From 19 July the remaining COVID restrictions in England have been lifted, while Scotland has moved to Level 0 and Wales are in Alert Level 1. As nearly all restrictions are removed and businesses work towards further reopening, employers should remain mindful of advice that continues to emerge. Employers must plan and implement any return to the workplace in a way that cares for their people and safeguards their health and wellbeing.

Although the legal obligation for home working ends for most people in England from 19 July the government recommends a gradual return to offices for employers that choose to implement a return. The government advice says that many of those who can work from home are expected to do so over the summer.

The government advice emphasises that because a new COVID-19 variant is spreading in some parts of England there may be additional regional advice. The guidance leaves it to employers to consider the risk within their workplaces and decide which mitigations are needed. Whilst most of the guidance remains guidance rather than mandatory rules it is clearly envisaged that in the short term employers will adhere to this guidance. It is only in the longer term that the government expects that businesses will need to take fewer precautions to manage the risk of COVID-19. The guidance is under government review and will be removed only once it’s safe to do so.

Employers therefore need to follow the latest guidance combined with being vigilant as they may need to be ready to implement full homeworking again at short notice.

Updated 'Working Safely' guidance

The ‘Working Safely’ guidance provides precautions that employers can take to manage risk and support their staff and customers. It emphasises that employers still have a legal duty to manage risks to those affected by their business including the importance of carrying out health and safety risk assessments and taking reasonable steps to mitigate risk.

The main changes to the guidance are as follows:

  • From 19 July most businesses do not need to implement social distancing in the workplace or venue, and customers and workers do not need to keep apart from people they don’t live with.
  • The government is no longer instructing people to work from home on a nationwide basis, so employers can implement a return to workplaces. During this period of high virus rates, the government expects and recommends a gradual return over the summer and there may be additional advice in specific regional areas.

Only a few restrictions remain in place including:

  • The need to self-isolate if someone tests positive for coronavirus.
  • The need to self-isolate for those in close contact with someone who tests positive until 16 August. After that date under-18s and those who have received a second COVID vaccination at least 10 days before the contact no longer need to isolate. 
  • Border restrictions remain in place, depending on the status of the departure country.
  • People will be expected (although this is voluntary) to still cover their faces in crowded indoor areas such as public transport and shops. Some airlines and transport networks (for example Transport for London) and retailers have also indicated that they will still require face coverings. 
Employers should discuss the timing and phasing of any hybrid or full return with workers. It remains a priority to follow statutory health and safety requirements, conduct risk assessments, and take the  steps in the following six specific guides to manage risks in workplaces.
 
Sectoral guidance
The government has issued six pieces of workplace guidance for various sectors of the economy. The guides cover a range of different types of work including all offices, factories and labs. Separate guidance covers construction and other outdoor work, events and visitor attractions, hotels and guest accommodation, restaurants, pubs, bars, nightclubs and takeaway services, shops and similar environments and close contact services, including hairdressers and beauticians. Employers may need to use more than one of these guides as necessary.

There is different guidance for schools, further education and childcare providers and different guidance applies in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

The sets of guidance (published on 14 July 2021) are more cautious than some of the “freedom day” media headliness would suggest. The guidance contains priority actions to take to protect staff and customers, as well as detailed sections on risk, who should attend work, ventilation, reducing contact for workers, reducing risk for customers, visitors and contractors, cleaning the workplace, personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings, workforce management and tests and vaccinations.

The overall gist of the guidance is that there is a very high degree of responsibility on employers to care for employees and customers during the pandemic. The guidance suggests that many of the previous precautions should continue; despite the voluntary language used there are numerous reminders of how employers’ normal legal obligations include the health and safety risk of COVID.

The government has placed more emphasis than it did previously on ventilation, referring to the advice on air conditioning and ventilation on the HSE website. The advice encourages updated  health and safety risk assessments that include COVID-19 risks, more regular cleaning of surfaces and hand sanitiser provision.

