Furlough – time to return to work? (25 May 2020)

We know that the furlough scheme will extend to the end of October, with employers starting to share some of the cost of the scheme from August. We’re also being encouraged by government to return employees to work where possible, to begin the process of kick starting the economy. The advice remains that those who can work from home should continue to do so, but for others the tide towards a return to the work place is gathering pace. Understandably some employees are reluctant and are putting up resistance, many citing the availability of the furlough scheme as a reason not to return. myHRdept has been working with employers to come up with solutions to these challenges and our article includes a summary of our most common discussions with employers.

It’s no surprise that many employees are far from enthusiastic about the prospect of a return to the workplace. More than 30,000 have died, vaccines and effective treatments are not yet available and we’ve been consistently told to avoid human contact to a very large degree. The virus is still out there, invisible and potentially deadly.  So ‘please make your way back to work’ isn’t likely to be the line that many want to hear.

At myHRdept we’ve progressed through the crisis from initially spending virtually all of our time preparing furlough and (sadly) redundancy strategies for clients, to now helping to return client’s staff to work following the government’s call to action. How do employers reassure staff that the workplace and the journey to work is relatively safe, and what if staff don’t want to return?

In this article we’ve set out our thoughts on what employers should consider as the time to re-open approaches.

Government guidance

Before planning a return strategy, employers should have a good read of the government guidance for safely working during the pandemic. There are many practical steps that can easily be taken to reduce the risk of infection, these will vary by industry and geography, there is no ‘one size fits all’.

Irrespective of sector employers have a responsibility to:

  • Undertake a risk assessment
  • Set up safe systems of work, informed by the risk assessment
  • Implement the safe systems of work
  • Keep the systems of work under review

Communicate reassuring messages

Once safety measures have been identified, employers may consider adopting a strategy of reassurance – writing to employees to tell them about steps taken, calling them or inviting them web presentations so they can see for themselves. The employer should always remember to ask staff for their own safety suggestions and act on these – showing a willingness to listen and take action helps develop a culture of participation and reduces anxiety.

Remember that most staff want to get back to work – our own myHRdept team universally miss the office culture – the banter, and the chance to spontaneously consult others has been mentioned by most.  We find that most people aren’t resistant to return to the workplace, but do need reassuring about the risks of doing so.

Don’t forget homeworking

The advice is still to work from home if possible. If it’s working, employers shouldn’t rush a return to the office. Many homeworking sceptics (the author included) have conceded that homeworking can work with the help of good management practices. There’s lots of positive arguments to support homeworking in the future and we shouldn’t lose sight of those when the pandemic fades away.

Trial or phased return  

Employers may consider a gradual return, perhaps not to full strength immediately. As well as providing an opportunity to trial safe working practices this allows for selective unfurloughing – leaving the most vulnerable, challenged or frightened on furlough leave while bringing back those for a whom a return is easier or less risky. Once a safe return has been demonstrated and safe working practices learnt, the more cautious will start to gather confidence. This will also give  schools a chance to widen their intakes and make it easier for many parents to return.

Consider volunteers

One of the easiest and least contentious routes to a return to work would be to ask for volunteers to return first, though this might not suit every organisation.

Risk assess the workforce while planning a return to work

Employers may decide on a particular strategy for unfurloughing e.g. bringing back the most experienced first – but they should always be prepared to make exceptions to the rule.

In any workforce there will be people who can and cannot return to work, and of those that can, for some it will be easier (and less risky) than for others. Things to consider:

  • Extremely vulnerable should not be expected to return
  • Those self isolating with symptoms should not return
  • Vulnerable people with underlying health conditions may be furloughed for longer or may be given priority access to the safest roles
  • Workers who don’t need to use public transport will be less exposed and this may be a reason to unfurlough earlier
  • Younger workers are less prone to severe covid infections than older workers
  • Parents without childcare available may remain furloughed.

Consideration should also be given to staff who have others in their household who may be depending on their help – for example if living with someone who is vulnerable or extremely vulnerable.

By understanding each staff member’s particular circumstances an employer will be better placed to make a decision on whether to unfurlough a particular worker.

Write to staff about the intention to return, giving an option to appeal – and don’t be afraid to change your mind if appeals seem well grounded

It’s best to give staff as much notice as possible of the request to return to work. This should be done in writing (email ideally) giving enough time for an employee to object. Where an objection is received the employer should carefully consider the reasons given and talk to the employee during this process, investigating claims if necessary.

Common reasons for objecting (and suggested employer responses):

  • Shielding or living with another – employer may request a copy of the shielding NHS letter
  • Self isolating – employer may request a copy of the self isolation note
  • Otherwise temporarily sick or injured – gather details including expected return to work date – consider continuing furlough or sick pay/SSP. Remember that a doctor’s note may not be possible
  • Other underlying vulnerable conditions – whilst not an automatic reason not to return to work, the employer may ask the employee (via a medical consent process) for information about their condition
  • Childcare (lack of) – employer should explore this with employee – can a partner or someone else in the same household provide child care – if either parent is a key worker priority schooling may be available. If not, where is the child normally schooled and when is the school intending to re-admit them?

What to do about the ‘generally nervous but otherwise unobstructed from returning’ people?

Whilst anxiety may in itself be a reasonable consideration in deciding who to and who not to unfurlough the ultimate decision is the employers to make. Some employees have made the point that while furlough is still available, that is where they ought to be. This is not a valid reason if the employer needs to re-open and if homeworking isn’t reasonably possible.

Disciplinaries and lay offs

In these circumstances and having tried persuasion and reassurance the employer would be able to move into a more coercive position, and may after fair warning instigate disciplinary procedures.

Alternatively, and if employment contracts permit, employers might choose to lay the employee off without pay (though after 4 weeks employees have a right to declare themselves as redundant and, if they have more than 2 years service, to redundancy pay.)

Provided such steps are not unreasonably taken and the employee is given plenty of warning they are not inherently unfair and may be useful levers to achieve a return to work, though some relationship rebuilding will most likely be needed.

Other alternatives

Many employers would rather avoid disciplinaries and lay offs and may instead prefer less combative strategies to apply pressure to return:

  • Requiring employees to take their paid holiday to keep themselves on furlough leave
  • Agreeing a period of unpaid leave
  • Consideration of a temporary alternative role to allow a return to work

 

 

If you’re thinking of outsourcing your HR or employment law needs, why not contact myHRdept? Call us on 01628 820515 to discuss your requirements or contact us and we’ll call you back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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