With the COVID 19 restrictions easing in most parts of Scotland it has got people thinking about their return to the workplace. Of course there are many who have continued to work from their workplace throughout the pandemic if they haven’t been able to work from home, but for those who have been working from home the reality of returning to the workplace doesn’t seem so far away as it once was. So, with that in mind, what should employers be doing to prepare themselves, their workplace and their employees for getting back to work?
Understandably employees may have reservations about returning to the workplace after such a long period of being told to stay at home. There are measures that you can put in place to help alleviate any anxieties that your employees may have. You should keep employees informed about any ongoing discussions regarding planning for the workplace to re-open, and advise when the workplace may re-open so that when the time does come, it is not a surprise. This will allow employees to mentally prepare and to make any practical arrangements that they may need to, such as child care or a pet sitter for those lockdown pooches.
You should also allow for a phased return to the workplace where possible and discuss what the “new normal” is for your business. It may be the case that the business and/or employees would like to continue working from home part of the week, with the rest of the time in the office. Employers should have this conversation with employees on an individual basis and come up with a solution that works for both parties. However, what do you do if you have discussed this with an employee and they unreasonably refuse to return to the workplace?
If an employee’s contract states that their place of work is in their employer’s office/premises then, subject to government guidance (which is to work from home where practicable with further guidance to be issued at the end of June), an employer is entitled to require an employee to attend the office to work. There is no automatic right to work from home. However, there are some exceptions to this which employers should be aware of:
- An employer owes specific obligations to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities (in terms of The Equality Act 2010). An employee may seek to argue that by virtue of their disability a return to work poses a particular risk or detriment for them. In those circumstances an employer needs to carefully consider that employee’s particular set of circumstances and make reasonable adjustments.
- Employees have the right to request flexible working including home working. An employer must ensure that it considers any such request and follows the statutory process set down for how flexible working requests must be dealt with.
- If an employer were to fail to comply with any relevant government guidance such as that relating to social distancing, wearing of masks etc. in the workplace an employee may be entitled to refuse to attend that workplace if it were reasonable for the employee to consider that attending the workplace posed a serious and imminent danger to them.
Ultimately (subject to the above), if an employee were to unreasonably refuse to return to work an employer may consider disciplinary action against them but should seek advice before doing so and it is absolutely the last resort. We would advise employers to speak to any employees who are reluctant to or refusing to return to the workplace and seek to alleviate the concerns these employees may have. By keeping employees informed about discussions regarding returning to the workplace, highlighting any changes to the workplace and engaging in a sympathetic dialogue with employees it should be possible to help employees re-adjust back into the workplace. Given the length of time many employees have been working from home it is understandable that some are worried and/or anxious about returning to the office and it is in employers’ interests to work with their employees to overcome that.
If you would like more advice about how you can prepare for employees returning to the workplace then register for our webinar on 2 June at 9.30am.
Debbie Fellows is a Partner and Kerri McIver is a Trainee Solicitor in Thorntons specialist Employment Law team. If you have any questions regarding returning to the office Thorntons Employment Team would be happy to assist you. Call a member of our Employment Law Team on 03330 430350