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New Government guidance released for employers regarding the return to the office

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As this week we see many businesses re-open after the latest lockdown, the Government has also addressed whether employers can begin to bring their employees back to the office after they have been working from home.  On 29th March 2021, new guidance for businesses was released on this topic, and today our Employment Law team review the guidance, providing a summary on how employers can now proceed and how the next few months looks for businesses.

Can I bring my employees back to the office?

Under previous regulations, it was a legal requirement for employees to work from home if reasonably possible.  This has now been relaxed under the guidance; however it is still advised that employees should work from home if they can until at least Step 4 of the roadmap, which is currently set for 21st June 2021.  It is no longer against the law for employees to work from the office. 

In light of this guidance, employers are being encouraged to consider whether working from home is still the appropriate thing for all of their employees, taking into account any physical or mental concerns they may be having, or any other challenges they may be experiencing in their home environment, for example:

  • Employees whose mental health is suffering due to the impact of working from home, whether that is due to the isolation, lack of routine etc.
  • Employees who do not have an effective set up working from home, perhaps because of a small living space, additional occupants of the property who also work from home and so cause distractions or any other “particularly challenging” environment.
  • Those with physical conditions such as a musculoskeletal diagnosis.  However, if they are classed as clinically extremely vulnerable, it still may be inadvisable to allow them to return.

These employees can be returned to the workplace, while working from home should still remain the norm for others for the next few months.

Can I force my employees to return to the office?

It is important for employers to note that the new guidance is just that; guidance.  While it is no longer a legal requirement for employees to work from home if it is reasonably possible, this is not a ticket for employers to start demanding that their employees return to the office before 21st June.

If an employee wishes to remain working from home, you should not discipline them without first discussing the situation with the employee on a case by case basis and taking the time to understand their concerns and reasons for wishing to remain at home.  If they have more than 2 years’ service, you would also need to follow a fair procedure before dismissing and if they have a protected characteristic, such as a disability, you will need to consider the implication of your policy of office working before dismissing.

Can I hold meetings in person with my employees?

For those employees who do return to the office, it is still not permissible by law to hold in-person meetings inside your premises as these would be classed as “gatherings”.  Any meetings should still be held virtually if necessary, or could be held outside if the numbers are up to 6 people.  This is no longer unlawful as the rule of 6 applies, however as most employees should still be working from home until the 21st June, this would be classed as against the guidance.  Meetings outside of over 6 people remain unlawful. 

Should I update my Covid-19 risk assessment?

Any changes in your workplace practices, such as allowing people back to the workplace, must be reflected in your Covid-19 risk assessment, and this must be updated and reviewed before employees return to ensure they can return to a safe working environment and are not at risk of transmitting the virus and putting their colleagues, customers and wider public at risk.  You will need to consider factors such as:

  • Adequate ventilation;
  • Maximum number of people in the building at any one time;
  • How social distancing can be achieved in the office;
  • The wearing of face masks;
  • How your employees will travel to the workplace.

Latest Guidance - In Summary

It is crucial for all employers to follow the latest guidance to minimise the likelihood of spreading Covid-19, to ensure a safe working environment for their employees and reducing the risk in tribunal claims against you.  In summary, the guidance now states:

  • Returning to the office for employees is now against the guidance but is not unlawful, apart from those employees who are struggling physically or mentally due to working from home.
  • Employers should not force their employees to return to the workplace if they wish to continue to work from home without first holding a meeting and considering their concerns. 
  • In person meetings held inside are still prohibited by law under the new guidance.  Outdoor meetings can be held for up to 6 people, however could still be classed as against the guidance as most employees should still be working from home.
  • You should be continuously updating your risk assessments to reflect the current working practices and to ensure a safe working environment for your employees.

If you have any questions about the latest guidance or the return of your employees to the workplace or returning from furlough leave, you can contact the Employment Law team on 023 8071 7717 or email employment@warnergoodman.co.uk.  Alternatively, you may find the following articles of note from our Covid-19 Hub:

To receive regular Employment Law updates from the team regarding recent tribunal cases and legislation updates, you can subscribe to our weekly Employment Law Newsletter by completing our subscription form or emailing us at events@warnergoodman.co.uk

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.