Top Tips on Returning to the Office – with Katy Wedderburn, MacRoberts LLP

Rutherford Cross has been hosting a number of virtual events as part of its ‘keeping you connected’ series throughout lockdown. These sessions have been aimed at allowing the senior finance community to share information and best practice when dealing with the unprecedented circumstances of the last three months.

A common topic which has been brought up increasingly over the last few weeks has been the return to the office – what might that look like post lockdown and how best employers can prepare for it safely, whilst maintaining some sort of normality while ensuring employee safety and wellbeing.

To help our network navigate through this we invited Katy Wedderburn from MacRoberts LLP to talk us through some of the main points employers should be considering just now in employment law.  Katy is a Partner at MacRoberts and is accredited as a specialist in employment law by the Law Society of Scotland.

It was a highly informative session which focused around four key themes;  health and safety consultation, managing employee expectations, refusal to return, and disability discrimination considerations for ‘extremely vulnerable’ (shielding) and ‘vulnerable’ employees returning to the workplace.

Below we share some of the key takeaways from the session.

Engagement is Key

Engagement with staff prior to office return is key. There are statutory obligations for employers to consult the workforce about health and safety. Employers should carry out a risk assessment on the office environment and larger employers must share the information/conclusions with their staff.

Some key things to consider as part of a consultation would be; can social distancing be achieved safely, processes for cleaning and sanitizing of the office, the need for PPE; whether it is necessary for employees to be back in work or can work be done from home; and alternatives to working arrangements.

Katy directed people to the HSE website which provides guidance on these areas; and more.

Listen to your Employees

Employers should listen to employees concerns if they feel they can’t return to the office safely. Some employees might have situations at home preventing them to do so or they might feel the working environment is putting them at risk, particularly if they are classed as vulnerable (which includes pregnant women) or a shielding category.

Employees under these headings could qualify for protection from disability discrimination and employers may need to make reasonable adjustments to support an employee who has a disability to return in certain circumstances. Employers should be encouraging employees to come forward if they feel they fall into these categories.

If an employee feels they cannot return to work for a particular reason such as having no childcare, employers are encouraged to consider ways to assist them where possible, such as use of furlough scheme (prior to its closing), allowing flexible working, using annual leave, taking unpaid leave etc. All these areas should be explored where possible.

Overall the feeling is that most employers are engaging well with their employees and trying to work their way through what is a complex and ever-changing landscape with government guidance and legislation evolving regularly. We will likely see an increase in the demand for flexible working in the future as this period of sustained working from home has shown a lot of people can do their work effectively away from the office and it will make these requests harder for employers to refuse without good reason.

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