ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

Return to work: best practice and guidance

1 June 2020: a panel of experts joined ICAEW for a webinar to provide best practice and guidance for companies looking to bring their staff back to work as the coronavirus lockdown eases or adjust to a new way of working.

Bringing staff back to the workplace as the coronavirus lockdown eases is one of the greatest challenges facing businesses today. They must juggle health and safety laws, social distancing requirements and the plethora of individual employee needs in charting a future path to success.

A panel of experts joined ICAEW for a webinar delving into the legal complexities that surround the phased return to work, providing in-depth insight into best practice and guidance for companies adjusting to these unprecedented times.

Andrew Kingscott, principal inspector at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Ben Willmott, head of public policy at CIPD, and Susan Raferty, ACAS senior advisor spoke with ICAEW director for business and industrial strategy Ian Wright on government thinking, and perspectives from both employer and employees to help navigate through the crisis.

Along with ICAEW, Kingscott has been working closely with the government to shape numerous parts of the end-of-lockdown strategy, and he explained how future enforcement of health and safety within the workplace will look, and what role local authorities will play.

Government view

From the perspective of the regulator, he outlined how the HSE will examine what specific changes have been made, and how it will grade the steps implemented to control COVID-19 in the workplace, particularly around spot-checks.

“It’s about developing simple, clear and effective controls that seek to minimise the transmission of coronavirus,” Kingscott said. "You can get the workplace right, but the people play the largest part in ensuring the controls are maintained.”

He explained how the duty is on the employer to reduce workplace risk to the lowest possible level by taking proportionate, preventable measures, and how that may mean liaising with other companies if your company shares a workspace.

Kingscott also provided guidance on thinking around the management of shared areas, such as lifts, canteens, break-out areas, and insight into dividing teams up to ensure if a case of COVID-19 does appear, it does not affect the entire workspace and cause everything to be shut down.

Business priorities

The top five points made by the government for working safely during coronavirus must be continually weighed up by employers, according to CIPD’s Ben Wilmott. 

These cover the continuation of remote working for as many staff as possible; carrying out risk assessments with trade and union representatives; maintaining social distancing; managing transmission risk when employees cannot be two metres apart and reinforcing cleaning procedures.

However, he said the government guidance does not cover many ‘people issues’ that will arise when increasing numbers of employees start to come back to the workplace, which must also be factored in, such as desk placements and even working hours.

“These will be huge individual challenges for organisations,” he said, outlining the three key tests CIPD has drawn up to take place before a return to the workplace. 

He also emphasised the greater role line managers must take on, and how crucial this job will become regarding handling employee sensitivities. 

Employee concerns

The issue of what happens when negotiations and discussions between firms and their staff break down was explored by ACAS representative Susan Raferty, who said the current crisis is causing tensions to rise around this emotive issue and reflected on how these can be eased. 

Issues of employee trust and how they can be managed will be central to the future relationship between employee and employer, she said, reminding companies that the mindset of furloughed or vulnerable staff who may not have been in touch with their firm for several months may have changed.

“Employees should always be aware of what is happening,” she said. “If the plan is to continue working from home, having a very open conversation around that is so important for both sides.”

The panel also took questions on thorny issues such as when the right time is to address employment contracts to reflect flexibility; who bears the responsibility for an employee getting to work safely particularly if their commute involves public transport, and just how far health and safety law goes.