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Key employment considerations to protect your business as COVID restrictions relax but risk remains

21 July 2021

As restrictions have been eased we explore some of the key employment issues you should be considering to mitigate risk for your business. 

Return to work 

With the government no long instructing people to work from home, employers are diligently reviewing their position. Our recent survey taken during our New World of Work webinar series showed 81% of our audience anticipated their workforce will split their time working from home and working from the office going forwards. The government has been clear that it is not expecting an overnight return, rather a gradual return over the summer.

Key considerations – What is the normal place of work for your employees? What is the contractual status of the working from home arrangement? Do contracts of employment need to be varied to reflect any new way of working? 

If employees are returning to the workplace, what health and safety measures will be implemented? Who do you need to consult with about those measures and how will you communicate those measures? What will be the employment consequences of failing to follow such measures? Do disciplinary policies need to be updated? Does new messaging need to be communicated to the workforce? 

Many employees may make formal flexible working requests either because they have become accustomed to a different way of working or because they have new/additional caring responsibilities. Are your policies and procedures up-to-date? 

Vaccine status 

The government has announced that from 16 August 2021 those who are fully vaccinated will no longer need to self-isolate if they are identified as a close contact of someone with COVID-19 (subject to any required testing). Although a welcome change from a labour supply point of view, the relaxation of rules arguably creates a two tier workforce – those who are vaccinated and those who are not. Some employees' vaccination status may be linked to a protected characteristics – for example, age, pregnancy or because of a disability. It is important for employers to tread carefully to reduce the risk of discrimination. 

Key considerations – Have you implemented a vaccine policy outlining your approach to vaccinations? Have you considered your approach to asking your workforce about their vaccination status? Have you considered your data protection obligations and the latest ICO guidance? 

Holidays

With the holiday season upon us many employees will be looking to go abroad. With the red, amber and green lists introduced, employers have a newfound legitimate interest in where an employee may be travelling during their annual leave due to the varying quarantine obligations. Employers will need to ensure that clear communications are sent to the workforce clarifying the position on annual leave. If an employee can (and is willing to) work from home during any period of quarantine, the position is relatively straightforward. However, if an employee is required to come into the workplace in order to carry out their role, further consideration is required. Employers will want to ensure that the employee is aware of the government's position on quarantine and may wish to ask employees to take annual leave to cover any period of quarantine. As always employers should ensure the policy is applied in a non-discriminatory way. 

Key considerations – Have you sent out clear communications to your workforce explaining your position on foreign travel? What reporting mechanisms have been introduced with regard to foreseeable quarantine linked to travel? Have you reviewed and where necessary updated your contracts of employment and /or annual leave policy? 

Equality and diversity 

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people with certain protected characteristics, from older people being more at risk from the virus itself to women who predominantly bear additional childcare responsibilities. As we enter a new chapter it is important to ensure that any return to work strategy is considered within the context of equality and diversity and that employers foster a supportive and dynamic culture.

Key considerations – How will you identify your vulnerable employees? What risk assessments will you carry out? When might you need to make reasonable adjustments? Have you updated your equal opportunities policy in light of the pandemic? 

What training has been provided to your workforce on managing equality and diversity issues arising out of the return to work? What communications have been distributed? 

Mental health 

With the combination of lockdowns, financial worries, redundancies and health concerns, many individuals are struggling to cope. Employers should be prioritising the mental well-being of their workforce and offering as much support as possible.

Key considerations – Have you set up support networks? Do you carry out one-to-one check ins? Are your managers trained on mental health issues in the workplace? How is mental health monitored? 

Whistleblowing / speak up 

As workplaces have adapted to become COVID-secure in very tight timescales, many workers have raised concerns in relation their health and safety and that of their colleagues. Employees and workers are protected in certain circumstances when they "blow the whistle". For further information on whistleblowing please see our Legal Update.

Key considerations – Are your whistleblowing / speak up policies fit for purpose? Are leaders within your organisation endorsing speak up? Is your workforce trained appropriately on what amounts to whistleblowing and what they should do if they have a concern? Do those responsible for whistleblowing receive additional bespoke advice? Are your line managers clear on what is a grievance and what is whistleblowing? 

Employers have faced an incredibly challenging period. If you have any questions in relation to the time sensitive issues raised in this update, please do not hesitate to get in touch with Kate Meadowcroft or your usual DWF contact.


Our recent webinar is vital viewing to digest further advice around employment, equality, health & safety and claims considerations as COVID restrictions ease.

 
 

Further Reading

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