After a slight detour, the journey along the roadmap out of lockdown appears to have come to an end with the relaxing of restrictions from Monday 19 July 2021.
One such relaxation is that the instruction ‘everyone who can work from home must do so’ is no longer in place. This should see more staff returning to the workplace, however, if the last 18 months have taught us anything it must be to proceed with caution and remain flexible as a U-turn further down the road could yet be necessary.
Whilst case numbers remain high (and are expected to rise), it makes sense for businesses to maintain their existing health and safety measures and implement a gradual return to the workplace. Keeping staff numbers low in the early stages of the return will help to avoid safe systems of work being ignored and encourage confidence amongst the workforce. Employers still have a legal responsibility to protect their employees and other visitors to their place of work from risks to their health and safety. Workers, meanwhile, continue to be protected under the health and safety provisions of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
A gradual return, possibly utilising staggered start and finish times or shift-working, will also guard against the current ‘pingdemic’ whereby businesses are having to close due to staff shortages. We continue to recommend that employers introduce a workplace testing policy to limit outbreaks amongst staff as know from our own experience that such measures work in practice. Routine testing may also allow more restrictive health and safety measures such as social distancing to be relaxed in the workplace. Changes to working practices need to be recorded in the risk assessment though and, preferably, agreed following consultation with staff.
The above caution aside, returning to some sense of normality can only be a positive thing. It also provides a perfect opportunity to look back on the lessons learned during the pandemic as well as forward to the future.
In my view, the biggest takeaway from the pandemic has been the importance of communication. Effective communication strengthens relationships by ensuring that everyone knows what is expected of them and where they fit into the team. This was essential during the pandemic when situations could change from day to day and businesses needed to be flexible and adapt. We have seen first-hand that those businesses which were able to communicate with their staff through telephone calls, remote meetings and e-mail bulletins have experienced fewer workplace conflicts.
Simply disseminating information is not enough and unlikely to lead to staff engagement as both sides are not engaged in the communication process. Consultation, on the other hand, is a great way to encourage staff engagement while minimising disruptions and creating a forum for staff to air any questions or concerns. This in turn can lead to fewer complaints and staff more willing to accept changes after having had some involvement in the process, including an explanation why changes are considered necessary.
As for the future, I really hope is that lockdowns are fully in the rear-view mirror. Although we are not quite at the stage of driving off into the sunset, our collective experiences, particularly the way the pandemic has brought many businesses together and employers closer to their employees, should hopefully allow us to navigate any bumps in the road.
For more information about returning to the office, workplace testing or Employment Law and HR practice, please contact Matthew Rowlinson, Employment Solicitor, or another member of the Employment Team.
(E: email@example.com T: 0191 206 9617).
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