With the last couple of years requiring employees to work-from-home (WFH), and normal working habits changing in the blink of an eye, the face of employment law has seen fundamental changes. Businesses have had to adapt to new guidance and laws, navigating new fields of compliance and methods of engaging with staff.
Despite the nation’s hope, we find ourselves yet again with new restrictions, with many businesses in England now having to shift back to a full-time WFH model. Though the sense of confusion and concern feels familiar, we are in a slightly different boat than we were in March 2020, when only a minority of businesses offered full-time WFH. Since then, during the ups and downs of the pandemic, how the UK works (including the rest of the world) has changed beyond recognition.
With some companies changing their work practises overnight, many have gone so far as to implement permanent changes, even as the country reopened in July this year. There were also businesses who adopted a hybrid policy – a best of both worlds, so to speak.
On the other hand, some businesses took a hard-line approach by demanding a return to the offices as soon as they were able. Businesses that fall into one of these two groups, and which are covered by the ‘work from home if you can’ policy, may now find themselves in a rush to readopt full-time remote working. In this rush, it is important to remember the implications for employee well-being and what rules are now in place in this ever-changing legal landscape.
In Boris Johnson’s Covid conference, he advised that employers should discuss working arrangements with employees, with 13 December being when people must once again work from home if they could. The use of ‘if you can’ raises some interesting questions.
With infection rates once again increasing at a rapid rate, employees will be extremely worried at the prospect of a second cancelled Christmas. After two years of pandemic turmoil, businesses will be put into further disarray in dealing with the many challenges regarding supply chain issues, foot traffic, and managing staff shortages. Employers will consequently have to be careful in balancing the demands it makes of its workforce, whilst managing another difficult economic period.
So how can businesses ensure its people feel supported during this festive time of upheaval – particularly if they found remote working difficult the first time round?
First, any communications to employees about ‘Plan B’ changes must be handled clearly, with care, and should ideally signpost people to resources where they can access further support. Teams need to be aware and understand that if they feel they will struggle to work from home, they can access the workplace, and that if they choose to do so, Covid-secure measures will be in place.
With infections rising, even if the number of people accessing the workplace is reduced, Covid-secure guidance should be adhered to by any responsible employer. Even though the new guidance doesn’t require mandatory social distancing, it seems sensible for businesses to adopt it again where practical.
Communication will go a long way to staving off feelings of isolation while at home. Employers should plan on rolling out frequent check-ins to make sure all staff have regular contact within and between teams. As it is difficult to monitor the physical and mental health of staff through a WFM model, regular check-ins can help in identifying people who are struggling.
If you are concerned that someone is grappling with poor mental health, early intervention, prevention, education and treatment is key. Prevention and education can include specialist mental health sessions, stress prevention and resilience training and general mental health awareness training. These measures promote a culture of mental health as an organisational priority, with employers committed to supporting and protecting employee wellbeing.
With the face of employment law changing quickly and sometimes suddenly overnight, employees are also having to deal with the consequences, not just their employers. That is why it is important for organisations to also consider how to develop support schemes that can help staff access external treatment, by offering therapy or other evidence-based treatments as part of a healthcare package.
It’s fair to say that employment law has presented new challenges to employers, and that the latest round of restrictions was not welcomed by many, causing anxiety, confusion an concern among the public. Given this, as businesses readopt a remote work model, employee mental wellbeing must be top of the agenda. By ensuring people can access support, voice their concerns, and work in a way that meets their needs, employers and employees can navigate this tumultuous period together.
As businesses approach the start of the new year, it is going to be vital that employers keep an eye on any changes to restrictions, which are being kept under close review by the cabinet whilst they await further data from the scientific community as to how serious a threat the Omicron variant poses to public health. With the Scottish and Welsh governments already announcing new restrictions coming into play from Boxing Day, designed to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, employers across the UK must be vigilant about what could be announced next and how to best communicate new information with their staff regarding working arrangements into 2022.