Although social distancing guidance no longer applies employers should mitigate risk by reducing the number of people employees and workers come into contact with. The government suggestions reflect previous CIPD advice including:
  • reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ 
  • ‘cohorting’ (so each person works with only a few others)
  • using screens or barriers to separate people from each other
  • using back-to-back or side-to-side working, instead of face-to-face
  • assigning workstations to an individual or if desk sharing is necessary implementing clean them between each user.
A new aspect of the guidance is that businesses are encouraged to turn away people with COVID-19 symptoms. This will be difficult for employers to determine as the initial symptoms of a cold and COVID-19 may be similar. It remains an offence to allow a person who should be self-isolating to come to work.

Employers should take extra care of those with protected characteristics and discuss with disabled workers any reasonable adjustments that can be made to the workplace or working arrangements so they can work safely. 
 
Employers can refer to our planner to help navigate the three key questions the CIPD recommends businesses consider when planning and managing a return to the workplace.

Opportunity for change

With so much disruption from the pandemic, people’s expectations around work, how they fulfil their role, and how they reconcile work and domestic responsibilities may have changed dramatically. This is an ideal time for employers to think more creatively about effective ways of working, and harness more agile and flexible working practices to meet individuals’ changing expectations. At the heart of any plans should be a commitment to support flexible, remote and hybrid working where possible. As part of its #Flexfrom1st campaign the CIPD is calling on employers to build upon the period of remote working and to adapt and learn to make hybrid working a success, rather than rushing people back to their workplace when the risks of COVID-19 subside. 

This guide should be read in conjunction with our content on planning for hybrid working and guide on supporting returned furlough workers. More information on hybrid working and overall support can be found on the coronavirus hub.

Short-term planning

Now that the government advice to work from home has ended in England, employers must take an individualised approach to consider the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of the workforce, as well as following and monitoring ongoing government guidance. Employers have a duty of care to ensure that the workplace is sufficiently safe to return to, following the latest government guidance. This may involve continued social distancing measures, potentially reconfiguring workspaces and common areas, possible changes to working hours to reduce risk of exposure, improved ventilation, increased workplace cleaning and sanitation measures and continued use of face coverings in some sectors. Employers should also listen to any concerns employees may have around travelling to the workplace.

Many employers will continue to support their people working from home wherever possible as the government have recommended that this continues over the summer rather than a rushed return. Additional precautions and advice may be needed in specific regional areas where the variant is spreading. 

The CIPD’s Embedding new ways of working post-pandemic report reveals some 40% of employers expect more than half the workforce to continue regular home working after the pandemic, and many have already planned to do this on a hybrid basis either for a transitional period or on a longer-term basis. A shift to hybrid working may require additional resources including technology and equipment, remote working communication channels, supervision and employee management.

The government specifically recognises that ways of working have shifted through the pandemic, and that many employers are looking at hybrid models which include an element of home working.

There will be a period of managing a return to the workplace too when the focus will primarily be on health and safety and compliance with COVID-secure guidelines. However, employers should also start considering their longer-term plans with regards to implementing more flexibility in working arrangements.

Consultation
The pattern or model of future working adopted remains the employers’ choice following discussion with employees or their representatives. The ending of restrictions represents a significant change and involving employees in the process helps to smooth the transition. Many employers are using town-hall online forums and other measures to communicate proposals surrounding workplace return and hybrid working. Matters to discuss include the timing and phasing of any return.

Consultation may  help staff  feel safer returning to work taking into account their input on any health and safety measures put in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19. Many factors must be considered when thinking about short-term plans for returning to the workplace, including risk assessments, the size and nature of the workplace, the number of vulnerable staff or those who live with vulnerable people, caring responsibilities, public transport dependency, as well as any local and wider outbreaks. So, an employer with a large premises and car park may be able to continue to implement social distancing and minimise employees’ local transport use, while an employer with smaller premises may feel social distancing is impossible in the workplace.

An employer’s guiding principle should be to safeguard the health and wellbeing of their people. It is important that businesses engage with their people to understand how they feel about the return to the workplace. There should be consultation with staff at a company level but it’s also important that line managers understand the specific concerns of their individual team members so they can best support their mental wellbeing and future ways of working. To ensure that the return to the workplace is safe and that return to the workplace is smooth employers need to stay flexible as guidance and attitudes evolve. 

