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Covid–19 coronavirus: will workplace reintegration be more complex than the evacuation? Five key challenges employers need to consider

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As attention turns to returning to the workplace, will reintegration be just as challenging, if not more so, than the evacuation? Here are the top five issues employers need to consider.

1. Identify which employees will be asked to return

Much will depend on the approach the government takes to reintegration more widely, but we doubt there will be a wholescale return. It is more likely that only those whose roles require them to be in the office/workplace will return first, with others who can remote work being asked to continue to do so. Deciding which employees are essential to restarting on-site activities will be difficult given some employees may be very keen to return, and others less so. Some companies are considering split teams so that some employees attend the workplace for one week, and the second team attend for the second week as they did when the pandemic first impacted the UK. Others are looking at mixing remote working with limited time in the office.

2. Ensure appropriate safety measures are put in place

Linked to the above, social distancing is likely to be around for some time yet, but this will be easier said than done in some industries and with some roles. Many employers are considering securing immunity/antibody testing kits so that employees can be tested for Covid-19 coronavirus before they come back. But this of course raises a number of issues – can an employer compel an employee to submit to testing, how do you manage the privacy and data protection issues involved in processing employee's health data (special category data for the purposes of the European GDPR requirements) and how and who will conduct the testing. Certain jurisdictions are already publishing guidance on the ability to test employees, for example in Spain and Italy the government is against such testing in the private sector, not least because it is considered that test kits should be more appropriately used by those in public service such as healthcare. An employer who stockpiles test kits may well find themselves on the receiving end of negative PR. In Germany, however, the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs last week issued a new Covid-19 occupational safety standard setting out a comprehensive set of standards that companies should adhere to pursuant to which temperature screening may well be possible. Aside from testing, the need for increased and clear instructions on hygiene and ensuring appropriate sanitation is in place will be important – things we took for granted like shared office space and eating in the workplace will be a challenge.

3. Manage employee wellbeing

Mental health has been a real focus for many during the lockdown, and for some the prospect of returning to work may actually be even more worrying than being at home dealing with feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Some employees may be very worried about getting back onto public transport, being back in close proximity with colleagues or just having to resume a "normal" working day. An employer who wants reintegration to be as smooth as possible will be very much alive to these issues, will have a clear communication plan in place to allay concerns by setting out what they plan to do to help employees, and also a clear support programme to help those who are struggling to deal with the return to work. Many employees may have suffered bereavements during this period, and will need additional support to help them manage their grief particularly in situations where they were unable to be with loved ones or attend funerals. 

4. Be clear about pay

Business that have introduced measures such as salary reductions or deferrals because of the economic impact of the pandemic will need to decide if these measures remain necessary and, if so, for how long. Employees who may have reluctantly agreed to these arrangements while under lockdown, may be more likely to challenge these once they are asked to return to a more normal working pattern. Therefore, employers will need to justify any decisions to prolong or put in place new measures, ensuring employees are properly informed (and, where necessary, consulted with) to ensure there is a clear understanding of the rationale.

5. Consider the workplace of the future

At the outset of the pandemic, we noted that the lockdown could herald the start for some, and the continuation for others, of a greater acceptance of remote working, taking us firmly into a new era of flexibility. It is clear that, through the use of technology, there is a significant amount that can be done virtually rather than face to face. But some clients we have spoken to worry there may actually be a backlash against remote working as employees rush to reconnect with each other, and possibly fear that they need to be physically present in order to justify their role and seek to avoid redundancy. Will managers feel employees have "had enough time sitting at home" and now need to "step up to the plate" again? How will this impact those who need flexibility, particularly those with carer responsibilities (which may well have increased in light of the pandemic). It is important that managers understand the risks of such claims being made and how they should be deal with under internal procedures, not least because they may well constitute protected disclosures for whistleblowing purposes. 

This article was first published on Allen & Overy’s Employment Talk blog on 21 April 2020.


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