With the lifting of COVID-19 legal restrictions in England on 19 July 2021, David Ashmore (Partner) and Alison Heaton (Knowledge Management Lawyer) from the Reed Smith employment team comment on the key issues/hot topics for employers.
What is changing on 19 July for employers?
The instruction to work from home if you can is being lifted from 19 July 2021. From this date it will be up to employers to decide whether employees should return to working in line with pre-COVID arrangements, retain the current work-from-home set-up, or move towards hybrid working.
Can an employer impose new arrangements from 19 July?
Although employers could require a return to a contractual place of work from 19 July, mandating an immediate change to current work-from-home arrangements is not recommended – not only does it run contrary to the government’s advice to implement any return to the workplace gradually, but is unlikely to be well-received by employees. Instead, employers are advised to prepare for a transition to new/previous arrangements over a period of weeks and months. Having a clear, robust and well-communicated health and safety and return-to-work plans, and adopting a flexible approach wherever possible, will allow for an easier adjustment. Where the employer wants to make changes to contractual arrangements, they will need the employee’s consent.
What if an employee does not want to return to the workplace – is that redundancy?
No. Where the employee is not willing to return to work, and alternative arrangements cannot be agreed, this will not be a redundancy situation (as redundancy only arises if the business closes, there is a closure of the workplace, or where there is a reduced need for employees).
How should employers deal with return-to-office anxiety?
Numerous circumstances may make some individuals reluctant to return to the workplace or previous working arrangements, certainly in the near term. Employers are encouraged to have an open dialogue with staff, taking time to understand each individual’s unique challenges and preferences, and to provide a supportive and flexible approach to find a mutually agreeable solution. They will need to be particularly vigilant in circumstances where the reluctance to return is linked to concerns about health and safety, and act reasonably when responding to concerns. Where it is not being offered, employers can perhaps expect to see a surge in flexible-working requests, and will need to treat these with care – where employees have successfully worked from home and/or flexibly during the pandemic, it may be harder to justify rejecting requests seeking to make that a more permanent arrangement. Continue Reading