Risk assessments and health and safety measures

As the pandemic has not yet ended, employers must continue to update risk assessments and risk management approaches to safeguard employees' health and minimise the risk of infection, basing plans on up-to-date government and public health guidance. Employers can use their Coronavirus specific risk assessments to assist in their decision-making process, considering the factors referred to above, including the feasibility of implementing social distancing, staff vaccination status and local outbreaks (if any). As employers with workforces that cannot work from home have found, adapting premises to accommodate all staff returning on a socially distanced basis is highly challenging.

Sector specific workplace guidance for various sectors of the economy (as referred to above) must be followed. The Health and Safety Executive has also published advice and guidance relating to COVID-19 which may be useful when considering health and safety measures. SOM, in collaboration with the CIPD, Mind, Acas and BITC have produced toolkits to help employers plan a return to the workplace in a way that manages risk alongside their legal obligations. IOSH have also produced resources and free e-learning modules on returning safely.

It’s crucial to work in close collaboration with your health and safety and occupational health teams wherever possible. Regularly communicate to staff the practical measures you are taking to help reassure them that their health, wellbeing and safety is your top priority. For over 18 months people have become accustomed to COVID security measures and removing these abruptly can lead to increased anxiety. Make sure staff and visitors are clear about the rules and procedures they should follow both in the workplace and at home, especially if they begin to feel unwell.

As people are still expected to cover their faces on a voluntary basis in crowded indoor areas employers may need to review their workplace and consider if staff can maintain safe distance between each other. How will you manage larger meetings, interviews and other interactions? What about communal areas such as canteens or kitchen areas? How can you implement resourcing strategies to support physical distancing if required? Employers may wish to continue measures such as ‘cohorting’ (ie keeping teams of workers working together and as small as possible), or staggering working hours to limit numbers in the workplace at the same time.

To maintain protection and hygiene measures and minimise the spread of infection, remind staff about regular and effective handwashing, and provide hand sanitiser. You should review your cleaning arrangements, for example ensuring all phones/keyboards etc are wiped daily with anti-viral cleaner. You can refer to the government guidance for more information.

Depending on your working environment, you may need to consider providing additional PPE, including masks or anti-viral hand gel. Face coverings remain voluntary but may be advisable in some sectors, for example for shop workers, bar staff and waiters; more information is available on the government website. If you want people to wear gloves or masks, then you will also need to think about reminding staff on their correct usage – since both can be ineffective if used inappropriately.

Good ventilation can help reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus, so focus on improving general ventilation, preferably through fresh air or mechanical systems. The risk of air conditioning spreading coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace is extremely low as long as there is an adequate supply of fresh air and ventilation. Advice on the use of air conditioning systems can be found on the HSE website.

Testing and vaccination

Employers may wish to consider if COVID-19 certification will form a part of facilitating a safe return to the workplace for larger numbers of employees. Vaccination proof alone has been contentious, and vaccination has not been made mandatory at a government level. However, COVID-19 certification using the NHS app can include use of recent testing as well as vaccination status. Employers can consider a framework for the testing or vaccination of essential workers, as has happened for example in the care sector.

At the very least employers need to think about their own organisational policies around whether some or all staff are required to be vaccinated as part of their job. Employers should continue to monitor the latest government guidance and be prepared to act upon any changes. More information on the issues involving vaccination and testing is available in our guide on preparing for the COVID-19 vaccination and in our vaccination and testing FAQs.

Remote meeting facilities and video-conferencing can still be encouraged to minimise the need for staff to travel and/or use public transport. You can refer to our recommendations for developing effective virtual teams, our series of tips for making the most of remote working and the recording of our webinar session on looking after your remote teams. It will be vital to have a re-orientation or re-induction process for returning staff.

Role of line managers

Encourage and support every manager to have a one-to-one return meetings with every employee, where a key focus is on health, safety and well-being. Managers need to have a sensitive and open discussion with every individual and discuss any adjustments and/or ongoing support to facilitate an effective return to the workplace. This is especially important for those who have been furloughed. These discussions should cover topics such as changes in company services or procedures, how specific customer queries or issues are being addressed, or changes in supply arrangements, as well as any agreed changes to their work duties or tasks. Whilst employers should not attempt to unilaterally change previous terms and conditions, some staff may agree to a variety of measures. For example, some may require a phased return to their full role, or want to discuss a new working arrangement, especially if their domestic situation has changed because of the pandemic. More information is available in our guide for line managers on hybrid working.

