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As we prepare for the easing of restrictions in England next week, what are the big issues that HR experts are facing?
It’s been a week and a half of much change for HR – again – and there has been a lot of reporting on how larger employers are preparing for the easing of restrictions next week, particularly when it comes to whether they plan to order everyone back into the office.
The good news is that many had already consulted their staff and decided on a gradual return or a hybrid or remote policy or both.
But the easing of restrictions has prompted negotiations up and down the country between employers and employees, many of whom have worked from home during the pandemic and are not too keen to get back to ‘normality’ – particularly if they or anyone in their family has underlying health issues.
Acas has just published survey results showing 55% expect an increase in staff working from home or remotely part of the week; and 49% expect an increase in staff working from home or remotely all week. The poll comes as it publishes new advice on hybrid working, including the importance of consulting staff on new ways of working, training line managers to deal with requests and using trials to experiment with what works best.
Health and safety is another crucial issue linked to the return to the workplace. Many employers are worried that the new guidance published by the Government makes things more confusing for employers. Roger Barker, policy director at the Institute of Directors, said that businesses have been presented with “a series of mixed messages and patchwork requirements from government that have dampened enthusiasm”. He added that the new guidance has done “little to dispel” uncertainty about what is expected of staff and employers with business leaders feeling confused as to its legal status. He added: “Government needs to inspire confidence in businesses and the workforce that we can all return to work safely.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has also warned that back-to-work safety guidelines, “published without proper consultation with unions or employers”, are a “recipe for chaos and rising infections”. She believes that instead of providing “clear and consistent” guidance on how to keep staff safe, the government is “abandoning workers and employers.” She fears that the “inadequate” guidelines will leave many employers “with more questions than answers.”
So what are the main issues that employers need advice on HR-wise? According to Kate Palmer at HR experts Peninsula UK dealing with anxious employees is high on the agenda. She says it is therefore important for employers to reassure people that it is safe to return and the workplace is a Covid-safe environment.
Even so, she says many employers are contacting Peninsula because employees are citing Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act, which provides employees with the means to contest the adequacy and/or suitability of safety arrangements without fear of recriminations, such as getting sacked, transferred or suffering a pay cut. Section 44. provides employees with the right to withdraw from and to refuse to return to a workplace that is unsafe. Employees are entitled to remain away from the workplace if – in their opinion – the prevailing circumstances represent a real risk of serious and imminent danger.
Palmer says: “We’re getting lots of questions about this and how employers can prove that they are not being unreasonable by asking employees to return to the office once the work from home guidance is lifted.”
One of the big issues on safety is around travel to work. Palmer says: “Once wearing a facemask is a recommendation rather than a legal requirement, what impact does this have on employees who take public transport i.e. train, bus, tube to work? Is it reasonable to ask someone to take the tube to work rather than work from home?”
She advises employers to have discussions with employees individually to address their concerns, find out the reasons behind them and find a solution.
Other common issues for employers are staff shortages due to Covid infections, including at schools, and annual leave.
Palmer says: “Children being sent home to isolate has left a lot of workplaces struggling operationally with parents also having to stay home. This week we are seeing an increase in parents keeping children home from school to avoid having to self-isolate ahead of the school holidays.”
With term ending next week, this issue should only be temporary, but there is still a significant gap between the relaxing of restrictions on 19th July and 16th August when close contacts of people with Covid who have been double vaccinate will no longer have to isolate. Employers are worried that rising infections in that period could cause operational problems, particularly in customer-facing roles.
When it comes to annual leave, Palmer also notes that there has been a massive increase in the number of annual leave requests employers have been receiving. She states: “While employers certainly want to grant these as much as possible, there are times where it’s just not possible operationally. For a lot of hospitality businesses, which are just now starting to get back open, it’s just not possible, which is leading to a retention and recruitment problem in that industry.”