative calm and certainty.
If you’d like advice on how to help your team adapt to the new ways of working, or need realistic, logical and cost-effective solutions to any other HR challenges, please get in touch. We’d love to help!