Supporting furloughed workers

As furloughed workers return to the workplace, they may find it difficult to readjust especially if they have been away from work for some considerable time. Some form of ‘re-induction’ process should be considered – there is full guidance on this in the our guide to supporting returning furloughed workers.

Wellbeing

Some people – particularly but not solely those who have been furloughed – may be worried about returning to the workplace. Managers should talk people on an individual basis if they have concerns. Depending on your business plans, some form of hybrid working or a ‘phased’ return might be suitable. If you have an Employee Assistance Programme, or other professional support, you may want to signpost them to that. Ensuring all staff are aware of the health and safety steps you have taken to minimise COVID related risks is important, but people may have additional mental health issues about the return and you need to be able to address them. Refer to our guide on mental health support during COVID for more advice.

Longer-term planning: looking to the future

Employers have already been considering whether to retain any social distancing and other measures once these become voluntary. However, planning will need to be agile and flexible enough to meet requirements of any significant outbreaks. The pandemic is not over and the government have not ruled out future restrictions. The CIPD is also calling on employers to take this opportunity to build upon the period of remote working and to adapt and learn to make hybrid working a success. Below we outline the main considerations employers will have to make when looking at their longer-term planning.

Hybrid working

With recent surveys suggesting that over half of workers would like to retain a mix of working at home and their workplace, and three quarters expect employers to offer it, you should be thinking about your approach or policy toward hybrid working. Full details can be found in the guide on planning for hybrid working.

End of the furlough scheme

The government furlough scheme will end on 30 September 2021 and employers will have considered their options when this scheme ends. Apart from a full return (with additional recruitment in some cases), there are several options depending on business needs:

  • Agree reduced working hours with some or all staff
  • Consider strategies including natural wastage, recruitment freezes, stopping or reducing overtime, offering early retirement to volunteers (subject to complying with age discrimination law), retraining or redeployment, sabbaticals and secondments, pay freezes, short-time working and other alternatives to redundancy.
  • Consider redundancies.

Reduced working hours

If your business has work for all its staff, but not at the level before restrictions, you may want to consider asking staff to reduce their working hours on a temporary basis. This needs to be done by agreement if this is concluded before September and the government may be paying partial furlough pay (see below). Under normal employment law employers can also agree a temporary or permanent contractual change to part time working, although it may be more cost effective to wait until the furlough scheme ends (see below for more on this). Employees will always need to agree in writing. It is legally possible to impose a change (for example by dismissal and re-engagement) but this is a complex and time-consuming approach which is also likely to destroy any goodwill with employees, so should only be considered as a last resort and following proper legal advice.

You’ll need to be clear about the reasons for reducing working hours and be prepared to respond to questions from staff. You also may need to consider how you ‘sell’ the idea staff who have been working normal hours may feel demotivated at being asked to take home less pay when they have kept the organisation running at a difficult time.

Other staff cost saving options

Depending on the nature of your business, it may be slower to pick up to previous levels. You may not want to consider the option of reducing working hours for staff, or it may not be a practical solution. Other areas you may want to consider are:

  • Natural wastage: as people resign or retire, their role is not filled. The effectiveness of this option will depend on the labour market conditions, age profile of your workforce, and how business critical the leavers role is.
  • Recruitment freeze: not filling existing vacancies for a period, until business conditions improve.
  • Stopping or reducing overtime: although one of the easiest to implement, you need to consider whether this is an effective solution if staff have grown used to a certain level of income. Many of the disadvantages of reducing working hours outlined above may also apply.
  • Early retirement: if your pension scheme permits this it may be a way of encouraging people to leave, although it can be an expensive option for an employer. If not related to a pension scheme, then you should be careful as it may be seen as age discrimination. 
  • Retraining or redeployment: it may be more sensible to move staff from one area of the business to another and the cost of so doing might be less than the savings that result. This should be done as a voluntary exercise unless it is part of a formal redundancy process (see below).
  • Sabbaticals/Secondments: these may offer an option to reduce costs if you have volunteers and – in the case of secondments – a suitable role and partner organisation.
  • Pay freezes: depending on how pay is determined in your organisation, you may be able to implement this immediately or adopt it as a position in any negotiating forum. Again, depending on the labour market and strength of trade unions, this might only be a short-term solution.
  • Short-term working: if you have a lay-off clause in your contract, you may be able to require staff not to attend work for up to four weeks on no pay. Bearing in mind the hardships people have faced over the last year, you may want to consider this as a last resort. If you do not have a lay-off clause, you will need to follow a similar process to the reduction in working hours outlined above.

