Coronavirus: Supporting staff on the return to the workplace

Guide

Because of government advice to safeguard public health during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many businesses had to furlough staff or ask employees to work from home. As restrictions ease, some businesses may take the decision to bring staff back to the workplace.

The current NI Executive advice is that people should work from home where they can and employers should take every possible step to facilitate their staff working from home.

Read the latest coronavirus (COVID-19) regulations guidance: what the business closures and restrictions mean for you.

Staff who have been away from the physical workplace for a long period may require support to adapt as they transition back to that working environment. Employers will want to welcome their staff back to the workplace in a way that is safe and supports their health and well-being.

How to support staff on the return to the workplace

Here are some steps that employers can take to plan and support staff returning to the workplace:

  • Communication - it is essential that you keep staff informed of your intentions to open up and welcome them back to the workplace. You should do this at the earliest possible opportunity. Also maintain communication as an ongoing process with regular updates and team meetings so staff can be kept informed of any developments and can air any concerns that they may have.
  • Plan for reopening - develop a plan for how you are going to return staff to the workplace including a clear timeline for reopening. This will give your workforce dates to work towards and gives them the opportunity to prepare for returning to the workplace.
  • Sensitivity - returning to the workplace will be a huge change for staff and it will take them time to adapt. Talk to them about their concerns and make every effort to make the transition as easy as possible.
  • Staff safety - you should detail how you will make the workplace safe by addressing issues such as ventilation, use of dividing screens, cleaning, sanitisation and restricting numbers. Seek staff feedback as this can generate useful ideas, address employee concerns and gets their buy-in. See workplace safety guidelines and social distancing.
  • Commuting - you may want to address how staff travel to and from work. Some staff may be concerned about using public transport due to the risk of coronavirus infection so look at other options such as making car parking space available.
  • Phased return - returning staff to the workplace on a part-time basis might work best to help employees get used to it. A phased return of staff will also help you plan if you are considering restricting numbers in the workplace for an initial period. An online booking system or staff rota will help you do this in an organised manner.
  • Be fair and consistent - when asking staff to return to the workplace ensure you apply your request to all staff in a fair and consistent way. You must not discriminate, whether directly or indirectly, on the grounds on a protected status – see equality law and types of discrimination.
  • Be flexible - the coronavirus pandemic has forced many employers to change their traditional workplace attitudes. Flexibility in how, where and when staff do their work can be very effective to help businesses to exceed their targets and be more competitive.
  • Focus on the positives - some staff may feel more supported when returning to the workplace as they can reconnect with colleagues face-to-face. Others may find fewer distractions in the office while some employees may appreciate the firmer boundary between work and home life that a return to the workplace affords.

Re-engage your workforce

Invest Northern Ireland has developed guidance to help businesses take steps to support their workforce on their return to the workplace. Download steps to re-engaging your workforce (PDF, 64K).

If someone does not want to return to the workplace

Some people might not want to return to the workplace, or might not be able to. For example, this might be because they are:

  • worried about catching coronavirus
  • considered to be ‘vulnerable’ or ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ and at high risk if they catch coronavirus
  • caring for children
  • pregnant
  • living with someone who has been advised to stay at home by their doctor because they have a serious health condition

As an employer, you should:

  • listen to any concerns staff may have
  • take steps to keep everyone safe at work
  • reassure staff by telling them how the workplace has been made safe

As well as following working safely guidelines, ways to help keep people safe could include:

  • extra car parking where possible so they can avoid using public transport
  • furlough if someone's temporarily unable to work
  • different working hours temporarily to avoid peak times

If someone still does not want to go to the workplace, they may be able to arrange with their employer to take holiday or unpaid leave. The employer does not have to agree to this.

If someone refuses to go to work, the employer could start a disciplinary procedure.

Employees are protected by law from being treated unfairly if they reasonably believe going into work or doing certain tasks would put them in serious and imminent danger. If the employee is refusing to go into work because they reasonably believe it is not safe and the employer then treats them unfairly, they could make a claim to an employment tribunal.