As nearly all COVID-19 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 2021 the government recommends a gradual return to offices for employers that choose to implement a return.
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 2021 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.
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. From 16 August 2021, 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.
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) contain 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.