Redundancies

Your business may not be able to continue trading, or you may only have enough business to require significantly fewer staff. In such a situation, you may need to consider redundancy planning. You need to follow the correct legal process and take any steps you can to support employees through this process. Redundancy is a crushing blow to many people, at a time when they have been through a very challenging time – be very mindful of how you communicate, continue to support them and treat their health and welfare as a priority.

Information on implementing redundancies can be found on the redundancy topic page but some key points you need to remember are:

  • You must explore alternatives and consult with staff – even if there is no option but to make redundancies – before formally giving notice. This should include the reasons why they are being made redundant. Government guidance on redundancy consultation is available on the Gov.uk website.
  • If you are planning to make 20 or more people redundant (but less than 100 people) you must start collective consultation at least 30 days before giving notice of the first redundancy. If you want to make this number of redundancies as soon as the CJRS ends completely in October you will need to take the consultation requirements into account. 
  • Similarly, if you are planning to make 100 or more people redundant then consultation must begin at least 45 days before. 
  • Notice must also be given to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). 
  • While the relevant legislation does allow for these consultation periods to be reduced in ‘special circumstances’, it is unlikely that you would be able to use this argument when the difficulties are known well in advance. See the FAQ 'For redundancy consultation do normal timelines apply or is this a special case?’ in the 'After furlough' section for more detail. 
  • Remember that redundant staff are entitled to receive notice (or payment in lieu); holidays and other contractual entitlements; and a redundancy payment if they qualify. This is a cost your business will have to pay.

Wellbeing and mental health

The risks to people’s health from this pandemic are psychological as well as physical. These include anxiety about the ongoing health crisis and fear of infection, as well social isolation due to the lockdown. Many will have experienced challenging domestic situations, such as juggling childcare or caring for a vulnerable relative, and financial worries if their family has had a reduction in income. Some will have experienced illness, or bereavement. Some members of staff may have concerns about travelling and socially distancing on public transport – or it may not be as readily available. Some may be struggling with the significant change that society has seen, and the familiar workplace routines could feel very different.

If your business has an Employee Assistance Programme or access to Occupational Health advisers make staff aware of the services they can provide. Refer to the CIPD’s content on mental health or resources from organisations like Mind for more. CIPD members can also access a wellbeing helpline for advice and support. You may also wish to share the advice from Carers UK and Carers Trust with any employees with caring responsibilities.

International business

If your business operates internationally, you will need to plan based on the restrictions and/or guidance of different countries. Some may maintain stricter lockdown arrangements than the UK; others may lift restrictions sooner. Adopt a consistent approach while ensuring you are aware of local circumstances. International travel is likely to remain disrupted even when other restrictions are lifted. Passengers entering the UK from abroad may have to quarantine on arrival, supply contact details of accommodation, or self-isolate in their accommodation. This of course seriously affects or rules out some business travel.

If an employee travels to a destination that requires quarantine on arrival and then on return to the UK, the employee could be away for a significant period (see below). Many countries have strict quarantine rules for those entering, which may prevent travel. Even if this is not the case, some staff may have concerns about travelling to other countries where the risk of COVID-19 is higher. Be aware of your health and safety responsibilities and keep business travel to safer destinations or to a minimum. As many have realised during the current lockdown, many (though not all) business meetings can be done via video-conferencing.

Potential conflict

The pandemic has had an unequal impact across the workforce in many ways, affecting groups of employees and individuals differently according to their job role and individual circumstances. Some organisations will have people who have been furloughed on 80% or 100% pay, for example, while others may have continued to work or even had increased workloads. This uneven nature of people’s work and personal experiences and the challenges of the ongoing situation may lead to negative feelings in the employment relations climate, so it’s important that the organisation fosters an inclusive working environment, and managers are sensitive to any underlying tensions and confident about nipping potential conflict in the bud. You may wish to refer to our report on managing conflict in the modern workplace for advice.

