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Post-pandemic return to work: Our four-step plan to a smooth transition

Today, organisations across every industry are facing the post-pandemic return to work challenge of transitioning from an emergency state into a more normal way of working. But during this transition period, little legislation has been passed to guide employers and HR leaders on their new working strategies.

The lack of legislation has put many employers in limbo, left to create their own policies around critical topics like vaccinations, isolation leave, lateral flow testing, and the return to the workplace. There’s no doubt we’ll see case laws emerge over the next few months, but in the meantime, it’s critical organisations revise their existing policies to cover new needs, so employees know exactly what to expect over the next year. 

If the transition is handled poorly, with weak direction and communication, employers will find themselves facing employee tribunals. We’ve already seen notable COVID-19-related tribunals, including employees fired for refusing to wear face masks arguing for unfair dismissal.

But with a well-structured return to normal that includes clearly defined policies and buy-in across your organisation, it’ll be easier to avoid workforce confusion and disputes. 

Here are some key steps every organisation should take to ensure your smooth post-pandemic transition.

#1 Define what you’re trying to achieve

As a first step, it’s important you identify what you want working to look like in the coming years. Do you want everyone to return to the office? Would it make more sense to commit to hybrid working? Are you looking to change core aspects of your business model?

Currently, there’s no legislation that gives employees the right to work at home; it’s down to employer discretion. However, there may still be good reasons to consider a flexible working model, not least employee retention – EY Global’s 2021 Work Reimagined Survey revealed that 54% of employees would consider leaving their job post-pandemic if they’re not afforded some form of flexible working. 

Also, just as before the pandemic working, employees do have the right to submit statutory flexible working requests that you’re legally required to consider as an employer. Employers are only able to reject requests based on specific statutory grounds, such as the burden of additional costs, detrimental impact on quality, detrimental effect on the ability to serve the customer, and more. 

#2 Set the action points you need to reach your goal

After establishing your overall ambition for your new working model, you can start to set the action points that’ll help you reach it. If you’re moving towards a full in-office or on-site workforce, you’ll need to ask those remotely hired during the pandemic to relocate, and you’ll need to create policies around new considerations, including self-isolation and lateral flow testing.

There’s no legislation in place to tell employers how to manage employees that need to self-isolate. The UK Government is currently offering a £500 payment to anyone on a low income that’s asked to self-isolate – but many employees won’t meet this quota, and there’s no telling how long the contribution will be available for. 

Importantly, as Ashtons Legal explains, it’s an offence for employers to ask employees to work anywhere other than where they’re self-isolating. Instead, you’ll need a policy that sets clear guidelines on your expectations from employees during their self-isolation period.

Similarly, there are no legal guidelines around lateral flow testing. While you don’t have a statutory obligation to make workplace testing mandatory, you might still want to encourage it throughout your workplace – especially for high-contact roles, such as warehouse assistants. 

If you take this approach, you’ll need to talk to your employees or a trade union representative around how testing will be carried out, how their data will be stored, and what support you’ll provide if an employee tests positive. 

#3 Communicate with your employees – and offer a chance for feedback

Like any new mandate in the workplace, prompt and clear communication will be key to the success of your new working model. It’s critical you’re transparent about what you expect of your employees over the coming months, while offering them a chance to voice their opinions. 

Senior employment solicitor Caroline Oliver reiterates the importance of consultation with staff, explaining clinically vulnerable employees will have “genuine concerns about returning to work or the commute on public transport”. She also suggests that “employers may expose themselves to discrimination claims under the Equality Act if they do not tread carefully”.

However, by giving your employees the chance to share their grievances before any policies are made permanent, you’ll reduce the likelihood that you’ll face any litigation cases in the future. Also, if you have the resources, it’s a good idea to dedicate members of management to gather and manage concerns on an ongoing basis – so you can action them before they escalate.

#4 Finalise your plan and share it with your colleagues

As a final step, you’ll need to put your new policies and guidance in writing and share them across the teams in your organisation. In some cases, such as changing employees’ permanent working locations, this step might even involve amending employee contracts.

We’d also recommend reminding employees of new practices and policies, whether it’s through signage across your workplace, team meetings, or company-wide emails. A gentle reminder will ensure all employees are well-informed, and nobody will be able to claim new policies weren’t properly communicated.

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