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How to Help Your Employees Through the Transition Back to the Office

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If your business is getting ready to “return to the office”, there are lots of things to think about, from how you’ll ensure the health and safety of your staff to dealing with any HR implications for your workforce.

When planning a return, it’s important for employers to be sensitive to the disruption that the pandemic may have caused to their staff, both personally and professionally.

After months of working from home, we take a look at some of the steps employers can take to ease the transition for their staff and to ensure a smooth return to the office. 

Communicate about your safety measures

Before reopening your office, you’re required to carry out a full coronavirus risk assessment.

Consult with health and safety representatives from your workforce while completing your risk assessment, to make sure you cover off all of the risks and ways to reduce those risks. As well as being legally required, the consultation helps to ease workers’ anxiety and give them confidence that you will listen to them and address concerns they may have.

You should share your risk assessment with staff, including what actions you are taking to protect them. If you have more than 50 employees you should publish your risk assessment on your website.

If you’re planning on bringing back staff from furlough leave when your workplace opens, it might also be worth going through a re-onboarding exercise if they’ve been off for a long time. This will help to ensure they’re up to date with any new policies and procedures you’ve put in place whilst they’ve been off.

Think about the commute

Some workers may be worried about catching public transport to work. Think about how you can help them, for example by providing extra car parks or bike racks, or staggering work hours or shifts to enable staff to avoid congestion or busy times. 

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What if the staff can’t return?

Consider staff members’ individual circumstances

It’s possible that not all of your staff will be able to return to the workplace. This might be because they’re shielding or are in clinically vulnerable groups, or because they have ongoing issues with childcare or other caring responsibilities.

Even when shielding ends, you should consider whether it will be safe for any previously shielding staff or others in vulnerable groups to return to your workplace.

For instance, social distancing measures are likely to be much more important for them and it may be appropriate for you to consider other working arrangements rather than forcing them to return. This is particularly important if their medical condition amounts to a disability because you must make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff.

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Remember that you might also be able to put staff who can’t come back on furlough leave (as long as they’ve been furloughed at least once before).

If vulnerable staff do return to the office, you must ensure appropriate social distancing is in place and consider other ways you can reduce their increased risk.

If staff have ongoing childcare or caring responsibilities, think about how you can accommodate them. For example, can you offer flexible working, could you place them on furlough leave or perhaps even agree to a period of unpaid leave?

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Bear in mind that staff who are employees also have the right to a reasonable amount of time off to deal with disruptions to childcare and other caring responsibilities, and might also be eligible for unpaid parental leave.

Listen to requests for flexibility

When you return, some of your staff might want to discuss their ongoing working arrangements with you.

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For example, some staff might ask for a prolonged period of working from home because, despite the safety measures you’ve put in place, they’re concerned about the continued risk to themselves or a family member, whereas others might want a more flexible working arrangement to allow them to balance their responsibilities at home.

Some staff might simply have grown accustomed to working from home and want to incorporate it into their normal working routine.

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Make sure you handle these discussions sensitively and try to reach an agreement, remembering that your staff are living through an unprecedented crisis and that your obligations in respect of your employees’ health extend to their mental health, including work-related stress and anxiety.

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Some employees have the legal right to request flexible working, and although you don’t have to agree, you must consider requests fairly and only reject them if you have a valid business reason. You could also consider allowing a staff member to take annual leave or unpaid leave if they do not want to return to the office, although you do not have to.

When no means no…

Ultimately, if any of your staff refuse to come back to work and you are unable to agree to a suitable compromise, you may be able to take disciplinary action against them… but tread carefully.

Employees who reasonably believe that returning to your workplace would place them in serious and imminent danger might be able to claim unfair dismissal if they’re fired for not coming in. You might also risk discrimination claims if you unreasonably discipline some members of staff who don’t want to return.

So, what’s the key takeaway?

By communicating with staff, listening to their concerns and acting reasonably, businesses can help to pave the way for a smooth transition back to the office.

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