Equality, inclusion and fairness

In addition to health and well-being, employers should bear in mind the importance of inclusion and diversity in any decisions or plans made. From ensuring that decisions don’t discriminate against certain groups of employees (eg decisions about flexible, home or part time working due to school closures where women could be disproportionately affected leading to sex discrimination claims) to fostering an inclusive working environment that takes account of the different experiences people have had during the pandemic. The EHRC has produced guidance for employers to make sure the decisions they’re making are not discriminatory, as well as guidance for employers on making reasonable adjustments.

Bereavement

It is possible you may have employees who have suffered a bereavement during the pandemic. While there is no statutory right to bereavement leave, other than in the case of the death of a child, you should be sympathetic to requests for additional time off during this period, and if you can we recommend that you pay normal pay.

Remember that, while all deaths affect individuals, in the case of COVID-19 family members may have been unable to see their loved one for some time before death, and not been able to attend the funeral. Employees who have suffered a bereavement are likely to need ongoing flexibility and support to grieve. Make sure you make them aware of any mental health support (such as Employee Assistance Programmes) you offer, and that managers are able to have sensitive and supportive conversations with people.

In very rare cases, you may have an employee who has died from COVID-19. You will need to support their colleagues and again, signpost staff to any mental health support you offer. You will also want to be in contact with their family to offer support, especially where you offer Death In Service benefits.

More information is available in the guide on compassionate bereavement support.

Holiday

Staff are now allowed to carry forward some of their statutory holidays if they are unable to take them in the current leave year. CIPD advice remains the same:

  • Encourage staff to take previously agreed holiday dates – even if working from home, people still need time away from work.
  • Have a clear policy to allow as many people as possible to take leave this year while still maintaining key business services – perhaps relaxing normal rules around maximum numbers allowed off at once.
Depending on how you have managed holidays throughout the pandemic, you may have some staff with a significant amount of holidays left to take. You may want to encourage staff to plan their holidays for the remainder of the year, both so that they receive their entitlement and so that you can manage absences. 
 
You also need to consider how you will deal with individuals who may have to quarantine after foreign travel. If an employee travels to a destination that requires quarantine on arrival and then on return to the UK, businesses could be looking at the employee being away for a minimum of one month, plus the number of days they were away as there could be 14 days’ quarantine at either end. If they are able to work from home this may not be an issue but you may want to require them to take some or all of the time from their holiday entitlement. You should be clear about this approach before staff begin to take holidays – and remember also that changes to the status of countries could happened while people are out of the country. More information is available in our FAQs and in the section on business travel above.

Communicating with your people

Whatever policies you adopt for your business, you should make sure that they are effectively communicated to staff before they return to ‘normal’ working. Many disputes and issues that have arisen during the pandemic have been because businesses were unsure how to react or had not told staff what their approach would be. It’s always worth stating your general approach in some form of written communication, as well as regular virtual or face to face briefings.

Role of line managers

As with so many areas of people management, line managers have a key role to play. You should ensure that they are fully aware of your policies and approaches and, if possible, have had a chance to contribute to them or raise issues about how they might work out in practice. They must be fair and consistent while also being sympathetic to individual concerns and issues.

Conclusion

The easing of lockdown restrictions has affected different business sectors and areas differently. Organisations need to use this time to prepare and plan their next steps, both for the immediate future and the longer term.

Communication with your staff is key. Keeping people informed of what your business is doing – whether it is good or bad news for individuals - will help them to make their own decisions and give them some degree of security in very uncertain times. Knowing they are valued and supported by their employer – and that you continue to prioritise their health and safety – will be pivotal to their wellbeing.

A guide such as this cannot possibly cover every business situation, but it should help you think about the sort of issues that all businesses will need to consider. Keep checking the CIPD coronavirus hub for further resources and advice and keep up to date with the latest government advice.

DISCLAIMER: The materials in this guidance are provided for general information purposes and do not constitute legal or other professional advice. While the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances may impact the accuracy and validity of the information. The CIPD is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for any action or decision taken as a result of using the guidance. You should consult a professional adviser for legal or other advice where appropriate.

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