My staff won’t return to work: FAQs for the workplace post-COVID

Although “Freedom Day” and the end to all legal limits on social contact and government restrictions has been delayed until mid-July, many businesses are still in the process of bringing staff back into the office, or at least putting a roadmap in place. 

In a recent report by the Office of National Statistics on individuals and businesses attitudes to homeworking, they found that 85% of adults currently homeworking wanted to use a “hybrid” approach of both home and office working in the future. However, this doesn’t necessarily align with the employers’ view, with 37% of all businesses expecting 75% of their workforce to be at their normal place of work going forward. 

If you and your employees are not on the same page when it comes to remote working or returning to the office, or you’re just looking for some guidance on what the coming weeks and months will mean for you as an employer, then we’ve put together this handy list of FAQs to help guide you through. 

 

What are the current official government guidelines for workplaces?

As of the 14th June, the official government guidelines are that “you should continue to work from home where you can”. However, there are no specific restrictions in place to say that you cannot have employees in the workplace – exemplified by the line “you do not need to be classed as a critical worker to go to work if you cannot work from home”.

The key phrase which is open to interpretation here is “cannot work from home”. Obviously, there are certain situations and sectors in which employees, provided they are not on furlough, need to be physically in the workplace to actually do their job. 

COVID-secure rules such as social distancing apply in the workplace if you are choosing to bring employees back in. 

 

What is the current situation with furlough?

The furlough scheme or Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) is currently set to run until 30th September 2021. Currently, employers can pay staff on furlough 80% of their usual wage up to £2,500 per month, and then claim back via the CJRS. 

From 1st July 2021, the CJRS grant will be reduced, and employers will be required to contribute towards the cost of furloughed employees’ wages. This will then ramp down slightly heading into the scheme ending in September. 

June – current July August September
Government contribution: wages for hours not worked 80% up to £2,500 70% up to £2,187.50 60% up to £1,875 60% up to £1,875

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/changes-to-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme/changes-to-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme

To be eligible for the grant, you must top up your furloughed employees’ wages to the 80% – i.e. from July, you must pay 10% of their wage, and from August, you must pay 20% to qualify for the requisite CJRS grant. 

It should also be noted that employees who are working their notice are not eligible for furlough. In those cases, employers should be paying 100% of their wages and are not eligible to claim for 80% or 70% CJRS grant while they are on notice. 

 

How do I deal with employees with outstanding holiday allowance?

As many will have had their 2021 holiday plans cancelled or postponed, there’s a good chance you’ll have several employees with holiday entitlement due to expire. In March last year, new measures were introduced around statutory annual leave, allowing up to 4 weeks of unused leave to be carried into the next 2 leave years. Annual leave entitlement can also be carried over if the employee has been on furlough and cannot reasonably use all of their accrued days within the holiday year. 

Of course, outside of the statutory requirements, it’s beneficial to encourage your employees to take paid leave regardless of disruption to plans or other issues. Taking time off from work is a vital part of staying physically and mentally healthy and maintaining a strong life/work balance. 

 

I want to support flexible/remote working. Do I need to change employees’ contracts?

Employees are entitled to receive a written statement of their terms and conditions of employment – this includes their “normal place of work”. To allow for flexibility, some employment contracts include mobility or relocation clauses to account for remote working. You may need to review your employees’ contract to check that it includes one of these clauses. 

For flexible working – where there is change to an employee’s working hours, this obviously requires a change in the terms of employment. You will want to check/agree with the employee whether the changes are temporary or permanent – they may wish to have a trial period for example, and then commit to a permanent change (or not) at the end of that period. 

An HR expert like Talk Staff can help you with drawing up flexible working contracts or those with mobility clauses – get in touch to find out more. 

 

What happens if an employee refuses to return to the workplace? What can I do?

There are mixed messages coming from official channels about how safe it is to return to the office. For that reason, it’s understandable that employees may be raising objections to returning to the office. 

Under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act (1996), employees have the right “not to be subjected to any detriment by any act, or any deliberate failure to act” on issues around health and safety in the workplace. Whether related to mental or physical health, COVID can be considered a health and safety issue, so it is fair and valid for an employee to raise concern around this. 

You have a duty of care to your employees, and it is a legal requirement for you as a business to have put in adequate measures in-line with current government guidance on social distancing, etc. Failures to comply could be considered negligence.

If you have taken all the necessary steps around safety measures, risk assessments and there is no medical reason for the employee refusing to return to the office, then you may advise them that not being present is  considered as on unauthorised absence or take disciplinary action. 

That should be the very last straw though. As we’ve outlined previously in this guide, the best way forward in this situation is to take a proactive and consultative approach. You should at the very least ensure that proper measures, risk assessments and internal communication is put in place and prioritise employee safety at all times. 

If any employee is showing signs of concern about returning to the workplace, it’s imperative that you take steps to reassure them or accommodate them, and work with them to find a way forward. Talk to the employee about flexible or hybrid working arrangements, on a trial or temporary basis, to try and move it forward positively. 

 

How do I handle flexible working requests?

Flexible working requests should be treated as seriously – if not more seriously – than they were prior to COVID-19. Every employee has a legal right to request flexible working – known as “making a statutory application”. Employees must have worked for you for at least 26 weeks to be eligible for this request. You do not have to accept this request, but you must consider it, and if you decline the request, the employee must be given the chance to appeal this decision. 

Of course, employees can make a non-statutory request for flexible working if they are not entitled to a statutory one. Many employers these days will also have a policy or scheme which is more “generous” than the statutory one – opening it up to all employees regardless of how long they’ve been with the business. If the change to the employees’ situation is minor or temporary, they may also choose to make a non-statutory request. 

If you need advice or guidance on any other HR, payroll or any other people-related issue or concern not mentioned in this guide – let’s talk. We love to help businesses solve their people problems and become more people focused.

Author: Gary Parsons
Gary is MD & Co-Founder at Talk Staff, passionate about the role that people play in helping build long-term and sustainable businesses. He sits on local business advisory boards and has been key in leading the growth of Talk Staff from inception in 2009.
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