In February the government published its roadmap out of lockdown and, so far, it has eased restrictions in line with the provisional timetable. On Sunday, Jenny Harries (chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency) said that the chance of the English Covid restrictions ending on 21 June was "looking good" despite emerging evidence that the Indian variant is spreading in many parts of the country. 

The government said that it will know whether it can keep to that date by the end of May.

Agile and home working

The advice to work from home if you can will apply until at least 21 June. Therefore, if your employees can work from home you should continue to facilitate this.

The government has said that it is reviewing social distancing measures and will publish its conclusions before 21 June. The results will help to inform its decisions about when, and the circumstances under which it may change the rules in place to protect staff at work during the pandemic.

It’s possible that the government will advise businesses to continue to follow some of the ‘Covid secure’ guidelines currently in place for some time, such as social distancing. If you don’t have enough space to accommodate a return to work for all staff you will need to consider alternatives, such as asking employees to book desks in advance, implementing flexible start and end times so that employees can avoid busy commute times and encouraging staff to continue to work from home for part of the week. You may also want to think about which people to bring back first, (determined by business need).

Flexible working requests

Not all staff will want to rush back to the office. Businesses may see an increase in the number of flexible working applications they receive from staff wanting to work from home permanently or seeking a hybrid arrangement where they work from home most of the time and only come into the office for meetings or training etc.

Although the Covid pandemic has not changed the law as it relates to flexible working, the context is different. If your staff have been working from home for the last year or so, you’ll find it much more difficult to turn down requests to make the arrangements permanent unless you can point to tangible evidence of things going wrong or a decline in their performance which can’t be explained by short term pressures (such as having to home school kids as well as work).   

If you are not sure that the arrangement will work in the longer term once the majority of your staff return to the office, you can agree to a trial period. Make sure the employee understands when and how you will judge whether the arrangement is satisfactory and that you may ask them to return to work if things don’t go as well as anticipated.

You must deal with any requests (including the appeal process) within three months. It you don’t adhere to this timetable, a tribunal can order you to pay up to eight weeks’ pay compensation even if the delay didn’t affect the outcome.

Local lockdowns

Even if the English restrictions are removed on 21 June, it looks as though local restrictions may be imposed to control the spread of the virus. Currently, the government has advised communities in eight regions (Bolton, Blackburn, Kirklees, Bedford, Burnley, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside) to minimise travel in and out of affected areas. If case numbers increase, it may impose legal restrictions which will require people to work from home where they can.

Keeping remote staff engaged and supported

Think about how to integrate and continue to support those members of staff who are working from home so that they don’t feel isolated, ignored or unappreciated. Your managers may have to run meetings differently to avoid those employees who are present in the office dominating conversations and decision making. One option is for everyone to use their own device when attending meetings so that the whole team experiences the meeting in the same way.

Your staff may also need support to separate their work and home lives, particularly if they are working from home or work in an agile way that allows them to decide when and where to work. There’s emerging evidence that some employees are finding it difficult to disconnect from work and feel pressured to be online and working all of the time. If left unchecked, this can lead to anxiety, depression, work related stress and eventually burn out.

Health and safety requirements  

You will need to carry out risk assessments for all staff who continue to work from home on anything other than an ad hoc basis to make sure that they are properly set up for home working and have equipment in place that’s fit for purpose and minimises the risks of physical harm. But your responsibilities go beyond ergonomics. You must also assess the potential risks to their mental health as home workers may be particularly vulnerable to stress related illnesses.  

Client and site meetings

Many businesses stopped all face to face meetings during lockdowns. As we emerge from lockdown people will want to meet in person.

Most scientists believe that, despite the success of the UK’s vaccination programme, we are going to have to learn to live with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. If you can’t go back to ‘business as normal’ straight away, you’ll need to put in place steps to protect your staff, customers and clients and adapt these when necessary to comply with government guidance.  

We recommend that you put in place a risk assessment process for all face to face activity so that staff know when they can meet clients and the precautions they need to take. 

Flow tests

To alleviate staff concerns about catching COVID from co-workers or clients who are asymptomatic, you could encourage your staff to take regular lateral flow tests which provide a result within 30 minutes. Tests are available free of charge to businesses who registered to receive them by 12 April and are free to individuals via Gov.uk. You’ll need to comply with your obligations under the DPA and GDPR if you intend to process the results and if you wish to record who has been vaccinated.

* The government has now delayed lifting restrictions until Monday 19 July at the earliest.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Estates Gazette.

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